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Can You Preserve History While Living It? Lessons from the New York Stock Exchange

Pete Asch | NYSE Group

August 10,2017

It’s easy to look back and say “that was the moment when…,” but can you really understand the significance of history while you’re in the middle of it?

Would you recognize a historic moment if you saw one? What if it rang loudly in your ear?

One of the most iconic facets of the New York Stock Exchange’s history is the NYSE Bell®. Today, every bell ringing is photographed as well as broadcast through a feed from the exchange floor. Those photos and broadcasts are then archived, along with a memo detailing who had the honor of ringing the bell and what occasion their bell ringing marked, whether it was a startup founder celebrating an IPO, a world leader in town for a political summit, or, as in the case of State Street, a 225-year-old institution commemorating its anniversary. We're so meticulous about preserving information that we've even secured expert analysis of the bell's sounds, including pitch and tempo, but it wasn't always this way.

A History of the NYSE Bell®

Decades ago, ringing the bell wasn't considered a noteworthy event; for most of the exchange's history, members of the exchange, rather than guests, performed the task without much fanfare. The first guest to ring the bell was Leonard Ross, a 10-year-old who was invited to ring the bell after correctly answering quiz show questions about the stock market in 1956, but, until the 1990s, guests sounded the bell only sporadically and didn't usually attract the same methodic documentation that is standard today. People often don't recognize a historic moment when they're living it — and when they don't recognize the moment, it might escape memorialization.

The Evolution of Archiving Corporate Histories

Here at NYSE, we're capturing these historic moments now because, in an era of digitization, you can archive more. We're no longer bound by the spatial and logistical constraints of saving reams and reams of paper records — though we work to preserve those records where history was made. Records created digitally are stored on servers that can hold exponentially more information than boxes of file folders.

That's not to say that today's technology makes archiving simple. The fact that it is now so easy to create records and correspondence means there are many more artifacts created — think, for instance, of the hundreds of two-line emails crowding your inbox. As a result, archivists now have much more material to sort through as we search for (and preserve) information that will educate and impress in the decades and centuries to come.

People often don't recognize an historic moment when they're living it.

Thanks to digitization and technological innovation, however, the information we preserve at the exchange will be more comprehensive than ever. Facial recognition software will soon help us identify who's who in our archival photos, ensuring more complete captions to inform future generations. Digital records such as websites are being stored in their original form, meaning that while a temporary NYSE webpage may have only a fleeting presence on the Internet, it will remain accessible in our archives, complete with fully functioning links.

As we charge into an ever-more digitized future, however, there's still value in preserving our analog past. The key is to find the right combination of digital technology and traditional archiving methods so that both work toward preserving your history in the right way. At NYSE, one of our most prized records is a set of four tomes listing the signature of every exchange member dating back to those who joined in 1817. I recently watched as a new NYSE member, the descendant of a long line of brokers, carefully flipped through the books to find the names of his father, grandfather and great-grandfather. He signed his own name, too, adding to an indelible record. It was history in the making...and you don't have to be an archivist to recognize that.


Topics: Global events

Pete Asch | NYSE Group

Pete Asch is the Corporate Archivist and Digital Asset Specialist for NYSE Group, a wholly owned subsidiary of the Intercontinental Exchange (NYSE: ICE). Peter is responsible for the management and function of the New York Stock Exchange Archives. On his daily commute to and from the NYSE Archives, Pete hones his craft by listening to Oral Histories and storytelling podcasts such as The Way I Heard It, Revisionist History, and Stuff You Missed in History Class.