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 SoldierStudies.org. 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 SoldierStudies.org. 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.