eBay, A Genealogist’s Tool

by Terry Hogan

I’ve stayed away from eBay ( I’m "old school" when it comes to purchasing things via the Internet. But in doing some research for a recent Backtracking article, I started nosing around eBay, and found it to be pretty fascinating. It may be a good tool for the genealogist, but you’ll need to stay in your "comfort zone".

For example, if you are interested in a town, or a county, just type it in on the "Search" area of eBay and see what pops up . Galesburg usually sports a variety of items for sale, ranging from old post cards, old photos, Knox and Lombard materials, and stuff related to Carl Sandburg. Type "Monmouth" in the Search panel and you turn a lot of Monmouth pottery items. It is a pretty impressive flea market or antique store at your fingertips.

If you have a particular book that you absolutely need to help in your genealogical research, or if you want it because it specifically relates to an ancestor, type the author or title in the Search panel, and see what turns up. Alternatively, if your family has strong ties to the old CB&Q, you can type that in and be presented with a wide option of materials for sale, ranging from toy train cars, to stock certificates, to various items displaying the CB&Q logo or name.

Now, I should be honest, I have not bought anything on eBay. I did bid, and I was even the highest bidder, but eBay has a seller’s option that I found to be a little confusing. The seller can set a "minimum bid" for an item, and the seller can also set a "reserve bid". If you, the potential buyer, don’t pay attention (like I didn’t), you may think that the two terms are for the same thing. Not so, neophyte. The "minimum bid" is the opening bid minimum, and is clearly stated when you go to place a bid. The "reserve bid" is a price that the seller sets that is not known to the bidder and is higher than the minimum bid. If the reserve bid price is not met, there is no transaction. In my case, I bid on an item, exceeding the minimum bid, and I was the only bidder (says something about my tastes, I suppose). However, my bid did not meet the secret reserve price (the little reserve price sign didn’t disappear).

As nobody else bid, I would have had to effectively bid against myself until I met the secret reserve price. Now, that just didn’t seem reasonable to me. Usually, if you bid against yourself at a "normal auction", at least in the Midwest, the other folks near you tend to take a few steps away from you. Strange behavior creates public deference.

I have heard many people express only happiness with their eBay transactions. I have heard a few who have encountered problems. One such story came from a close relative, who was "stiffed" by a seller who gladly accepted the money, but was reluctant to provide the goods. As there is some justice in the world, the buyer had readily available legal resources- two lawyers in the family. A legalese letter finally got the money returned, not the item purchased. eBay does have a method to check on the "reviews" of a seller based on previous transactions, but as brokers say, past performance is no guarantee of future performance. In fact, in the case described, the seller had received "good marks", but apparently had decided to investigate the options of easy money.

I guess my personal assessment is not to send any amount of money that I am not willing to "write off" as a learning experience and to use a credit card when possible. Most credit card companies will intercede in cases where services/goods were not provided. But that is my "yard stick". You will have to make your own.

Looking away from the risk (actual or perceived) of doing business with someone at a remote location, unknown to you, eBay does offer an easy way to find the esoteric, the uncommon, or the good deal. On the other hand, like any conventional auction, as the time ticks down for a popular item, there is a risk to over-bid an item in the "heat of the moment". If you believe the old song verse that went something like "the more you pay, the more it’s worth", this may not be a problem for you. For the rest of us, too active of a bidding effort could result in something costing too dear, and a case of "buyer’s remorse". Neither is likely to be found as a good excuse by the seller for not completing the deal.

But, if you have found a citation for an out-of-print book such as a county history, or the published history of a Civil War unit that you just gotta have "‘cause great, great so and so is featured in it", you may want to check out eBay. If you find eBay just a little too intimidating, and you’re trying to track down a book, try a local used bookstore. I’ve used one in the Galesburg area and it found the out-of-print book for me in a used bookstore in Michigan. The transaction worked well and I felt comfortable because of using a local used bookstore that I knew was reputable.

It’s all a matter of staying in the comfort zone, which is partly determined by how bad you want something. But if Internet purchases are becoming second nature to you, eBay may be another tool for searching the unique book, postcard, etc. that you need to complete the family history by making it real.

We have opportunities and access to information that would sound like science fiction to our grandparents. We seem to have more tools than jobs. However, eBay may be one to add to your genealogy toolbox.