Reference from Coast to Coast: The Hunt for Historical Annual Reports

Recently we were reminded that we who labor in law libraries are not immune from the request, “Can you get me this company’s annual report?” While our colleagues in corporate libraries may find this request arriving on a daily or weekly basis, we legal types may have to dredge up memories of last year’s research to recollect our last such adventure. Several factors play into the east with which this research can be accomplished. We will review those factors and provide some sources for your next annual report hunt.

Let’s get some of the details squared away first. What kind of annual report are you seeking—the report provided to shareholders (glossy, pretty, summarized) or the SEC required 10K? Are you looking for the most recent annual report or are you trying to find the 1986 report? Since the SEC documents have become increasingly easy to find – either free or for a fee we are not going to review those sources. The Internet has also made it easier to obtain recent company produced annual reports – from Annual Reports Online or the Investor Relations Information Network or often from company websites. The tougher research nut to crack, however, are the older company generated annual reports and the financials from either annual report prior to the past few years.

If you are not sure what we mean by these annual reports, OhioLink offers guidance on the different types of annual reports as well as an excellent list of sources. Since some legal researchers may need primers on business sources, we would like to recommend an incredible web guide in the Guide to Business History Resources as part of the Guide to Finding Business Information at the Library of Congress. This source should be required reading for anyone trying to find historical company information since it lists directories, sources for obsolete stock information, and company archives. Another source that will help you formulate your query on historical company data is available from the New York Public Library. This guide will lead you through the questions to ask yourself (or your patron) as you struggle to dig up information on a company.

So where do we go to find these older company annual reports? The Library of Congress offers suggestions. University of Pennsylvania Libraries offers suggestions for finding older annual reports and their collection at the Lippincott Library includes a collection of historical annual reports. We won’t list all of the academic options for annual report collection, just highlight some that offer guidance. If you have a local university, by all means check their business collections first.

Commercial vendors have seen the need for accumulating historical annual reports and financials. ProQuest recognized the void in 2006 when it digitalized 160 years of history and annual reports from over 800 of America’s top corporations. While access via ProQuest may not be free to many law firms, patrons of large public libraries usually have access via their public library. Mergent (previously Moody’s) also recognized the need for historical information on companies and includes an archive in their annual reports data. This material may also be available at large public libraries if a law library doesn’t not have a subscription. Gale also includes historical annual reports in their International Directory of Company Histories. For more details on this extensive business resource, see this link. While we often think of GSIOnline (LiveEdgar) as primarily a source for SEC filings, it has included a database of annual reports in its offerings and is a source many law firm libraries have access to already.

If you are seeking really old annual reports, you may want to check out the Baker Library at Harvard University. Their website is worth a visit just for the image of the Bear River Tunnel Company displayed on their page. Baker’s Historic Corporate Reports Collection includes selected original company documents from 1820 onward. For a chart outlining what Baker Library has collected in company information and documents, go to this chart. Columbia University also maintains an annual report collection of “oldies but goodies” and the excel spreadsheet on their website allows you to quickly see if they have the report you need.

A final caveat to novices doing company research – public company’s obviously have to provide more information to shareholders and to regulating bodies than do private companies. Other types of entities, such as LLC’s (limited liability companies) or LLP’s (limited liability partnerships) generally release even less information about themselves or their officers. Researching private companies is an art that requires more than a Coast to Coast column to articulate. Learn something about the type of company you are hunting for before spending too much time hunting for its historical data so that you don’t pursue material that never was public.

Posted in: Business Research, Competitive Intelligence, Legal Research, Reference from Coast to Coast