Collecting the Archive: How eBay is Transforming Historical Geography

Kate Whiston, University of Nottingham

Source: Wikimedia Commons

Source: Wikimedia Commons

Imagine a stereotypical historical geographer, waist deep in dusty old books and documents in the darkest depths of a library or museum. No food or drink is allowed within sniffing distance of the archive collection, no photography is permitted, and only pencils may be used. This common experience of archival research will be familiar to a lot of historical geographers, although DeLyser’s (2015) recent Transactions article suggests that a call for more creative approaches to archives is changing the ways in which geographers engage with historical research. DeLyser’s (2015) article considers the idea of collecting as a methodology, and identifies eBay as a tool for this. Such a modern approach to historical research transforms both the role of the researcher and the nature of the archive.

Collecting is a very popular pastime, and has long been the case. In the 16th Century, for instance, the wealthy aristocrats collected natural history, archaeological, and geological artefacts. These displays were called ‘Cabinets of Curiosities’, encyclopaedic collections designed to provide a microcosm of the world. Such collections expressed the status of their owners and reflected their wealth. Today, whether it’s Pokémon cards, football stickers, Star Wars memorabilia, stamps, or teddy bears, collecting is a practice to which most of us can relate. The process of collecting, and our passion for it, become part of our identity and can, at times, become almost an obsession. In short, the things we collect come to define us. In her article, DeLyser (2015) suggests that collecting can be a tool of nostalgia and a transformative practice. The idea, then, that geographers can use collecting as a tool for research, poses many interesting questions. This shift in methodology means archive collections are constantly growing, as researchers contribute more to them, but also creates some uncertainty about positionality.

DeLyser (2015) coins the term ‘autoethnography’ to refer to the process of geographers collecting and contributing to the archive themselves, creating an alternative archive. Any archive is already a ‘collection’, but the moment the researcher starts adding to it themselves, it is important that they critically reflect on their impact and positionality. Collecting involves passion and desire and, therefore, can never be separated from personal motivations. In DeLyser’s (2015) own research, for instance, she collected kitsch souvenirs of the novel Ramona. The items in her collection became embedded in her personal life; the collection lived in her house, she encountered it every day, and it reminded her of places, stories, people, and events.

Traditional archives are fixed, stored in an institution, and distinct from researchers’ personal lives. Access to them has to be requested, and there are often long lists of “dos” and “don’ts” policing researchers’ behaviour. The idea that researchers can collate their own archive through the process of collecting, and store it in their own home, starts to challenge and redefine the space of the archive. Oh how some archivists would shudder at the idea of researchers sat on their sofas reading items one hundred years old, coffee in hand! Heaven forbid that they should let their dog settle next to them! And don’t mention those chocolate biscuits…

Source: Wikimedia Commons

Source: Wikimedia Commons

The Internet has “transformed the spatialities of collecting” (DeLyser, 2015:212) and, indeed, researching, by providing us with new ways of accumulating items. Eradicating the need for human-to-human contact, the Internet proves a powerful tool for communication, and has the effect of compressing space. Previously unreachable people and unreachable items in unreachable places are all now accessible at the click of a button. Arguably the most influential website in this respect has been eBay, which recently celebrated its 20th birthday last month. Featured in a recent Telegraph article, eBay is now the best known online auction website in the world, and is available in more than 180 countries. As DeLyser (2015) states, eBay has become a useful tool for historical geographers in search of ‘one-of-a-kind’ items to add to their alternative archives.

The advent of online auction websites, such as eBay, has changed the ways in which people value items, and facilitated collecting. You can buy absolutely anything on eBay. Just last month, the Metro featured the story of a £5 note, chewed up by a 10-month old Labrador puppy, which was sold on the site for £3.70! Gaining 4,425 views, 111 watchers, and 10 bids, the item’s winning bidder claimed to have been interested in it because the accompanying photograph of the guilty dog had reminded him of his late dog. The new owner is hoping to submit the note for the Tate Gallery’s Turner Prize in 2017, claiming that the story behind the item gave it added value. Thus, the biographies of items on eBay – their history of ownership and anecdotal stories associated with them – affect their value. For researchers, however, this can pose challenges, as competitive bidding by dealers, hobbyists, and other interested parties can place a lot of historical items out of their financial reach. ‘Value’, then, is very subjective and problematic for researchers using online auctions to accumulate ‘alternative’ archive collections.

Source: Wikimedia Commons

Source: Wikimedia Commons

The use of eBay creates a personal space of collecting, changing researchers’ interactions with research materials and broadening the definition of ‘archive’. Searching for, bidding on, and taking ownership of items redefines them and the ways in which they are used in research. Could it be that the traditional historical geographer in the archive is becoming as rare and fragile as the dusty documents they seek, soon to be replaced by an unlikely new character who spends their time on-line shopping?

books_iconDeLyser, D. (2015). “Collecting, kitsch and the intimate geographies of social memory: a story of archival autoethnography”, Transactions of the                Institute of British Geographers. 40:  209-222. DOI: 10.1111/tran.12070

60-world2Bhatia S 2015 The History of Ebay The Telegraph 

60-world2Willis A 2015 Half eaten £5 note sold on ebay ‘to be entered for Turner Prize’ by new owner The Metro

 

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