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Historical Returns: Connecting the Past and Present

Published: 03/15/2006

The new Historical Collections multimedia product Financial Bubbles begins in 1720 England where the South Sea Company is on the verge of a meteoric rise in its stock, riding a bubble of investor over-enthusiasm. Before the four-minute movie ends, we have seen deep parallels with the dot-com bubble of the 1990s, and have learned that such bubbles will likely come again. But now we might be better equipped to anticipate the next one.

Financial Bubbles explores some of the extraordinary similarities between the South Sea Bubble of 1720 and the recent technology bubble," explains Karen Bailey, who leads Baker's outreach program. "These similarities beg the question—what and how do we learn from the past? The purpose of this capsule is to encourage the exploration of these similarities as a catalyst to thinking about choices and behavior in bubble cycles."

Financial Bubbles is the first in a series of multimedia products under the title Historical Returns, which will use the deep resources of Baker Library's Historical Collections to connect the dots between today's business headlines and events and trends of the past.

The focal point of Financial Bubbles and future products in the series is a short movie that compares an event or idea from the past with a similar contemporary occurrence. Additional resources are also available, including an image gallery, reading list, and pointers to other resources at Harvard Business School. The material was chosen to provide an intelligent introduction to the topic rather than an in-depth scholarly exegesis.

The series is geared toward a general audience, and all resources are open to the public via the Internet.

Bailey says the Historical Returns project grew out of a reflection on the idea of "lessons" or cycles of the past. The more closely one looks at comparisons between past and present events, the complexities of context start to inform your understanding of the events. It's as useful to understand the dissimilarities in the comparisons as well as noting the connections. Topics are framed to encourage reflection and invite questions, rather than answer them.

Future series topics include business ethics and corporate governance, disruptive technology, and emerging global markets. "We are also exploring the idea of a 'Video Professor' resource in future capsules," Bailey continues, "where an expert on the topic can provide a short overview of one of the ideas explored in the capsule."

Supported by the de Gaspé Beaubien Family Endowment at Harvard Business School, the library's outreach program is able to develop resources like Historical Returns to inform a broader audience about the vitality and usefulness of the historical collections.

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