AUGUSTA — The seller described the item as a “wonderful, original document dated 1819” complete with signatures of Pownal’s selectmen. Bids on eBay started at $14.95 for the historic tax record from the southern Maine town. The seller, however, did not get a bite from Maine State Archivist Jim Henderson. Instead, the online auctioneer got an e-mail warning that the sale was illegal.
Henderson and others in the Maine Secretary of State’s Office are trying to prevent the sale of original public documents, a problem they say has increased with the popularity and ease of Internet auction sites. They are contacting traditional auctioneers, working with a national group to push changes in online auctions and trying to educate the general public.
“Public documents belong to the public,” Secretary of State Matthew Dunlap said.
The sale of local, county and state documents is a criminal act under state law, punishable by up to a year in jail and a $2,000 fine. Besides its historical value, the material can help public officials as a reference point when working on current issues, Dunlap says.
The law applies to original records such as meeting minutes, town ordinances and tax records. Private documents like company records or family histories and copies of public records do not come under the law.
Henderson says public documents fell into private hands over time, often because many town officials in Maine used to work from their homes. Records from a century ago could end up in the attic of a relative instead of a public building. And once the documents are unearthed, people sometimes try to sell them.
The Council of State Historical Records Coordinators, a national group of state archivists, has been working on this issue in recent years as several states reported problems with the sale of government documents on-line. Its members are putting together a Web site that collects the laws for all states to push eBay into doing something. That site, however, has not come together yet.
Hani Durzy, a spokesman for eBay, says the company is willing to work with states on this issue. One difficulty is that the laws are not uniform from state to state. […]