Professional Stamp Experts

Out In The Universe . . . Stamps, And How To Learn About Them

Michael O. Nowlan - November 6, 1999

I am always disturbed by the stamp collector who does not even own a catalogue. That's right. There are many of us who call themselves full-fledged collectors, but do not even own a catalogue to their name. As for reading a stamp paper . . . well . . . that, for them, is an abhorrence.

In what is still a remarkable book, and now a collector's item, How to Collect Stamps (1933) Ralph Kimble lays it on the line. He wrote "I do not consider any person proficient in collecting or in knowledge of collecting until he has at least a working acquaintance with the greatest of all sources of information, the philatelic press." Kimble went on to cite the various aspects of literature that support the hobby which he refers to as "a gold mine of information covering a vast range of topics." Kimble's press included all the written word on stamps.

The first volume of stamp literature, "a little catalogue of a few pages" was produced in 1860, in response to a demand from early collectors. Since then, catalogues, handbooks, manuals, and in-depth studies have become plentiful. Add to the list, stamp journals and newspapers, which are the very essence of literary thought before it becomes historical, or the research study which is usually a book or monograph.

Where do you stand? Do you have a well-stocked book shelf encompassing, not only appropriate catalogues, but all the little volumes that clearly define and examine the adhesives of your speciality or specialities? If not, why? It is a matter, in my humble opinion, that needs immediate attention, as no one can develop a library on the spur of the moment. It takes time...It takes years.

Percy Bishop, another pioneer of early 20th century philatelic literature identified two types of literature collector: the one who collects for collecting's sake and the student collector. It was the latter that Bishop nominated, and I support him. Bishop said the student collector's "library is for use, rather than ornament." Bishop's student, moreover, would be any collector, young or old, who sought to learn about the stamps he or she collected.

Mr. Bishop was a very discerning collector of stamp literature, and he often voiced opposition to "all that is produced under the guise of Philatelic Literature. The student of stamps," he said, will collect "only those handbooks, monographs, catalogues, and journals which contain useful and authoritative information about stamps." This means, the collector must read and decide whether to collect (save) or discard.

The key word for Percy Bishop was authoritative. That's why it is not a simple task to build a philatelic bookshelf. But, let's get at it. Time is wasting. And the shelf is bare.

Whether you like it or not, your catalogue is the first item of business. Without a good one, you cannot gather and assemble stamps with any degree of proficiency. In fact, I strongly recommend more than one catalogue. One will become your daily instrument while the others will require consulting from time to time.

Speaking as a Canadian, our nation for example, is nicely treated in Scott Volume 2, but the Unitrade Specialized Catalogue of Canadian Stamps, which uses Scott numbers, is much easier to use and carry to club meetings. Canada also has the Darnell Stamps of Canada, with its own numbering system, which, if you are into varieties, is a must.

The best journals are often those which arrive monthly, or quarterly as a result of membership in a stamp society. Yes, it is advantageous to belong to a society! More on that in another column!

American Philatelist, The Canadian Philatelist, and Topical Time, are top shelf journals and there are countless others that there would never be space enough to list. Scott and Gibbons (Great Britain), both produce excellent monthly journals that have a great breadth of information and insightful research articles. Like reading a general interest publication, an evening's reading of stamp journals is a adjunct of the hobby just as important as an evening with stamps themselves.

Then there are the handbooks and studies. As I look over my shoulder, there are well over 100 titles on the shelves above my work station, and I use them all, some frequently, Countless others are housed elsewhere in my house. Some deal with very specialized topics while others are of a general interest. Where do you learn about philatelic literature? You might well ask.

Dealers, advertisements, reviews, review copies, auctions, and special sales. One of the best sources of information is, of course, the philatelic press. More specifically, Philatelic Literature Review, is a quarterly that surpasses most collectors' needs with its boundless information. A publication of the American Philatelic Research Library (APRL), it is a must-have title if one plans to be knowledgeable on stamp literature. Membership in the APRL gets you an annual subscription. The journal's "Clearing House" is a fine source for collectors wanting to purchase out-of-print and much-needed titles.

Most stamp publications either list or review recent titles of significance to either topicals, general interest, or major studies. Some collectors like to review books, so they welcome publishers' review copies. They get a first look at a new title, and they get to keep the book. In some cases, the reviewer gets a small fee for the review.

Charles Kirby's sought after annual, Rarities of Philatelic Literature Auction, held each autumn, has hundreds of titles in every possible category and type Merely browsing a Firby catalogue is an informative evening's read.

If you do not own Philatelic Literature by James Negus, consider it for one of your next purchases. It is the recognized 'bible' on the subject.

Now it is your turn. Let me know what works best for you in building your library. If you are a beginner, ask me questions. If you are an advanced pro, ask me questions! I will not pretend to be the Dear Abby of stamp collecting, but I will certainly provide answers to general, specific, or personal questions on any topic relating to the hobby.

Don't forget to keep an eye on this Collectors Universe Stamp site, as an excellent Price Guide and a great resource called Stamp Lingo will appear on this page in the next few months! They will undoubtedly become principal bookmarks in your electronic bookshelf...

Out in the Universe . . . Stamps is a forum where all collectors are welcome to exchange ideas, theories, philosophy, and argument. My editor and I will welcome your response. Get on line now with your comment. We'll be glad you did. So will you!

Michael O. Nowlan was born in New Brunswick, Canada where he has lived all his life. He spent over 30 years in the public education system before he retiring in 1994. During his years a a teacher, he often freelanced for publications in Canada, the United States, and Great Britain.

He has authored 16 books, many of them anthologies for schools and some of his own poetry. His philatelic writing, which has won several silver medals at both national and international levels, includes a monthly column in Canadian Stamp News, a biweekly column in The Daily Gleaner, and features in American Philatelist, The Canadian Philatelist and other publications. He has been an avid stamp enthusiast since the age of twelve.

Michael O. Nowlan was born in Chatham, New Brunswick Canada. He grew up on a nearby farm, was educated, and became a teacher. In retirement, he follows his life-long avocation of writing. His credits include 16 books (four books of poems, two children's titles, and anthologies for schools). In recent years, he has written extensively about stamp collecting for CANADIAN STAMP NEWS, GIBBONS INTERNATIONAL STAMP NEWS, and other philatelic publications.

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