Reading Archives

With this blog, I am planning to offer, as regularly as possible, critical observations on the scholarly and popular literature analyzing the nature of archives or contributing to our understanding of archives in society. I hope this blog will be of assistance to anyone, especially faculty and graduate students, interested in understanding archives and their importance to society.

Wednesday, August 15, 2007

A House of Cards

While on my annual summer vacations in Maine, I read books on the history of golf and baseball. As both are records and statistics intensive, I often discover interesting discussions about the recordkeeping and archives of these sports, as well as about the extensive memorabilia market. When I was young we put baseball cards in the spokes of our bicycles to make them sound like Harleys, and we sought out autographs because we admired the players; such concerns have been lost, mostly, in the big money associated now with professional sports.

The large dollar amounts connected with sports memorabilia has generated some interesting trends paralleling what we see in the general autograph and manuscripts market. If you want to get some publicity about your program or about the profession, just acquire something worth a lot of money. Historical value these days seems to be measured by financial values rather than the evidence and information provided by the documents (just watch the Antiques Roadshow for a few weeks). Archivists and others interested in the nature of collecting and its marketplace dimensions might want to read Michael O’Keefe and Teri Thompson, The Card: Collectors, Con Men, and the True Story of History’s Most Desired Baseball Card (New York: William Morrow/Harper Collins, 2007), the account of the rare1909 Honus Wagner tobacco card. While there is no discussion about the archives of baseball, the commentary about trying to authenticate this baseball card and to account for its pristine condition will engage archivists.

While this book is repetitive at spots, the authors do offer another view into the collectables marketplace. O’Keefe and Thompson describe the sports memorabilia marketplace as an “unregulated and often cutthroat industry rife with fraud and corruption” (p. 4). At another point they refer to it as a “scandal-stained industry. Authentification problems were rampant, the conflicts of interest among dealers, authenticators, and auction houses staggering” (p. 175). While there is little research about the history and nature of collecting and its impact on archival work, this is a topic worth exploration and of relevance to the archival practitioner – a topic needed to be worked on by scholars within this professional community. The Card provides a nice tidbit about the nature of the marketplace influencing such collecting, and it is worth a quick reading.