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eBay for Genealogy: A Rescue Story

There’s no doubt that genealogically-relevant records end up in unexpected places. Sure, we find records via genealogy websites, libraries, archives, and as home sources, but they can also be found in someone’s attic or even with an antique dealer. Records can be almost everywhere.

Case in point. The Medford, Massachusetts 1905 School Census.

Medford Mass School Census Cover

I’m not sure how I found the census on eBay since I usually search for cookbooks, postcards, and ephemera, but I must have conducted a search on “census” to see what I could find for a presentation. Some of the results included US federal census transcription books but amidst what was there was the original Medford, Massachusetts school census.

The title of the listing was “Medford MASS 1905 School Census Fabulous book! family listings and addresses.” As I looked at the images and read the description, I knew that this item belonged with a repository so that researchers could benefit from the information.

Medford Mass School Census Title Page

The school census included the following information:

  • Name of the Student
  • Sex
  • Date of Birth
  • Age (years and months)
  • Name of parent or person in charge
  • Residence
  • Remarks

Medford Mass School Census Example Page

What a great resource for the names of school-aged children and their parents (or guardians).

I felt strongly about this item, but I also knew I couldn’t save everything. My personal research isn’t in Medford, Massachusetts. This record wasn’t part of any of my non-family history research interests. But I couldn’t bear to watch it not go to a repository.

I went ahead and contacted a friend who works for a library I thought would be interested. When they weren’t, I had to come up with a Plan B. I was running out of time since the auction was ending, and I risked someone buying it. So, I decided to bid on it. I ended up with the highest bid and won the auction. The question was, now what? I was the proud owner of an item I didn’t need and wasn’t sure what I was going to do with it.

Mail Call

The census ledger eventually arrived at my house, and record-wise, it was beautiful. It was in good shape, and the handwriting was legible. It definitely was something that researchers with ancestors in that area would love to see. After taking photos and keeping it safe for about 4 months, I knew I needed to do something with it. I needed to get it out of my home and into the hands of those who could preserve it and make it accessible to researchers. But who?

I had quite a few options in mind, but in the end, I decided to crowdsource the problem. I posted my dilemma on Facebook. I added photos of the school census book and tagged various friends who worked at libraries and archives. I wrote that I was looking for a home for the census and would donate it to an interested repository. It wasn’t too long after I posted that I found the census a new home. The FamilySearch Library.

Rescue Tips

Now that the school census is safely with the librarians at the FamilySearch Library (and will be available for research in the future) I can reflect on some suggestions I have if you’re tempted to rescue “lost” records or genealogically relevant items.

  1. It will cost you. Whether it’s eBay or the local antique store, the item will have a cost. Even when I’ve had contact with the seller and explained my intentions for the item, at most, I’ve received a 10% discount. And that’s ok. The seller paid for it, and they deserve to make a living. They don’t care about my good intentions. The items I’ve “rescued” I’ve paid for and did not accept any reimbursement from the family or the repository I gifted them to. I chose to do this and so I accept the cost.

  2. That “perfect” place may not want it. In fact, no one may want it for a variety of reasons, including duplications, not part of their collection guidelines, lack of storage space, or it’s just not what they want. I’ve had this happen more than once and, in fact, have seen collections of stuff that should be perfect, in my opinion, for a repository, and they refuse it. You have to accept that. While I decided to crowdsource my census record, if that hadn’t worked, I would have digitized the item and placed it on my own website or blog, giving me time to find a permanent home for the future.

  3. It can quickly get out of hand. Rescuing anything, whether it’s correspondence, photos, or documents, can be addicting. But it can also become a burden. It will cost you money, time, and storage. And in my opinion, you have to have an end game because if/when you pass away, your family won’t be as conscientious about getting the item to the right person. My kids (and most likely yours) aren’t interested in reuniting heirlooms and records. They have their own hobbies and interests.

Rescuing orphan items isn’t for everyone, and that’s ok. In some cases, I find something and then alert a friend who works with a repository about the item, and then I walk away. I’m available if they need me to pick it up, mail it, etc., but I let them take over. Sometimes just letting others know about the existence of something can help it get into the right hands.

As researchers, we depend on records, and sometimes records aren’t where we would expect. Rescoring those records or alerting others to their existence can help them get into the right hands and benefit us all.


Gena Philibert-Ortega is an author, instructor, and researcher. She blogs at Gena's Genealogy and Food.Family.Ephemera. You can find her presentations on the Legacy Family Tree Webinars website.



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Wow, another amazing find! It really appears to be in good condition.

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