An Archival Dilemma
From the “How I Spent Saturday Morning” department, I went to the Maryland State Archives to photograph a court case file from the 1870s, because that’s how I roll. I had begun photographing it about a year earlier. I had been unable to finish the job, so I noted where I had left off for when I returned. In the meantime, I did a bit of market research.
The case was the fallout of the collapse of the Baltimore Base Ball Club of 1872-1873. It ran out of cash before it ran out of debt, leaving four of its players with unpaid salaries. They sued the officers, who in turn sued the shareholders. As was common practice at the time, shareholders would subscribe to some number of shares, but only pay a portion of the par value. The unpaid portion acted as a capital reserve that could be drawn upon. For reasons that aren’t clear to me, the officers had not drawn on this reserve previously, but now they were. Wackiness ensued, with dozens of defendants being drawn in. The result was a file about the size of two bricks. This isn’t much by modern standards, but nearly every piece of paper in that file was hand-written: a wonderful incentive to keep matters in check. Amidst all this paperwork were various exhibits, including perhaps a dozen or so stock certificates and the contract of one of the players, Scott Hastings. These last were the subject of my market research.
There is a huge market for baseball memorabilia, with dealers and auction houses not overly concerned with provenance. The really big ticket items are associated with guys like Babe Ruth, but as you work backwards items become rarer, and the identity of the individuals involved becomes less important. The upshot is that stock certificates and player contracts from the 1870s are extremely rare, even for clubs and players that few have heard of today. Based on prior auction sales of comparable items, an estimated market value of on the order of $20,000 is not ridiculously inflated, and it would not have been at all difficult to slip these modestly sized items into my legal pad and walk out the door.
Once I was done photographing, I did my good deed for the day. I tracked down the senior archivist and explained what they had. (Every man has his price. I am pleased to report that mine is higher than this. Momma raised me right.) He agreed that this was significant. Their procedure is to send the entire file to their scanning department, place some sort of cross reference marker in the box that had previously held the file, and after the file is scanned to place the original in their vault for high value items, where it likely will never again see the light of day.
This doesn’t feel quite right to me, but I can’t think what the better alternative might be. Putting it back in the box it came from clearly is not right. I am pretty darned sure that I am the first person to look at this file since it was placed in the box the first time, but the whole point of the research is to eventually publish, at which point I know longer am the only one to know it is there. So putting it back in the box is an invitation to have these items turn up on some auction site. But putting it in a vault where no one can see it also fails to give me a warm fuzzy feeling. On the gripping hand, my interest in such things is historical. I don’t get all wobbly over holding stuff like this in my hands (though I did find nineteenth century stationary supplies kind of interesting). What I care about is the content, and between my photographs and their scans, I have all that. It is unlikely that I would ever have any need to look at the originals again. It isn’t as if tossing them in a vault affects me, and, as previously noted, it isn’t as if anyone else had been looking at this stuff. Indeed, the content is now more accessible that it had been when I had to go puddling through docket books to find the case caption.
So I have this nagging feeling that there must be some better resolution to this situation, but I can’t think what it might be.
Edited to put back in the paragraph breaks I had inadvertently removed.