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
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
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
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
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
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
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
Right now, large institutions are not buying much, because they
are waiting for a clearer picture of recent history to emerge. …