I believe that the researchers of this world have the impression that financial ledgers are 1) so physically large they are unwieldy and generally unpleasant to deal with as a research item; 2) devoid of any meaningful information, so why bother to go to them at all if one can avoid it?; and 3) boring, so if they must go to these ledgers the researcher must fortify him or herself with caffeine and a good pre-research pep talk, and promise themselves a good cry when they return home that evening.
I’m here to tell you that all three impressions, as noted above, are, well, correct — but only some of the time! At the Dodd Research Center we are blessed with a bounty of financial ledgers, in all kinds of collections but with a heavy dose of them in the business collections, and they can be as exciting a research item as you would ever hope to find. Financial ledgers, also known as account books, daybooks, cashbooks, wastebooks, or journals, are records of financial transactions, usually kept by a business but also found in many collections of independent businesspeople, like farmers, small grocers, and doctors — any type of business where the record of credits and debits had to be recorded, before the use of any kind of electronic monitoring of a credit system.
For many collections that we hold, the financial ledgers are the only documents that survived into posterity. There are many reasons for that, I think. Even if a business was not particularly interested in keeping its historical documents it usually had to find the space to store their financial documents, so that they could account to the government if there was an audit, or on the advice of their legal counsel, if there were any kind of financial dispute. Also, for some companies their financial records were the only meaningful documents they produced – early businesses did not market themselves in the same way as modern businesses do, and for many small businesses that produced services there were no other documents or artifacts that were byproducts.
The financial ledger is an excellent historical record and presents to the researcher a plethora of information on the health of a company, how it stood the test of time, how the company withstood economic busts, and how it grew or changed during the booms. Like any historical document, the financial ledger can be manipulated, either at its time of creation or at any moment after, before it comes to an archive, although since it generally wasn’t meant to be seen outside of the business there is usually none of the “spin” that you would see on, say, an annual report or any advertising literature. One could find out if any nefarious financial dealings were afoot – ever heard of the phrase “cooking the books”? Think of what fun it could be to discover something as innocuous as evidence that the boss’s son was taking cash from the till, or as dastardly as a full-bore Ponzi scheme! The financial ledger shows it all!
It is true that the financial ledger can be daunting. They ARE often big, they ARE often cryptic. Usually a single financial ledger will not produce the information the researcher needs; he or she must carefully examine many years of financial ledgers to see the ups and downs of a company’s health, or to gain a full view of the company’s impact on the town in which it sat, or the time in which it was prominent. But for the true research detective, what item could give him or her such satisfaction after a hard day of research? Many researchers who have visited us here in the Dodd Research Center, who have spent significant time with the ledgers, come out of the reading room flushed with the thrill of discovery and rewarded for their dogged pursuit of the historical truth.
We welcome all researchers of the mighty financial ledger. All hail the financial ledger! Long may it reign!