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19th September 2017

Corporate History - Lists and Bibliographies

"It is a cruel mortification, in searching for what is instructive in the history of past times, to find that the exploits of conquerors who have desolated the earth, and the freaks of tyrants who have rendered nations unhappy, are recorded with minute and often disgusting accuracy, while the discovery of useful arts and the progress of the most beneficial branches of commerce are passed over in silence, and suffered to sink into oblivion."-- from Robertson's Historical Disquisition on India.

The benefit of hindsight

Today a broader body of literature provides a detailed account of thousands of enterprises. These company histories and individual biographies show how the products and services that shaped the modern world were conceived and nurtured, managed (and mismanaged) and together add up to a monumental history of value to analysts, entrepreneurs, historians and students.

How many company histories have been published, and where can you find the definitive list?

Unfortunately there is no exact answer to these questions. Firstly this genre is not widely recognised. Moreover, the range of books of interest to those who read company history is not so easily defined. There are of course recognisable, serious, company histories by reputable authors and academics. Then there are rather thinner accounts commissioned by the companies on some anniversary, and written by authors with a more limited ambition.

In more recent times there is a growing genre of books about famous, successful (and sometimes spectacularly unsuccessful) companies, which have caught the public interest. Often these are high profile or high-growth and technology-based business. Such books as the latter are often written and read like thrillers - but are also often written by very capable authors and journalists who provide a valuable, almost fly-on-the-wall, type of narrative that capture the drama of fast moving companies and events.

In addition to the company-centred history, there are "business biographies", that is biographies of successful businessmen and women who may have been involved in one or more venture and, indeed, other public activities.

For the student of company and business history there are a variety of lists and bibliographies available - but none will ever be complete. Firstly most lists are of company histories and overlook individual biographies. Second, many histories are privately published, sometimes with limited print runs and may not come to the attention of cataloguers.

In the U.K., the best estimate for the number of books in the field is upwards of 3,000 - perhaps very much more. Goodall (see below) has around 3,700 titles listed, whereas Zarach, focusing on 20th century publications, lists around 2,500. Bibliographies and Lists:

The British Library's Select List of the Histories of British Companies

Goodall, Francis. A Bibliography of British Business History. 1987

Zarach, Stephanie. British Business History. 1994

Of course, there is our own on-line catalogue, which, indexed by the major search engines and containing a list of books that includes rare and out-of-stock items, is also a useful resource - though it should be noted that Hindsight Book's catalogue is not limited to the U.K., and it also contains a number of not strictly company-oriented, but nevertheless relevant, titles.


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