Digital History and History for Sale on Ebay…

There has been some interesting discussion concerning the digitalization of Civil War (not copyrighted) materials taking place on various blogs such as here, and for the most part it seems very positive. It has come to everyone’s attention that the Atlas to Accompany the Official Records of the Union and Confederate Armies is now available online. This is great news! Yes, I love the feel and smell of a brand new fresh book in my hands like anyone else. I have a fairly extensive library like most history enthusiasts. But when you live in Colorado (in the mountains) such as I do, a good library is a day’s drive away. I simply can’t do it very often. I have been an Internet user for over 13 years. I was html’ing before there were manuals on it…

I think the Internet is the ultimate democraticization of information device ever created. That is why I started However, frankly, when it comes to things like Civil War letters, I have found historians and collectors to be very, shall I say, uninterested in sharing their information. I understand that when books are on the line this can cost them money. However, once a book has been published for a few years I do not see the harm in allowing others to see a sample of the letters used. I have asked a few historians to just share a few letters. Remember, I am not asking them to send me the letter, only a transcription which they already have. I have yet to get ONE to do so.

I have therefore sought the help of a couple of volunteers (by the way I am going to lose them as they are college students so if there are any of you willing to help?) who spend 3-4 hours a week on a rescue mission grabbing transcriptions where ever they can find them for preserving in our database. I do this with a clear conscious. I have a huge problem with Ebay online sellers who are willing to sell these letters to ANYONE for a profit. Now, in some cases these buyers are historians, but some are not. What happens to these letters once this collector dies? We will never know.

As a historian of sorts concerning the Civil War (I have a book coming out later this year via McFarland) I have recently discovered a letter written by one of the members of the regiment I wrote about now on sale on Ebay. (Click here for link to it). One bid and the cost is $55. Now I am not a rich person. So I contacted the seller, was honest and told them why I wanted a transcript. I could not get one. I will have to attempt to bid on it. This is infuriating that I cannot get historians and collectors to understand that this is history, it DOES NOT belong to them. Yet they are profiting from it.

After my book comes out EVERY letter and diary I transcribed will be placed on Every one. I challenge my fellow bloggers, those historians, and collectors to do the right thing and allow all to share in the wonderful beauty of these important documents of history. I found it ironic that when a National Archives intern sells items from the archive (he stole them and thus it was an illegal act) on Ebay that there is this great outcry, yet many are doing the same thing (minus the theft part).

I know we are a capitalistic society and I benefit from it like most of you, but when it comes to these documents I scratch my head at the reactions of some of my fellow bloggers and historians.

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6 Responses to Digital History and History for Sale on Ebay…

  1. admin says:

    Well, I won the bid for the letter. It’s bitter sweet frankly. I am happy that I will have it and can preserve it for posterity, but yet, frankly, it’s $80+ that I really didn’t have to spend. Oh well…

  2. Gary Smailes says:

    I couldn’t agree more with the sentiment of this post.
    I feel that a change in thinking and approach to history is required. The internet has opened so many doors for historians that the old way of thinking simply no longer applies. The digitalisation of information is just one example, but highlights the need for historians to begin to see the bigger picture beyond their own wallet.

  3. John says:

    Chris – First, congratulations! And, only $80, too! ‘though I too have been frustrated with on-line auctioning of Civil War documents (in my case, a small ‘archive’ was broken up, sold piece-meal, and the original provenance forever lost), I find the practice less abhorant than the “relic-diggers” who vandalize the landscape destroying archeological context of Civil War sites for things to sell to “collectors.” And, whether they be old documents or artifacts (“relics”) TV shows like “Antiques Roadshow” which feature (and encourage) the trafficing in historic artifacts only fan the flames of greed, and accelerate the further diminishment of historic resources. It’s on the “PUBLIC Broadcasting Network,” and the producers must own up to the damage they have done and continue to do.
    Still worse are the sharp operators who descend on communities and local cemeteries, persuading them to sell Civil War cannon (for a tiny fraction of market value) then selling them to “private collectors.” Many, perhaps most of these cannon, were loaned (not ‘given’) to these communities and cemeteries to commemorate their war dead by the U.S. government, to which they still belong. It’s criminal.

  4. Don says:

    You make some excellent points in your post. Part of the reluctance of some to share, howeevr, may result from research costs instead of looking for a profit. Personally, the stuff I get from AHEC/ USAMHI is $25/hour plus $.50 a copy, so the stuff gets expensive pretty quickly. I don’t have thousands invested in this as yet like some people do, but it’s understandable why some people would be adverse to giving it up for free. From my own experience, people have been very generous in telling me where to look, which is more than half the battle.
    That being said, I’ll (finally) be back in Colorado this summer. I’d be happy to exchange information and transcribe some of what I have for you as time allows. Drop me a line and we’ll see what we can come up with.


  5. Pingback: Military History Carnival #2 « Victoria’s cross?

  6. Jim Schmidt says:


    Sorry you haven’t gotten better cooperation in asking for permission to quote from material you see on auctions, etc. Maybe I’ve been lucky, but I’ve rec’d pretty good response for similar requests. Even better, they have often offered other material from their collection.

    Still, I agree with the sentiments in your post and the website is wonderful.

    Hopefully, I’ll be able to make contributions as well.

    Best Regards,

    Jim Schmidt

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