Ebay and the lure of old documents

The Withey archive of early modern documents is growing. So far, I’ve collected a few bits and pieces, usually from dealers on Ebay and, frankly, at ridiculously low prices. For a few pounds I’ve picked up everything from seventeenth-century newspapers to early modern doctors’ receipts. Star of the show is a beautiful eighteenth-century Welsh notebook which I paid a little bit more for, but couldn’t pass by.

All were legitimately for sale by professional dealers, probably originally bought at some auction or other of old documents. In terms of provenance, there isn’t much, but my experience tells me that they look and ‘feel’ right. If anyone was going to buy them, why not an historian with an interest in (and love for) the time period and topics they represent? Whilst in my charge they are carefully stored and looked after, and they give me the opportunity to study them at my leisure without the usual constraints of the searchroom.

But somehow it still doesn’t feel entirely right. There is a real tension between the desire to own something tangible from the period you study, and the knowledge that you are only its custodian. To me, there is something about the ‘black market’ about it; surely these things belong in a repository or a library?

I’ve spoken to other colleages about this, and opinion varies. For some, like me, there is the sense that the documents were going to be bought anyway, so it might as well be to someone who will respect and care for them. Others take a dimmer view, and suggest that the correct thing would be to pass them on to the relevant record office. But record offices are often full to brimming. What would happen to my documents if I donated them? They would be stored properly – maybe better than I can – but would they be used? Wouldn’t they just join the morass and seldom see the light of day again?

For the moment they stay with me and I’ll continue to try and unlock their secrets which, in the case of the notebook, is no mean feat given that it jumps between Welsh and English at random, and is largely anonymous. As more and more things come up for sale, I keep telling myself (and Mrs W.) that enough is enough and I won’t get any more. Only time will tell if this is a resolution that lasts.

One thought on “Ebay and the lure of old documents

  1. Keep collecting, I say! Especially if you find something that really appeals and the price is right.

    I don’t think museums & archives would look on Ebay to find new acquisitions, so you might as well provide a safe haven for these homeless pieces of ephemera. I don’t see anything “black market” in this at all. Museums do not have the monopoly on everything old – they can’t manage all their collections efficiently as it is. Quite often you read in the news about a museum that suddenly “discovers” an important artefact in its store room that they never knew they had. If it was so important, then why did they have it stashed away and not on public display?

    I, too, collect old books and newspapers from Ebay, but won’t buy anything over 5 Euros. The books are mostly Victorian/Edwardian and are favourite writers that I read anyway. Newspapers are from the 20s & 30s – the journalistic style is totally alien to what we’re used to today. The small ads are a joy to read. At one point, I realised that I could just as easily read these newspapers online somewhere without all the hassle of a dirty old paper lying around. But it’s not the same as having a tangible piece of history in your hands – the original owner of one of my papers had filled in the crossword puzzle.

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