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Celebrating 30 Years

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To mark our anniversary we offer this brief history to share our story and celebrate a useful past.

By Brian W. Martin

In April 1979, a crisis became an opportunity. While responding to the Three Mile Island nuclear accident, the Department of Energy (DOE) decided to document its role to plan for future emergencies. DOE tasked its historian, Richard Hewlett, to write a history. With limited time and staff, Hewlett turned to two history professors for help. Philip Cantelon was unemployed at the time and facing a dismal academic job market, and Robert Williams was teaching at Washington University in St. Louis. As their deadline loomed, Cantelon and Williams enlisted Rodney Carlisle, a visiting scholar at DOE, to type their manuscript on an early word processor.

President Jimmy Carter leaving Three Mile Island, 04/01/1979 (Courtesy National Archives and Records Administration)

President Jimmy Carter leaving Three Mile Island, 04/01/1979 (Courtesy National Archives and Records Administration)

While addressing this contemporary event and demonstrating the value of historical studies, the founders saw other opportunities to link professional historians with clients seeking to preserve, interpret, and use the past. In January 1981, this vision became History Associates Incorporated.

The Business of “Doing History”

Just what does a history company do?   From the start, a commitment to identifying and filling client needs took History Associates beyond simply writing books. The radioactive legacy of nuclear testing prompted DOE to hire the firm to research, organize, and declassify nuclear fallout records. The relationship with DOE soon expanded to include oral histories, records management, and even policy studies-driving growth that landed History Associates on Inc. magazine’s list of fastest growing companies for 1986.

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History of MCI Book Cover

Attorneys requiring historical evidence in lawsuits ranging from toxic torts to water rights disputes hired History Associates for its expertise in federal records. The Bank of New York and MCI engaged the company for history books, and History Associates’ reputation for writing histories grew. After finding Texas Instruments’ records in disarray, Cantelon sold management on a corporate archive.

Despite this variety of services, the loss of two large DOE contracts in 1992 threatened the company’s future and spurred efforts to expand its clientele. From its base outside Washington, DC, History Associates had already extended its reach to Los Angeles. There, its Western Area Office grew out of a county archives survey.   Large-scale archives projects with the National Library of Medicine and IBM helped the company diversify.   But it was historical research for attorneys, driven largely by retroactive liability provisions of the Superfund law, that proved to be the most surprising engine of growth.

By the end of the decade, legal and public relations concerns arising from disputes over World War II-era holocaust assets and allegations of the Nazis’ use of forced labor opened an international market for the company’s services.

The Past Goes Digital

At the turn of the century, the digital revolution was changing everything, including the business of history and archives. History Associates saw new prospects for presenting the past and challenges for its capture and preservation.

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Dupont heritage website and book cover

In a pioneering twist, DuPont hired History Associates to provide content for a heritage website celebrating its 200th anniversary and then contracted for a separate book.

History Associates’ expertise in selecting and synthesizing historical content led to collaboration with designers of multimedia exhibits for institutions like the International Spy Museum and GlaxoSmithKline.

The company’s historians mastered digital research tools and document management systems to help attorneys sift through the expanding universe of electronic records. Partnering with IT professionals, History Associates helped clients address the challenges of scheduling electronic records, digitizing and describing archival collections for access via the Web, and preserving authentic digital records.

In 2010, History Associates worked with the Civil War Trust to launch the first-ever “Battle App” that offered visitors to Gettysburg National Military Park a GPS-enabled, multimedia, interpretive experience of Devil’s Den and Little Round Top.

The History Continues

History Associates’ talented professionals adapted to changes in the market for and practice of history, fueling the company’s success.   That same flexibility coupled with the founders’ commitment to pass leadership and ownership to a new generation of professionals, guided a successful transition throughout the 2000s. Today History Associates continues to rely on what Hewlett called “the steady supply of intellectual curiosity, fresh ideas, and willingness to take up the challenge to create a new kind of historical enterprise” that has been its hallmark from the beginning.

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History Associates’ senior management team, pictured with the founders, remains focused on helping clients discover, preserve, and present the past.

Brian Martin is President and COO of History Associates. He began his career as a historian with the company in 1984.

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