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Using eBay in your Genealogy

While many may use eBay to find collectibles at a reasonable price, eBay can also be used to enhance your genealogy.


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eBay touts itself as the "world's largest online marketplace, and rightly so given the auction site has become a place to buy anything from books to real estate, toys to ephemera and more. While many may use eBay to find collectibles at a reasonable price, eBay can also be used to enhance your genealogy.

Introduction to eBay

eBay was founded in 1995 as an online auction site. According to the company's web site, it has 84 million registered users, and in 2007 transactions totaled nearly 60 billion dollars.

You do not need to be a registered user to peruse eBay's pages; however, in order to bid or purchase items you need to register and set up a free account. If you are planning to sell items through eBay there are additional steps you will need to take.

To pay for items that you purchase, you also need to set up a PayPal account. This can be done with a credit card at the PayPal web site. For more information on PayPal, check out the site's How PayPal Works page.

Once you are registered, you can makes bids on items. Some items are strictly purchased through an auction format while others have a "Buy it Now" feature where, for a set price -- usually higher than the item might go at auction, you can forgo the auction and purchase the item immediately.

For those who are totally new to eBay, I would recommend reading something about online auctions such as the article, How eBay Works.

Searching for your Family

People who sell items on eBay acquire them through various means, including yard sales, estate sales, traditional auctions and items from their own private collection. So you may bid on something from a person selling her grandma's quilt or from an antiques dealer selling a collection of letters purchased at an estate sale.

Almost anything having to do with a personal family may be offered for sale on eBay. Items could include letters, Bibles, books, family histories, documents, quilts, pictures, war memorabilia, and other personal affects. To find items pertinent to your family, I would suggest coming up with some specific search terms such as a surname and/or a location and checking on that search term often. You may also consider searching on phrases that describe your ancestor's occupation, workplace, or religion. I have also found genealogical related items under the search terms "family letters," "war letters," and "vintage photos or photographs".

When bidding, make sure you set a limit for yourself. It is easy to get caught up in the frenzy of a bidding war and quickly bid an amount you had not planned on spending. Always check out the seller's shipping price and policy before you decide on bidding. Sometimes the shipping price can be prohibitive. You may also want to consider the seller's history and reputation on eBay, information available on every item.

If it is an item that you must have, you may want to consider bidding your highest price at the outset, just in case someone comes up in the last minutes and outbids you. I have had many times where I was the highest bidder up until the minute before the auction ended and then someone outbid me, leaving no time to counter the bid. There are even web sites that help people do this. So once again, if you think you must have an item, make sure you enter the highest price you're willing to bid. Even then you may be outbid, resellers and others may simply have more money to spend.

Searching for Genealogy

If you are looking for genealogy books and resources, eBay is the place for you. Try searching on the terms "genealogy" or "family history" to find genealogy software, complied family histories, genealogy how-to books, CD's, secondary records, and even genealogists offering lookups at various sites.

eBay as a Giant Reference Tool

eBay is also useful as a reference tool. One way I used it was to help me identify a picture of my great-grandfather. This photo had been taken about 1900. After researching the photographer, I was still puzzled by some lapel pins my great-grandfather was wearing. Family members provided their best guesses, but it was only after I had a hunch that the initials "SA" on the pin stood for Salvation Army that I was able to confirm my hunch by looking at photos on eBay of others in Salvation Army uniforms. I simply searched on the term "Salvation Army photos" and found vintage photos that assisted me in the identification process.

Source Information: GenWeekly, New Providence, NJ, USA: Genealogy Today LLC, 2009.

The views and opinions expressed in this article are those of the author and do not necessarily reflect the views of Genealogy Today LLC.

*Effective May 2010, GenWeekly articles that are more than five years old no longer require a subscription for full access.

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