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Daniel May

By Julia Newbould
 — 1 minute read
New York-based archivist Daniel May talks about the history of MetLife and his role at the company.
Global financial services company MetLife recently took IFA editor Julia Newbould to its head office in New York to attend a symposium of Asia Pacific finance journalists. As part of the experience, MetLife archivist Daniel May gave the group a short history lesson about the company. May also told IFA a bit more about his background and what he does.

You are the official archivist for MetLife. What does this entail and how did you reach this position?

The role in MetLife is interesting and unique. The history goes back to 1912, when the chairman put out a call that we needed to start collecting material. The archives was officially established as a unit in 1934. It's a unique position. I've been here, soon, on 19 years. Previously the position was aligned with the library and the position itself was a para-professional position.

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I'm the second professional archivist at MetLife. My function here is to capture historical material of the company. I get material from all different parts of the business - products, papers, speeches, press clippings. I don't collect everything of historical value but align with key people in terms of capturing the most interesting parts. It's a challenge with 50,000 employees worldwide, but the collection is very New York focused.

Are archivists common in big businesses? What is the importance of the role?

I did an anthropology degree and master's in US history, in which I did a course in archives and manuscripts. I then interned with the State of Illinois archives and that's how I fell into it.

There are a fair amount of larger institutions with any history behind them that have an archivist position. In New York, the NY Stock Exchange has one and JP Morgan Chase, Axa has one. It's not that unique anymore. These companies' programs are well established. Also Kraft and Ford have them.

I'm a reference point. MetLife has been heavily involved in promoting health. The first health brochure came out in 1871. It's continuum that I document.

Who uses your services the most in the company? Why is it important if, as we often say, past performance is no indication of present performance?

PR uses me a lot, international uses me a lot because history is important to countries like China . and they respond well to companies like MetLife that has a long history.

It's perspective that I provide and context from time to time.

MetLife is almost 140 years old, and its history covers some of the country's most formative incidents. What in your mind are the most outstanding events in the life of MetLife?

It's like I've been in this role 19 years, I always run across little nuggets and think, how cool that MetLife was involved with that. It never ceases to amaze me. Just the other day, I saw that MetLife helped small mum and dad companies set up ice cream companies. MetLife had a policy unit service bureau in the 1930s looking at how to set up an ice cream store.

Also, MetLife was the biggest supporter of the allies, outside the Government, during WWII - buying bonds, et cetera.

MetLife has a presence in 17 overseas markets. How has this changed your job and what are the points at which you ramp up the work you put in to make sure certain events are covered in the archives?

This year, 2006, hasn't changed that much. Looking forward I will have to learn some of the key names in capturing material and to let them know I am here and how I can help them. I will have to see how it goes. One thing I did this year was for the new chairman when he travelled to Shanghai. Archives had an exhibition on MetLife's life tailored and shipped out.

In many markets around the world, where we are relatively new entrants, it's an incredibly broad message that we can tell our history and show stats of our position.

It's also important for employees, government officials, media and business leaders. It's a great way to say in graphic terms that this is the company that's now opening its doors in this city.

What other positions have you had and what were the most interesting facts you covered in those jobs?

I came to New York out of grad school to the Ford Foundation, from a farm in Illinois. It was at the time the world's largest philanthropic foundation (it's now been overtaken by Gates).

After a few years I worked at Care before the NY Stock Exchange and the Lincoln Center. The Ford Foundation was interesting because the reach is so broad.

Is there an archivists' association where you get together with your peers and discuss common events?

There are two organisations that I am a member of. The Archivists Round Table of NY meets once a month and there are 700 members. There are a lot of archivists in New York. I am also a member of a large organisation of 4000 - the Society of American Archivists, based in Chicago. Every year there is an annual congress. We talk about similar things and how to approach them - the big one right now is the advent of the Internet in capturing that material that in the past was more textural.

As an archivist, do you look at every day national or international events in special way?

Not really. My focus is to capture information about MetLife in terms of day to day.

Daniel May
New York-based archivist Daniel May talks about the history of MetLife and his role at the company.
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