Scholars scour eBay
Whether they're studying poetry or the history of moviegoing, researchers now routinely check the online auction site for relevant items.
On a cold Friday morning this fall, Walt Whitman scholar William Pannapacker started the day as he always does. He typed "Whitman" into the search engine on eBay, the auction website, to see if anything interesting had come up for sale.
He ordered the objects to be displayed beginning with the most expensive. The first item that popped up on his computer screen prompted the kind of stirring surprise Whitman might have put down in verse.
For sale by Sotheby's auction house: A first edition of Whitman's "Leaves of Grass" that had belonged to Henry David Thoreau.
For Mr. Pannapacker, receiving news of such a direct link between Whitman and Thoreau was like seeing part of the map of the nation's literary genome filling in. The possibility that Thoreau had made notes in the book's margins tantalized Pannapacker further.
Research on the book "might illuminate the relationships between these major literary figures and the manner in which poetry circulated and was received in 19th-century American culture," says Pannapacker, a professor of American literature at Hope College in Holland, Mich.
Academic sleuths once relied almost exclusively on the archives of major research libraries to track down facts and colorful details. Now, historians, literary critics, and museum archivists across the country incorporate a regular search of eBay into their research routine.
For scholars like Pannapacker, eBay has been a source of undiscovered information. Other researchers find objects that help them render a time or place in fuller color and texture. Some disciplines, say scholars, are being reshaped by the auction site's influence.
Overall, the availability on eBay of historical objects and ephemera from Americans' attics has given scholars access to information that traditionally has been ignored by major research institutions.
Yet it has also given rise to some complicated questions regarding the degree to which objects of scholarly significance should be obtainable only by the highest bidder.
"I see two sides to the eBay question," says Mary Desjardins, a professor of cinema studies at Dartmouth College in Hanover, N.H. "On the one hand, it opens up this material to a huge range of people. On the other hand, it keeps important objects in private hands that possibly should belong in a public archive or be researched by experts."
Many scholars search eBay out of a desire to create a mini library devoted to a subject.
As a graduate student at Harvard University in Cambridge, Mass., Pannapacker had access to one of the richest archives of American history in the United States. As a professor at Hope, about a three-hour drive from both Chicago and Detroit, his opportunities for primary research are few.
So Pannapacker has spent the past four years creating a Whitman archive of his own. Using eBay, he has bought a copy of every edition of "Leaves of Grass" except the first, which is prohibitively expensive.
The costs of Pannapacker's acquisitions have ranged from $15 for the 1892 edition to $500 for the 1856 edition. Showing his students every copy of the book is particularly useful, he says, because Whitman revised "Leaves of Grass" throughout his life.
Pannapacker has also bought just about every major book written about Whitman, most of which have come from eBay.
"Ten years ago, I probably would have had to travel across the country to second-hand book shops," Pannapacker says. "My office has become a kind of lending library."
Scholars of the 20th century find eBay of particular use. Those with an expertise in contemporary US history, for example, can buy up items of material culture, like photographs or sheet music, on subjects they believe will eventually grow in prominence in the historical record.
Right now, large institutions are not buying much, because they are waiting for a clearer picture of recent history to emerge.
"When you get into the 20th century, you have to do a lot of work to separate the sheep from the goats," says William Fowler, president of the Massachusetts Historical Society in Boston.
Because eBay has given scholars much more access to items of material culture, the way they research and write about the past may be changing. Several academics say eBay has changed their priorities.
When cinema studies became an academic field during the 1960s, scholars primarily studied screenplays and the studio system. The onset of eBay, however, has fueled a move to study the history of cinema from the perspective of ticket buyers, says Desjardins, who specializes in the study of celebrity in America.
"It will be interesting to look back 10 years from now to see how the discipline has evolved because of eBay," Desjardins says.
While studying the creation of the movie "Sunset Boulevard," for example, Desjardins bought on eBay several matchbooks the studio used to promote the movie. The find has encouraged her to focus more on the type of people that the film studio targeted with advertising.
Michael Aronson has found scrapbooks and movie-theater ledgers that include surprising details about the personal relationship people had with movies at the beginning of the century. One ledger includes daily information about the effect of weather on movie attendance.
"I use eBay to find things that I'm not looking for," says Mr. Aronson, an early-film historian at the University of Pittsburgh.
A 1930s postcard of a panda helped writer Vicki Croke bring more color and context to her writing.
Ms. Croke is working on a book about Ruth Harkness, the first person to bring a panda to the West. Croke bought the postcard because she was interested in seeing how the panda was portrayed in the photograph. But the most important detail was apparent only after she turned the card over and read the note.
"The woman was telling her friend how odd she thought the panda was," Croke says. "It was very important for me to hear what ordinary people thought of her discovery and see how different the panda bear was for them to see."
It was the kind of historical evidence she could not have found anywhere else, Croke says.
She calls eBay "history's yard sale," and adds, "There are going to be items there that no academic or scholar would have saved."
The broad array of items on eBay draws a slew of bidders, many of whom do not have the information or confidence to compete in standard auctions. Smaller players have been emboldened to place bids.
Five years ago, a letter from Thomas Jefferson, for example, would have been sold by antique dealers directly to a large institution or a wealthy Jefferson enthusiast. Even items of lesser value, such as the papers of a Virginia family during the Civil War, would be known about by only a select few.
On eBay, anyone can find out about such items. "Collecting was a gentlemanly hobby," Mr. Fowler says. "Now an oilman in Texas and a mailman in Portsmouth, N.H., have access to the same information."
The upshot for large institutions: "You have to have a war chest," Fowler says. "I have to raise money in advance because I don't have time to call six friends and see if I can raise the money."
One beneficiary of the leveled playing field is the small-town historical society, where the budget is rarely bigger than what can be raised at a bingo match.
The Clarksville (Ind.) Historical Society now considers eBay its most important source for historical objects - after Clarksville residents themselves.
Three members of the society now check eBay about once a week. During the past year they have bought a handful of items, including the entire run of a newspaper published by prisoners during the 1890s in one of Indiana's first state prisons.
"We were a little bit amazed there was something from Clarksville [on eBay]," says society president Jane Sarles. "There's been so little preserved of this town's history, that we take it where we can find it."
But if the Web auction site has made it easier for scholars to find items of historical significance, eBay has also added a new hurdle. Increasingly, those wanting to research material culture must be willing to pay top dollar; eBay offers ownership, not momentary access.
And the costs of academic acquisitions are rising, some suggest, as more scholars with similar interests bid for the same items.
Michael Amundson paid $124 for the 1950s electronic board game "Uranium Rush" after losing two previous auctions to other scholars or collectors of "atomic pop culture." The history professor at Northern Arizona University in Flagstaff says he ultimately paid twice what he thought the game was worth.
Sometimes, knowing that a specific scholar is interested in the same item can be a signal to drop out of the auction. "There can be a few scholars who have deep pockets," says Pannapacker. "If they start bidding, I say 'Forget it, I can't outbid them.' "
Many academics have worked out compromises among themselves. Rather than raise the price through competing bids, some people opt to form bidding rings. One scholar agrees not to bid on an item, with the understanding that if something comes up in the future that most closely matches his or her interests, others will drop out.
Concern among scholars over the influence of eBay has primarily been stoked by the threat of important objects being won by people with large fortunes but no intention to study the material.
"It's one thing to know that something exists ... in a university library," says Pannapacker. "It's another to actually see a picture of it and worry that it will soon fall into private hands."
Pannapacker doesn't know, for example, where Thoreau's copy of "Leaves of Grass" ended up.
Yet in such cases, some scholars have been able to contact the buyer by e-mail. A few have worked out agreements with private owners to gain access to the material.
Aronson is working with a private collector of movie ledgers to make copies of the books available on the Internet or microfilm.
"He liked consuming and owning the object," Aronson says, "but he also understands its historical worth."
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Everyone wants to collect something once owned by Buffalo Bill.
That's what the archivists at the Buffalo Bill Museum in Cody, Wyo., assume when they see many objects purportedly related to the cowboy are fraudulently sold and bought on eBay.
The museum's staff rarely checks eBay for objects to add to its collection. They consider the Web auction site an unreliable venue for buying artifacts. "We still think of eBay as a bit of a loose cannon," says curator Juti Winchester, citing the erroneous historical information she often finds on the site.
The staff does check eBay once a week - to see if anyone is selling something they know is fake. "If we don't do anything to prevent a fraud, we [become partly] responsible," says Ms. Winchester.
Museums and other institutions are often reluctant to buy from eBay because they believe vendors have less to lose by committing fraud online than they would through an auction house or professional dealer.
Both ignorantly and intentionally, eBay vendors sometimes provide an erroneous provenance - the proof of an object's chain of ownership. "They'll always give the same story. They'll say 'This came from the estate of someone who was very old and did not have any relatives.' " Winchester says.
That was similar to the pitch given by a Jacksonville, Ark., man who posted for sale on eBay six letters written by William Faulkner, which he allegedly stole from a museum.
The incidents of fraud seem particularly numerous in the case of Buffalo Bill. Experts partly credit the phenomenon to the fact that many thousands of objects once owned by the cowboy are in circulation among regular people.
"He gave away guns like others give away calling cards," Winchester says.
Because his Wild West show traveled around the world, and cast members consistently gave away items from the show, it is easier for eBay vendors to convince buyers that they possess a real piece of history.
Two kinds of fraudulent objects often auctioned: belt buckles and playing cards.
One eBay vendor recently tried to sell cards for $300 which ostensibly had holes shot through them by Annie Oakley, the famous cowgirl from the Wild West show.
Winchester knew they were fake because Oakley always shot playing cards so they split in half, and the cards' provenance on eBay claimed they were dated one year before Oakley even joined the show.
"I think, 'Come on, you guys, do your research,' " Winchester says. "People will buy this stuff because Buffalo Bill is an icon. It's one way for people to connect with his rugged individualism."