Business History Explorer Online (BHE) is a bibliography covering the history of UK businesses and the industries to which they belong. As businesses and the products they produce touch every aspect of our lives, its content is very wide ranging and of relevance to multiple history disciplines. There is a very great deal here not just for business and economic historians but for historians of design and advertising; of the decorative arts; of politics, diplomancy and society; of communications and transport; of agriculture; of cities and urban development; of the art market; of genealogy and the family; and so on. The content includes works by historians - both professional and enthusiast - from all these areas of study and more, when their work touches on an historical aspect of a business and industry. And the content relates to all parts of the UK - England, Scotland, Wales and Northern Ireland - and to countries around the world reflecting the deeply rooted nature of British trade and investment. BHE's timespan is from medieval times to the 21st century.
At the end of 2018 BHE held details of c50,000 published items as well as unpublished dissertations and some other texts. Its prime purpose is to assist researchers in locating published historical information about specific businesses and industries and topics related them. As such it is the successor to Francis Goodall, A Bibliography of British Business Histories, published in 1987. The work in gathering information for the present bibliography has been undertaken by Dr John Orbell with Richard Storey. Both are grateful to Francis for his enthusiastic co-operation in allowing them to build upon his earlier pioneering work.
BHE is supported by the Business Archives Council as part of its remit to preserve business archives and to encourage the study of business history. The Council has partly funded the development of the BHE application and provided a home for it on its website. The authors of BHE gratefully acknowledge BAC's support.
BHE’s content includes monographs, periodical articles, chapters within monographs, dissertations and unpublished manuscripts. It also includes selected items such as publicity and marketing publications and employee handbooks that give a snapshot of a business at a moment in its history. Product literature such as trade catalogues is included on a highly selective basis, usually when no other publications are available to shed light on the business's history.
The bibliography's content aims to give basic information about the publication including date, pages, if illustrated, edition, etc. It also gives for each publication a library location; this is important as, while most will be traceable through Copac, a significant minority are located outside the Copac library network and are hard to find, reflecting that many were privately published and with small print runs.
Other important features of BHE's content, and ones that add significant value, are fields which provide contextual information about the businesses to which publications relate and about the content of the publication. This recognises that providing just a business name and basic publication details is not enough in itself; the user needs to know much more than that when identifying the usefulness of the publication for their work.
Therefore, for each business there is a text field giving a brief [albeit unauthoratative] summary of its history and separate fields giving a] its geographical locations [at five levels] and b] the business sectors and subsectors to which it belongs. This has been achieved for almost 100 per cent of entries. The fact that much of this information is held in separate fields allows extensive searching including multiple field searching - eg for all activities in a given city/town or county or region or country; for goldmiths in London; for brewing in Suffolk; for tin mining in South West England; and for linen production in Scotland.
For many publications, alongside the basic information relating to it, there is a short description of its content. This provides very broad details in order to give the user some notion of the ground it covers and the readership at which it is aimed - it is hardly an abstract, perhaps an abstract of an abbstract but hopefully sufficient to steer the user in the right direction. This is supported by a 'subject topic' index of c100 terms; this has not been systematically derived but is based on the bibliography's overall content. It would have been difficult to have done otherwise given the esoteric, sometimes narrow, sometimes wideranging nature of publications relating to the history of business. Summaries have been provided for c25 per cent of publications in BHE and this work is ongoing as resource allows.
Publications selected for inclusion are largely histories of businesses or industries, especially ones that are privately printed – of which there are many – or which are otherwise difficult to locate. The location of hard-to-find publications has been the major priority. Also included are publications that are not historical works but which are nevertheless useful to the historian by providing insights into the history of businesses and industries at, say, a point in time. These last publications fall into two broad groups. One group describes assets, or a particular asset, especially when these form a substantial element of a business – eg a power station, waterworks, coal mine, iron and steel works, hotel, office building, brandname, product, etc. The second describes the whole business, including plant, products, services, organisation, subsidiaries, etc. The latter are often published as marketing or publicity publications or as employee handbooks. Generally speaking, works devoted specifically to products are included on a highly selective basis. Inclusion is more likely if such a publication is one of few, or the only, surviving published works relating to the business.
The bibliography stretches across the full spectrum of business activity but focuses especially on manufacturing where - with the exception of a few sectors - it has sought to give comprehensive coverage. It is especially strong on metal fabrication, extraction, textiles production, shipbuilding, motor vehicle production, electrical and mechanical engineering, brewing and distilling, for all of which there is a vast literature. There is also much on more specialised areas such as the manufacture of jewellery, furniture, sports goods, toys and games. Food processing, fishing, whaling and horticulture are well covered, but not farming. Utilities figure prominently, although many had long been owned by municipalities or the state rather than by private enterprise.
There is a good coverage of the major service providers such as banks, insurance businesses, financial intermediaries, accountants, solicitors, advertising agents, consulting engineers, estate agents and the like. There is also significant coverage of more specific areas such as cemetery development and management, funeral services, laundry and other cleaning services and plant hire. The leisure industries are less well covered, partly because they are so diffuse and border so much on cultural history, but an attempt has been made to include major works on broadcasting, publishing, film production and exhibition, tourist services and hotels and catering. There is also much on trade including merchanting to the mid 19th century and on distribution from then onwards; separating one from the other in terms of business sector 'Merchanting' and 'Wholesale' given how one evolved out of the other.
For some business sectors, the selection of what to include has had to be particularly discretionary on account of the huge volume of works available and their focus on products or assets. These sectors include railways, canals and road passenger transport; the book trades; printing; publishing; etc. To have included them comprehensively might have doubled the length of the bibliography.
Published histories of businesses and industries are a mixed-bag, ranging from scholarly works by eminent academics to short and descriptive pamphlets written and published in-house for celebratory purposes. All are included in the bibliography while acknowledging some can be too celebratory or otherwise ephemeral. They fall into three broad groups - academic works, works commissioned by the business (albeit sometimes from an academic source) and works written by enthusiast historians. Those in the latter group, it has to be said, are rising rapidly both in number and quality.
Alongside the above, there are very many publications - often published in journals but including dissertations and chapters in books - that are not business specific narratives. Most are academic studies, many based on business case studies, that cover general issues in business history - multinational companies; free standing businesses; historiography; small business; business failure; entrepreneurship; innovation; R & D; women in business; employee welfare; etc. It is especially to these publications that the 'subject' topics', referred to above, have been applied.
At the core of the bibliography are the 4,000 entries published in Francis Goodall’s, Bibliography of British Business Histories, published in 1987. To this the present compilers have added over 45,000 further entries. Many of these have been published since 1987 but many others have been newly located in online library and archive catalogues - vital search tools available on the desktop to which Francis had no access in the 1980s. Foremost amongst these is the Copac catalogue which combines the catalogues of leading academic and research libraries, not least the Integrated Catalogue of the British Library. Otherwise the online catalogues of museums, professional institutions and specialist bodies ranging from Brewing Archive at Glasgow University to British Telecom’s Archive in London have been consulted. The library of the Centre for Business History in Scotland, including the library collection assembled by the Business Archives Council, has been a vital source of information, as have private collections. The content of local studies libraries and record offices are being surveyed as time allows. Many specialist and regional hard-copy bibliographies have also been consulted and these are listed, along with library, etc, resources consulted, in the section 'Sources'
How comprehensive is BHE? There are significant gaps, most notably in periodical articles. Some mainstream academic and local studies periodicals have been systematicly reviewed for relevant content while, this far, many others have been dealt with selectively. Much work requires doing in this area and it is a BHE priority, as resource allows. Is it an issue about which the user of BHE needs to be aware
Otherwise, the hunt for business history books is indeed a challenging one, as so many have been published privately and never deposited as a matter of routine in copyright libraries. There can be few if any areas of publishing where so much has been so narrowly circulated. Whilst Francis Goodall uncovered a good number and while many more have subsequently been located, there can be little doubt that many others await discovery by the intrepid bibliographer, especially in the stacks of local libraries which have yet to publish their entire catalogues online.
BHE was first published in late 2012. It was substantially upgraded in early 2019 when additional functionsality was added. So far as content is concerned, it is being continuously updated.
Any comments about BHE should addressed to the bibliography administrator at Tailor’s End Press (Business History Explorer). Questions relating to the Business Archives Council, including membership enquiries, should be addressed to the Council. Contact details are:
Tailor's End Press (Business History Explorer): www.businesshistoryexplorer.co.uk
Business Archives Council: www.businessarchivescouncil.org.uk