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eBay: The Forgotten Archive?

I am lucky enough to be a regular user of archives at the British Library, the V&A and the National Portrait Gallery. However, some of my greatest discoveries have occurred not at these esteemed institutions, but on eBay. Yes – eBay; the popular auction site that is a tantalising graveyard of junk and stuff. My favourite eBay purchases include an eighteenth-century map of Barcelona, an antique print of a Slow Loris (don’t ask!) and a collection of ancient, dusty books that is growing rapidly out of control. There is also a small mountain of antique prints stored on top of my wardrobe, awaiting frames and a bigger house to display them all in! You really can buy anything on eBay; from a cornflake shaped like the state of Illinois to a ghost in a jar. There is another side to eBay, though. It can be a treasure-trove of sources for the historian… if you know where to look.

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Just a few of my eBay purchases!

eBay supports a roaring trade in prints, postcards, old newspapers and other ephemera. Many sellers of these historical materials post high-quality images of their wares, often carefully labelled with a date and the name of the publication where these images or articles first appeared. As you may know, my own research concerns opera singers of the nineteenth-century. I work with sources including cartes de visite, cartoons, reviews and obituaries. By merely entering the name of a particular singer into the eBay search bar, I am presented with dozens of such sources. Cigarette cards, caricatures, pages from newspaper interviews, sheet music, even genuine letters and autographs. The vast majority of these listings feature high-resolution images.

Prints and pages from old newspapers are in particularly plentiful supply. These listings are carefully labelled with the events and people depicted or written about. This means that you can even search eBay for ‘events’ and bring up an array of useful results. For example, searching ‘Indian Mutiny’ brings up 1,018 results. Aside from relevant books, these results also include medals, prints, nineteenth-century toy soldiers and well over 100 contemporary prints and newspaper reports. Similarly, a search for ‘Great Exhibition 1851’ brings up results which include commemorative mugs, coins and even (intriguingly!) a souvenir razor blade, as well as over 100 antique prints and pages from contemporary newspapers. The best thing about using eBay in this way is the unexpected nature of the materials that it is possible to find; while the British Library holds hundreds of newspaper reports on the Great Exhibition, in which collection could you find a Great Exhibition commemorative razor blade?! eBay can also be a great source for genealogists, who can search for the name of a particular ancestor – you might just be lucky. A cousin of mine once found a set of nineteenth-century beer tankards on eBay, featuring the name of our ancestor who was a prolific London publican in the Victorian period!

While I absolutely believe that eBay is a brilliant and underrated tool for research, it does require some caution to use it in this way. Firstly, we need to recognise that our sources are someone else’s livelihood, and it is important to be respectful of this. I wondered how dealers would feel about historians using their listings and images for research. With these questions in mind I spoke to Robert Clay, a dealer in theatrical postcards and ephemera. Robert has been dealing since 2001 and was kind enough to share his thoughts on this matter with me. Taking Robert’s thoughts into consideration, I have come up with some health warnings and top tips for historians and researchers who might consider using eBay as an archive:

Top Tips for Historians using eBay as an Archive

  1. Do not use sources or images for profit

 Robert feels that most dealers wouldn’t have an issue with historians using their materials, so long as they do not use them for profit. This is pretty self-explanatory; don’t use any images in publications without contacting the seller to discuss this. Robert says, “I have many people who purchase from me but sometimes are outbid or miss the auction and ask if they may have a high quality scan. Theatrical people, costume designers, historians, students and relatives of the performers, I am always happy to help them.” Understandably, though, Robert says that if someone was regularly requesting images from him without making a purchase, then of course he wouldn’t be happy about this. He is, after all, running a business and not an archive! Robert also makes the point that it is possible other dealers might feel differently about researchers using their images. If in doubt, heed my next point…

  1. Communicate with the seller

If in doubt about using an image, ask the seller. Similarly, ask permission before attempting to publish or post an image online. Robert says he is happy that his customers display his images on Flickr, for example, providing that they make him aware of this.

  1. Beware of fakes

Robert tells me that he has started to watermark all of his images, as he has previously had his fingers burnt. There are people out there who steal images from dealers like Robert, and print them on aged paper to pass them off as genuine antiques. Robert once found somebody selling his images on like this for as little as £1.50! This is a criminal offence, and you don’t want to end up with any fakes in your collection or your research. Less sinister dealers might also sell reproductions of antique prints, which can be misleading, so make sure you read descriptions carefully. Exercise caution and judgement; a dealer’s reviews can be a good gauge. This point leads me on to my next one…

  1. Don’t be lazy!

If you find a print that is useful to your research and the dealer has included the name of the book or newspaper where this originated, don’t take their word for it! Whenever I find a relevant print or page from a newspaper, I often follow it up and try to find the original source in a library or archive. This obviously provides me with a better context and understanding of the source, but, more importantly, it helps to verify the image I have found on eBay. Unscrupulous dealers could very easily falsely attribute a print or fake to a generic publication like ‘The Times’. Think critically!

  1. Support the trade

As I have said, it is essential to remember that your sources are someone else’s livelihood. It is important to support the trade wherever possible! Many fascinating items are very affordable; I have purchased antique books and prints for as little as 99p. These materials could also make brilliant teaching resources, offering students a chance to read and handle original sources themselves, rather than relying on digitised materials. Many prints also look beautiful in frames; I love having framed reminders of my research on display at home. Antique prints and books also make unique and thoughtful presents; my partner is a Welshman obsessed with Africa, so one Valentine’s Day I brought him a gorgeous six-volume set of Denbighshire boy Henry Morton Stanley’s In Darkest Africa. Far better than a cuddly toy!

I would like to thank Robert Clay (@RobertClay62) for his help with this post. Robert sells wonderful theatrical prints on his website: www.theatrical-postcards.com. He also trades on eBay.

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