Commonplace
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www.common-place.org · vol. 1 · no. 2 · January 2001
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Green's Diary
The illustrations for this article show items acquired by the author and fellow Ebay treasure-hunters John Hench and Elizabeth O'Leary.

Molly McCarthy is completing her dissertation on the history of the daily diary in America at Brandeis University. Before returning to graduate school, McCarthy was a journalist and member of the Newsday reporting team awarded the 1997 Pulitzer Prize for its coverage of the TWA 800 crash.

 

 

"The same people who thought the Internet was limited to our culture's detritus may think eBay is all about peddling Pokemon cards, Hummel figurines, and fake Diebenkorns."

Consuming History?
Molly McCarthy

Part I | II | III

Open today's newspaper and another eBay scandal may be breaking. The recent headlines would scare off any techno-shy historian: "EBay Cancels Art Sale and Suspends Seller." "Stolen Goods Making Way to Internet." "Fencing Schemes Use Online Auction Sites." "F.B.I. Opens Investigation of EBay Bids."

That last one was the clincher--the Feds were involved! Now there was no way I could mention eBay in an academic setting. How could I, a lowly graduate student, admit at a conference that I too have been bitten by the eBay bug? Or tell a departmental search committee that I spend way too much time browsing in eBay's "Collectibles" and "Antiques" categories looking for that one item that will make my dissertation? Probably not a good strategy in an especially tight job market.

Yet, despite all the bad publicity, I couldn't dampen my eBay enthusiasm. I wanted to shout it among the dank library shelves, whisper it across the reading room table. I am a young and serious historian, and I love eBay! My secret would surely be out soon. How long before my colleagues figure out my username is "mac312," and I have an auction watch list longer than my bibliography?

So, I decided not to panic, and, like any good historian, fell back on the one thing I did learn in graduate school: when in doubt, RESEARCH. There had to be others like me. I surely am not alone. And, thus, I spent the next few weeks in search of other historians equally enchanted by this online auction world. It didn't take long to find them among eBay's more than 16 million registered users. They are everywhere. In every corner of the country. They are curators, hobbyists, librarians, department chairs, distinguished scholars, and graduate students. They rave about eBay and seem surprisingly untroubled by its recent bad press.

Still, while many historians embrace the new technology, others seem more disturbed by its implications. Would artifacts and manuscripts normally destined for archives now end up more readily in private hands? Is eBay driving up prices for antiquarian objects once easily acquired by archival institutions? In short, is eBay a good or bad thing for the teaching and preservation of history? What follows is an eBay balance sheet: a brief and frankly anecdotal look at the pros and cons of the web venue that has sparked so much interest among amateurs and professionals alike.

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Only recently have many research libraries begun to realize the potential of the Internet. University and government libraries are rushing headlong into digitization projects that will broadcast archival documents across the Web, making them accessible to the most remote researcher or classroom teacher. But Gretchen Adams, a doctoral candidate at the University of New Hampshire, remembers how skeptical her colleagues were when she first went online in 1994. "People thought the Internet was all pornography, sports scores, and chat rooms," Adams said. "I was warned many times about getting involved in H-Net," a now popular history listserv network. "I had trouble convincing some of my colleagues of the value of the Web."

In many ways, eBay is fighting that battle all over again. The same people who thought the Internet was limited to our culture's detritus may think eBay is all about peddling Pokemon cards, Hummel figurines, and fake Diebenkorns. Adams herself took some convincing when it came to eBay. She was deeply engrossed in a project on the legacy of the Salem witch trials in America when a classmate, Kate Larson, suggested she pull up eBay on her computer screen and plug in a search for items relating to Halloween. "Kate really saw the potential in this ephemera. I went on eBay very half-heartedly," Adams admitted.

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But within a few months, Adams had assembled, with eBay's help, a visual map of the commodification of the Salem trials. Salem silver spoons. Salt-and-pepper shakers. Even a State Police convention badge circa 1890 sporting a witch emblem. Discovering when the "merchandising" of Salem began is crucial to her research. And, Adams notes, she "would not have known how far back these tourist items went without eBay." Still, she is quick to add that she has purchased very few of the items she tracked down on eBay. Setting herself apart from a collector, Adams clarifies: "I didn't want a house full of Salem junk. I'm using it for leads and visuals . . . I have no desire to collect this stuff."

Indeed, eBay's association with the world of collectors and collecting may fuel some of the reticence among scholars. A sort of ivory-tower snobbery seems to set in among academics who want to distinguish their interests and pursuits from those of amateur historians and hobbyists. One scholar equated being on eBay with admitting you do genealogy--an analogy that insults eBay users and family historians alike. Another young professor said she had no problem bidding on vintage Fisher Price toys for her toddler but felt "icky and cheesy" after winning an auction for an eighteenth-century family Bible record. When Gretchen Adams mentioned to a colleague that she was going to be interviewed for this piece, the person warned her: "You sure you want to be quoted in that article?"

I, too, have experienced the chill that eBay elicits in some academic circles. In researching this article, I posted a query about eBay to a well-respected book history Listserv. The posting was firmly rejected by the list owner, who made clear that he did not want to clutter subscribers' e-mail inboxes with anecdotes of the "my experiences on eBay" variety. The list owner ended his reply by emphasizing that the list was a scholarly one, only there to discuss the "history of books." Ironically, once I did post my query to another, more open-minded, list, it became apparent that many of the respondents were using eBay for book history projects.

Like many scholars who use eBay, John Hench was not drawn to the medium for its research potential--at first. He was looking for a good light meter. A photographer friend suggested he check on eBay. "I was astounded to find the lifelike picture of this light meter on the computer screen. I bought one, and it came pretty quickly," said Hench, Vice President for Academic and Public Programs at the American Antiquarian Society in Worcester, Mass.

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That was about two years ago. Before long, Hench was trawling eBay for other things. In November 1998, he began amassing a diverse collection of World War II-related items including homefront ephemera and Armed Services Editions of novels and popular magazines. His collection now boasts more than 400 books, magazines, and homefront collectibles, most of them acquired online. Hench is unashamed about his eBay enthusiasm. "I'd not had much luck in used book stores. And you just don't see many of these kinds of items listed in dealers' catalogues," he notes. "This collection simply would not have been possible without eBay."

Professional historians who were already avid collectors pre-eBay are the most unapologetic about their eBay habits and tend to scoff at anyone who would not use the technology to its best advantage. "The difficulty is often finding what you want. So, for someone to say they aren't going to use eBay to buy something they need is like saying you're no longer going to work on Thursdays. It just doesn't make sense," said Terry Belanger, University Professor and Honorary Curator of Special Collections at the University of Virginia.

At first, Belanger's interest in eBay was mainly personal. He collects nineteenth-century Victorian pottery and found on eBay a well of transferware dealers he would normally only find at antique malls. However, Belanger wears a variety of hats at UVa and in one capacity helped undergraduate students assemble an exhibition of Thomas Jefferson and Monticello ephemera in the University's Rotunda Dome Room. They acquired, with Belanger doing the bidding and purchasing, over 250 items on eBay--most costing under $10. The exhibit included Thomas Jefferson milk bottles, money clips, paper dolls, and pencil tablets; a scale model of a nuclear submarine named for Jefferson; and Monticello letter openers. "Monticello tonic was a real find at $26. We spent $52 on a Monticello beer can. That was probably the biggest damage the show did," Belanger said. Most of the items are now in storage, but Belanger expects before long to put the collection up for sale again with the help of one of the online vendors. "This surely gives loan exhibition a new meaning," Belanger said. "Go into eBay, buy it, then sell it back with enhanced value because it was featured in your exhibition."

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