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  • The Computer Genealogist: Going, going, gone! Online Auctions for Genealogical Research

    Michael J. Leclerc

    Published Date : December 5, 2003

    You've seen the commercial. It's the one in which the young lady sitting at the computer bursts into song, steps out of her recreational vehicle onto the highway, and extols the virtues of "doing it eBay" to the tune of Frank Sinatra's classic "My Way." You may have ventured into this new-fangled world of online auctions yourself. The success of eBay and other online auction sites shows that there is indeed a market for everything. Online auction sites are very helpful to genealogists, making available thousands of useful resources that otherwise would have been difficult or impossible to find.

    What types of treasures await on online auction sites? There is no limit to the materials you might find to assist in your family history research. It is not unusual to discover Bible and family records. Handwritten genealogies and manuscripts, as well as published genealogies and local histories, are also waiting to be found. Online auction sites have also made it easier to locate photographs of ancestors. Since copies of photographs were often sent to relatives who lived in other parts of the country, it is common to find images in locations far removed from the place where the images were taken.

    While these items can help you directly with your genealogy, there are many other creative uses for online auction sites. Family history includes more than just the bare bones of dates and places. It is often not possible to visit in person all the locations where our ancestors lived. Online auctions can be used to locate images of places that we cannot visit ourselves. In addition to photographs, posters, postcards, stereopticon cards, and other types of images can be found. The turn of the twentieth century saw an increase in postcard production, and these cards showed buildings, streets, landscapes, ships, people, and many aspects of daily life. Churches were popular subjects. Wouldn't it be great to see a picture of the church where your great-great-great-grandparents got married — especially if it no longer exists?

    Did your ancestor own a business, such as a hardware  or general store, butcher shop, or market? These businesses often produced materials printed with the company's name to assist in marketing. Perhaps your ancestor didn't own the shop, but you know that he or she worked there. Such items will help you better visualize his or her working life.

    Souvenirs and memorabilia were a huge business — even many small towns had cups, spoons, thimbles, pennants, or other merchandise. These items can be fond indicators of places where your ancestors lived.

    Many NEHGS staff members use eBay for genealogy or hobbies. Director of finance Catherine Moore is an avid collector of antique fountain pens. She uses eBay often to add to her collection. She suggests researching buyers and sellers of merchandise. eBay offers the ability to record feedback about your interaction with other users; these comments are available to any eBay user and can help you avoid uncomfortable situations. If many people report difficulties in dealing with a particular seller, you might want to avoid his merchandise. You can check also to see how many sales an individual has performed. Obviously one or two bad comments about someone who has concluded dozens of sales is to be expected. But one or two bad comments about someone who has sold only three items is a warning signal.

    It is easy to get hooked on eBay. Catherine suggests that once you are using it frequently, you maintain contact with other eBay users, especially those interested in the same areas. There are chat groups and mailing lists available on eBay, located under "eBay Communities." YahooGroups also has many mailing lists available for eBay users — visit and search for "eBay" to find user group lists and information about joining.

    Assistant executive director for content management Lynn Betlock is an avid eBay user. She has been searching eBay for materials to help in her family history research for four years. During this time Lynn has purchased over one hundred items that have become treasured possessions. She looks for different types of materials, seeking items pertaining not only to her families but to the areas where they lived. Pictured here are a creamer showing the Morrison County Courthouse in Little Falls, Minnesota, and a level from the Esser & Virnig store in Morris, Minnesota — Joe Virnig was Lynn's great-grandfather's brother. Also pictured are two postcards: one shows the church where her husband's ancestors were married in Houston, Texas, and another shows the town of Namsos, Norway, where her great-grandmother was born.

    Lynn suggests using "My eBay" to create favorite searches, which can be used to set up automatic searches of eBay based on certain keywords. You can also exclude words to eliminate items in which you are not interested. For example, Lynn is searching for items pertaining to the town of Little Falls, Minnesota. There are, however, towns of that name in both New Jersey and New York. She uses her favorite search to scan eBay auctions for items about Little Falls, but excludes items with terms like New York, NY, N.Y., Mohawk, N.J., and New Jersey, which would return items from the wrong areas. Favorite searches can also notify you by email when new items come up for bid on the site.

    Member John T. Fitch recently notified assistant executive director D. Brenton Simons of a leather-bound volume published in 1916 entitled History of the Manhattan Club of New York being offered for auction on eBay. What made this find so exciting was that the volume was printed especially for Ashbel Fitch, Brenton's great-grandfather, and his name was printed inside by the publisher. The auction was over by the time Brenton knew about it, but fortunately the item was relisted, and he was able to purchase this volume that had found its way outside of the family.

    Archivist Timothy Salls often uses eBay to hunt for materials to add to the NEHGS manuscript collections. Pictured here are some of the items NEHGS has acquired through eBay. The Sperry family record is from a Bible belonging to Alan Sperry, published in Schenectady, New York, in 1814. Other family records written on loose pieces of paper were included with the Bible.

    Another treasure found on eBay is an undated handwritten genealogy of the Bingham family. Astute observers will note the reference to volume 1 of The New England Historical and Genealogical Register on the first page. The genealogy covers five generations of the family of Thomas Bingham of Sheffield, Yorkshire, England, who settled in Norwich and Windham, Connecticut. The manuscript pages are numbered 337 through 353, indicating that it was once part of a larger work. This paging provides a tale of caution when using online auction sites. While it is possible that the genealogy was parted from the rest of its original volume years ago, some sellers separate items — even items that were once bound together — to sell them individually. If you see an item such as this available, be sure to check the seller's other auctions. You may find other pieces. You may also want to watch this seller's auctions for some time afterwards.

    Tim has used eBay to add several family registers to the collection. The example pictured on the previous page is that of Courtland C. Smith and his wife Rhoda Beardsley of Ulysses, Tompkins County, New York. The register lists not only information for the couple and their children, but also data on the family of their son, Philo B. Smith.

    There are many auction sites on the Internet. Some, such as eBay, cover a wide variety of merchandise. Others, such as, which deals in Civil War artifacts, have a narrow focus. One way to locate such auction sites is to visit the Internet Auction List at, which arranges hundreds of auction site links by topic. While this article focuses on eBay, the largest and most popular such Internet site, many of the principles will apply to any auction site you visit.

    Using eBay

    Getting started on eBay is easy. You do not need to be a registered user to start your search, but you might consider registering first. Once you have delved deeply and found a treasure, you may not want to back out to register — a necessary step before placing a bid or purchasing. Registering as a user is easy and free. If you wish to sell items on eBay, you must complete a separate seller registration. The process is similar, but requires a credit or debit card and your checking account number (with routing number) to verify identity. Charges will never be posted against your account unless you first sell an item. Frequent sellers can even set up their own store on eBay.

    Once you have registered, it is time to explore! The best way to familiarize yourself with the site is to visit the site map. There is a link to the map at the top of every page. The site is divided into six parts: Buy, Sell, Search, Help, Services, and Community.

    The Browse section allows you to jump to different areas immediately. Items for sale on eBay are placed into one or more of twenty-four major categories. Separate sections are given to featured products and big-ticket items.

    The basic search on eBay is quite detailed, beginning with keyword and item number searches. You can search for any or all of the words chosen, or an exact phrase. Certain words can be excluded and searches can be limited by category, location, or price range. You can also choose how your results are displayed: by auction end date, price, or date of listing. The advanced search allows even more options. You can use the search function to see what items a particular seller has listed or the items a particular buyer has bid on. It is also possible to limit searches to specific stores within eBay.

    A basic search on the word "genealogy" across all categories brought up 2,223 items for sale. Try combinations of words such as "handwritten," "family Bible," "account book," etc. Beware of hidden pitfalls! For example, a search on the words "family record" will return many hits for music albums.

    When you find an item that you would like to purchase, click on the "place bid" button. You will be prompted to enter your maximum bid; eBay will place the lowest possible bid on your behalf and automatically continue bidding as warranted until your maximum is reached. If your bid is not higher than another person's maximum bid, you will be asked to enter a new maximum bid. It is important to keep track of the auction's end date and time. The time left is displayed on the main page of every item. If your maximum bid is surpassed by another bidder, you must enter a new maximum to stay in the auction. You will receive a notice by email if you are outbid. Beware of individuals who swoop in at the last moment to grab an item — if there is something you really want to purchase, remember to visit eBay during the last moments of the auction.

    The winning bidder is notified by email. Once you receive that email, you can click on the "pay now" link to make payment. The seller will ship the item to you as soon as payment is received. Most sellers will wait ten days to ship if you are paying by personal check.

    For those who want to get hands-on assistance with the site, eBay runs eBay University at locations around the country. eBay University has both a basic and an advanced user track to teach you many tricks. Another good resource is David A. Karp's eBay Hacks: 100 Industrial-Strength Tips & Tools (Sebastopol, California: O'Reilly & Associates, 2003). This volume helps basic users become power users.

    Online auction sites are a treasure-trove waiting to be discovered. You will be amazed at the variety of materials you will be able to acquire for your family history research. And, unfortunately, you too will know the disappointment of losing an item in the very last minutes of an auction. However, the riches you do find will be worth a few disappointments.

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