Scholars Scour eBay ; Whether They're Studying Poetry or the History of Moviegoing, Researchers Now Routinely Check the Online Auction Site for Relevant Items

Article excerpt

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."

Create your own archive

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. …