When I was invited to guest-write a blog post relating to corporate history, my first thought was: am I a corporate historian? Or am I a public historian? Let’s briefly consider the case for each.
I’m the historian of the United States Postal Service, one of the oldest federal agencies. The Postal Service dates from 1775, when the Second Continental Congress appointed Benjamin Franklin as the first American Postmaster General. As the first communications network, our postal system not only facilitated commerce and strengthened the bonds of family and friendship — it united a nation. Newspapers exchanged through the mail helped forge our national identity and advance national policies.
The Postal Service also has always been one of the largest government agencies, in terms of number of employees and geographic reach. Historically, in many communities the Postmaster was the federal government, and the regular arrival of U.S. Mail was citizens’ most tangible government benefit. Contracts for the transportation of mail subsidized new transportation routes — overland, by water, and air — which helped the nation expand and develop.
Today, the Postal Service’s domestic retail network is larger than McDonald’s, Starbucks, and Wal-Mart, combined. Federal law directs the Postal Service to provide “prompt, reliable, and efficient services to patrons in all areas and . . . postal services to all communities.” Even in this digital age, these services are considered so essential that any proposed changes are highly scrutinized and circumscribed by Congress.
So, the Postal Service is a government agency, and I am a public historian. But . . .
The Postal Reorganization Act of 1970 transformed the U.S. Post Office Department into the U.S. Postal Service, an “independent establishment of the executive branch of the Government of the United States.” Like a private corporation, the Postal Service is expected to operate in a business-like manner, sustaining its operations and growth through its own revenue. Today, it delivers 40% of the world’s mail, using zero tax dollars.
So, I’m a public historian, and a corporate historian.
As the historian of the Postal Service, my customers include the Postmaster General, the Postmaster of your city or small town, and . . . you.
That includes you, Postmaster X, who called me last Thursday at 2:00 p.m. asking for the history of your 215-year-old Post Office to share with a local historical society at 7:00 p.m. that night. And you, Citizen Y, who emailed me last month wanting to know how much small-town Postmasters were paid in 1920. And you, Professor Z, who wanted copies of source documents to inform your next scholarly article.
Of course, responding to inquiries is just one part of my job. Like other public/corporate historians, I also manage a records collection, manage webpages with our organization’s history, and oversee periodic historical publications. I also manage a collection of artifacts and counsel field employees on the disposition of weird items they sometimes discover in basements, storerooms, and in the bottoms of their desk drawers.
My full title is “Historian and Corporate Information Services Manager.”
I also manage the USPS Library. But that’s a subject for another day.
Jenny Lynch is the Historian and Corporate Information Services Manager for the United States Postal Service.