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Scholars Scour eBay

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...

Concern among scholars over the influence of eBay has primarily been stoked by the threat of important objects being won by people with large fortunes but no intention to study the material...

"It's one thing to know that something exists ... in a university library," says Pannapacker. "It's another to actually see a picture of it and worry that it will soon fall into private hands."

Yet in such cases, some scholars have been able to contact the buyer by e-mail. A few have worked out agreements with private owners to gain access to the material.

The concern that items of potential research significance could wind up in a private bidder's hands first struck me as just an example of academic proprietorship -- the idea that any item that could have value to a scholar ought to be owned by, or at least accessible to, the academic community. It's usually premised on the idea that scholarly study is of such overriding importance to society that it takes precedence over the normal exchange of goods and services (a kind of academic eminent domain). As an archaeologist -- an academic specialty with one of the smallest and most irreplaceable sets of data -- I can sympathize with the feeling that precious information is being lost. But at the same time, I think many academics have an overblown sense of their own importance to the world and tend to forget that there are about 5 people in the world who care about each of 95% of the scholarly work done today.

Thinking about the eBay case a bit more, I realized that there's very few instances in which something going up for auction on eBay is bad for academics. At the very least, an item going up for auction lets the academic community know it exists. If the need for study really is the reason they want the item so bad (and isn't just a rationalization for the thrill of owning cool stuff that motivates the private collectors as well), then the ethic of sharing that arises from such academic institutions as libraries and museums should encourage much more cooperation among interested scholars in securing valuable artifacts for the academy. And if a private collector does wind up with the item, eBay is far superior to a private transaction in allowing outside parties to track down the new owner and request a look at the item in the interests of science. And if that fails, scholars are really no worse off than before -- the item is merely in a different set of private hands. The only situation in which eBay would be detrimental to scholarly access would be for an item that a scholar would be able to track down offline and offer a lower price to the owner because there would be no competing bids.


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