Labatt’s archive opens doors to corporate history

With what will certainly become the cornerstone of its archive collection, The University of Western Ontario welcomed the documented history of the Labatt Brewing Company, bringing together more than 160 years of one of Canada’s most significant collections of historic corporate materials.

The Labatt Brewing Company Archival Collection, valued at more than $7.6 million, is now the largest single gift housed in the Archives and Research Collection Centre at the D. B. Weldon Library, joining similar such documents from Canadian Tire in the ever-growing business-related archival records already stored at Western.

“I think it’s safe to say this has put Western in the forefront of Canadian business archives, there is no question,” says Robin Keirstead, Western archivist. “Just with the sheer amount of information, its richness and the fact that now, in some areas, people will be able to compare (with Canadian Tire) when it comes to media and print advertising, for example, and the different areas of commercial activities.”

Until four years ago, the material Labatt’s gathered since its founding – along with materials collected via acquisitions of smaller Canadian breweries over the years – resided in thousands upon thousands of boxes, drawers and filing cabinets across the country.

‘Project Dusty,’ as affectionately branded by Labatt’s, brought those disparate pieces together. The company, along with professional archivists, gathered, catalogued, itemized and organized virtually all its irreplaceable corporate documents.

It was late 2006 when Keirstead says the university received a phone call from Labatt’s, who were exploring a number of options as to where they wanted to go with their collection. Given the rich history the company has with London, they wanted to see if the university would be amenable to the idea.

“I think there was also the awareness that we had acquired the Canadian Tire material a few years earlier,” Keirstead says. “We were definately interested, but we needed to know more in terms of the size of the collection and what their expecations were.”

While the initial contact may have been almost five years ago, there were hundreds of steps along they way. Not only did the materials have to physically find their way to Western, each piece had to have its title tranfered to the university before Western could apply for the cultural property designation, a process which runs six months to a year.

The first shipment of material arrived in late-2008, with the second arriving a year later, and it wasn’t until earlier this year the entire donation was complete and officially part of Western’s collection.

“It’s partly just the sheer volume,” says Keirstead, adding the 2,600 collection’s boxes set side by side would stretch more than five TD Waterhouse football fields. Add to that another 50,000 photos and illustrations, along with thousands of audio and visual materials, and the enormity of the collection emerges.

“It’s very painstaking,” he admits, adding there were times when it was somewhat daunting when the Labatt’s transport truck showed up full of boxes. “But I think with any major donation there are times you stop and think what are all the implications of all of this. Certainly, we welcome the collection, and it’s significance.”

Amongst some of the collection, the artifacts include John Labatt’s personal letter book (1883-1906) containing company correspondence; a brewery book (1884-1895) providing details of daily production and year-end summaries; a stereoscopic slide viewer (1950s) used to train staff to identify aluminum can defects; draft minutes of the first Board of Directors meeting (1911); and the certificate of registration of the ‘Blue’ trademark.

The materials illustrate the evolution of corporate governance and management models and include market research; commercial advertising which mirrors Canadian cultural values and trends; research, technology and engineering materials related to brewing processes and innovations; and iconic images of corporate branding, packaging and memorabilia.

The collection also provides interesting details on key phases in Labatt’s corporate history, including the origins of John Labatt’s brewery in London, its growth into a national brewer and acquisition by Belgian-based Interbrew.

“This is a unique opportunity for Western, especially because we are located in Labatt’s hometown and have enjoyed a long relationship with the company,” Western president Amit Chakma told several brewery, university and city officials on hand for the donation announcement June 1 at the John Kinder Labatt Room in the downtown London brewery. “It is an honour to be associated with one of the Canada’s oldest companies, and to be entrusted with the stewardship of a rare and historical collection that has been preserved and maintained in such excellent condition.”

Labatt’s also donated $200,000 to assist Western in digitizing portions of the collection, which will help preserve and make key content of the collection more accessible.

“We are very proud of the hertiage of our company and its employees, and for us it is really wonderful to know that moving forward more people, and students, will have access to our archives, providing valuable insight into the brewing industry and business in general, industrial relations, the economy, society and work forces and labour relations of the past 164 years,” says Labatt president Bary Benun. “This is the first historical collection in Canada to represent the brewing industry and we are very pleased to hand over its custodianship to Western.”

University librarian Joyce Garnett refers to this latest donation as “one of the most significant collections of corporate archives.”

“The potential value of this collection for teaching and research cannot be underestimated,” she says. “Not only will the collection provide researchers with insight into both a Canadian business success story and a significant chapter in London’s history, it will provide students with an interesting perspective on business concepts and insight into how Canadian society and sensibilities have evolved over more than a century and a half.”

While it seems to be simply a bunch of old papers and books to some, Keirstead says the Labatt Brewing Company Archival Collection is a “goldmine” both for the information contained in the records but also for the records themselves.

“Sometimes we get so caught up in the day-to-day minutiae in accepting a donation, that you need to step back and realize how significant it is,” he says.

Other major business archives, such as The Bay and Eaton’s, are currently held in provincial archives.