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Papermental by Terry Cox

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Researching periodicals

 

Collectors frequently ask sellers to look through inventories of inexpensive newspapers and magazines for specific images, ads and articles. On the surface, those requests seem entirely reasonable. Unfortunately, there are three facts to consider.

1.
It takes 4 to 15 minutes to search through a single issue on top of the amount of time it takes to remove the selected item from inventory and replace it.
2.
Most dealers, myself included, have spent countless hours searching through newspapers and magazines for potential buyers.
3.
Exceedingly few research efforts result in sales. In my case, I have searched well over one hundred periodicals for interested shoppers. Several times, I have found exact articles, ads and photos my shoppers SAID they were looking for. So far, none of that free research has resulted in a sale. (At the risk of sounding like a casino owner, let's look at the odds. At this point, if I look through another newspaper or magazine for something, there is less than a 1% chance I will make a sale. If I make a sale, I will, statistically, make only a couple dollars profit. By any measurements, those seem like pretty poor odds.)

It gets a little worse, though.

Every time I say 'no' to collectors when they ask me to search through low-cost publications, I feel like a lout. But I still need to say 'no'.

So may I suggest... ?

The most sensible solution is for collectors to do their research ahead of time. If collectors can learn the exact publications and dates they’re looking for, there is no wasted effort from that point forward. Collectors can go about filling out their collections with ease and efficiency.

Unfortunately, many collectors have never learned how to research. Research seems terribly intimidating until they've done it once.

Researching old publications is really quite a lot of fun and can be downright exciting. It is amazing how much collectors can learn while looking for something else.

Step 1. Collectors must define PRECISELY what they want to find. Are they looking for collectibles? Or, are they looking for information? Collectors don't need to spend a lot of money if photocopies are acceptible. Do they want to acquire all ads by a particular illustrator? Do they want to acquire all full-color ads from a particular company? Do they want copies of every conceivable article about a specific individual? Do they want every photo of a celebrity from every magazine? Do they want reviews of a specific movie? Are they satisfied with photocopy clippings of a particular sporting event? It does not matter why they want something. It matters that they define precisely what they want.

Step 2. Discover where to look for information. There are staggering amounts of information available on the web, yet the internet is a poor and inefficient source for finding information about periodicals. The most reliable sources are libraries. Spending hours in libraries is the equivalent of spending days or weeks on the web. The great thing about libraries is that they're are packed with people who already know how to find obscure information. Librarians are people who genuinely want to help. Nobody becomes a librarian unless they enjoy the challenge of finding information. That’s what drives them. Collectors who approach libraries with attitudes of curiosity will wonder why they ever waited so long.

The first trick to library research is to “start big.” Collectors can get their feet wet by visiting small, local libraries, but will large libraries are far more valuable. Let's face facts. Large libraries have the most money, and therefore the greatest number of references on their shelves. Large city libraries are terrific. Large university libraries are dramatically better. Spend a few hours in a ten-story university library and you'll know what I mean!

The wonderful thing is, collectors don’t even need library cards!

Armed with pencils and notepads when they walk in, collectors should simply ask the first employee they encounter where they can find a “research librarian.”

This leads to the second, most vital trick in library research: play dumb. If collectors will march to research librarians’ desks and spill their guts about what they want to find, they will usually be amazed at the results.

Step 3. Follow the librarians who will almost always lead their patrons to massive collections of microfilm and microfiche. Vast numbers of publications have been photographed and archived on thousands of miles of microfilm. On top of that are tens of thousands of envelopes of microfiche.

Yeah, yeah, yeah. I hear you mumbling, "You should be able to find this information on the web."

I could not agree more. And I wish in the deepest possible way that that idea comes true someday before I die.

It won't.

That is simply not the way things are. At this point in history, only a sub-microscopic (!) amount of this information is available anywhere on the web.

Collectors need to tell librarians the approximate dates and the approximate publications they are interested in and librarians will take it from there.

Hint: Always ask librarians whether you should refile microfiche and microfilm. With rare exception, patrons should NOT put material back. Leave that task to the pros. (Think abut it. If you mis-file something, your mistake might not be corrected for years.)

Step 4. Learn how to use microfilm and microfiche readers. Librarians gladly give instructions. There are many different varieties of microfilm readers. Every library seems to have different types. The good thing is that readers are  simple to use because they are made for novices. Once collectors learn how to load readers, they can cruise through hundreds upon hundreds of pages of magazines and newspapers per hour. It is easily fifty to a hundred times faster to search through microfilm and microfiche than it is to search through physical documents!

Step 5. Collectors should take notes of publications and dates that contain the items they ultimately want to own. Pen and paper are the preferred methods of taking notes because it is quiet and does not disturb other people. However, laptop computers are much faster. Most microfilm and microfiche readers allow users to make paper copies. Collectors who anticipate making copies should call ahead and ask what types of coins the machines require. (It is often a good idea to take several rolls of dimes.)

Collectors should be aware that there will always be “holes” in sequences of periodicals found on microfilm. Collectors should not get discouraged about missing issues. It is not uncommon to find issues offered for sale on eBay that were missing when collections were photographed and converted to microfilm.

If it is impossible for collectors to visit large libraries, not all is lost.

Small libraries can help by using the “Interlibrary Loan System.” Small libraries constantly borrow microfilm and books from other libraries on behalf of their patrons. Collectors can then use the items and sometimes check them out exactly as if the small library owned them.

Step 6. The final step for collectors is to go back to eBay and search for the exact items they really want to own. They will rarely find those items right away, but once back on eBay, collectors can build and save searches for repetitive use. Experienced collectors learn how to set up their searches so eBay will send emails when their target items appear for sale.

Overall, the eBay search engine is very good for collectors – with one glaring exception: the ability to search for dated publications. Say a collectors wants to be notified when a copy of the New York Weekly Tribune from February 23, 1883 comes up for sale. Because there are so many ways to write and abbreviate dates, collectors would need to set up at least 22 different searches to insure finding single specific dates.

I really doubt eBay will ever fix this troublesome problem. Therefore, it is up to collectors to construct “sloppy” searches that will accommodate most of the possible ways sellers are likely to list and categorize items.

I always advise collectors to design searches that will account for possible mis-spellings. In the case of the newspaper above, I would probably search for a short version of the publication’s name and date. For instance, I would probably design an eBay search something like

(NY, “N.Y.”, “NewYork”) Trib* “1883”

and have it search the typical categories that newspapers frequently appear for sale. This search will result in numbers of "false hits". That's okay. Ignore the false hits in the knowledge you will get a chance to see a listing IF your desired issue ever appears for sale on eBay.

Decoding the example above:

--“N.Y.”, “New York”, “1883”, – Quote marks tell the eBay search engine to search for exact phrases.

-- (NY,”N.Y.”,“NewYork”) – Parentheses tells the eBay search engine to report results for any of the words contained within. In this example, eBay would return results containing the name “New York” in any of its three normal spellings.

-- Trib* -- Asterisks are used as wild cards. This tells the eBay search engine to return any word that starts with "Trib" including, of course, the word "Tribune." Always assume that sellers will make spelling errors in their haste to get sales online. The downside of planning for errors is that the search engine will return false hits like “tributary” and “tribunals”. Conceivably, sellers could mis-spell "New York" as "Nwe Yrok," but it is debilitating to worry about every eventuality.

 

Good luck. And please accept my apologies for not having time to search a newspaper or magazine for you.