How to build a basic stamp reference library

Oct 1, 2001, 8 AM

By Janet Klug

Stamp collectors are fortunate because of the massive body of reference works, specialty journals, books and catalogs available to them. Stamp collectors do not lack appropriate reference material. But the sheer number of publications can be overwhelming. Where do you start and where do you stop?

Many a collector makes the mistake of not factoring into the annual stamp budget the purchase of a few vital catalogs and reference works. "I want to spend my money on stamps, not books," some collectors say. Such a point of view is a false economy.

Having even a few basic books sharing shelf space with your albums will enhance appreciation of your collection and provide you with the knowledge needed to spot a good value. In any field, knowledge is power. In stamp collecting, knowledge expands the buying power of your stamp budget manyfold.

Which reference works you should acquire will depend on your collecting interests, but here are some recommendations for a basic library that will benefit all collectors. It does not matter if you collect one country or the whole world, your first acquisition should be a catalog. Three catalogs are shown in Figure 1.

In the United States, dealers from whom you will be buying stamps primarily use the Scott Standard Postage Stamp Catalogue, pictured in the middle of Figure 1. If you have a Scott catalog, you will be able to use that numbering system to make your purchases, comparison shop and keep a concise inventory of your collection.

An added benefit, and one that many collectors overlook, is that most catalogs have an excellent introductory section that gives information on how to use it. The volumes of the Scott catalog also contain a short course on stamp condition, terminology and other vital background.

Two specialized catalogs shown in Figure 1 are the Sieger Zeppelin Post Catalog and the Edifil Catalog of Postage Stamps of Spain and Dependencies. Acquiring a specialized catalog would be a good move for collectors who limit their collecting activity to just a few countries. Specialized catalogs will often give much more detailed information about varieties, errors, shades, watermarks and printing.

Some specialized catalogs will value stamps on cover, but at best these values can only be used as a rough guide. The value of a cover is subject to many variables. They include the method of delivery, markings on the cover, whether other stamps are on the cover, the destination, and of course, condition.

Two other specialized catalogs that are of a benefit to a great number of collectors and are readily available for modest prices are published by Scott Publishing. The Scott Specialized Catalogue of United States Stamps and Covers is an invaluable reference for all collectors of U.S. postage stamps. The listings in this specialized catalog are far more detailed and exhaustive than in the standard catalog. It also values classic U.S. stamps on cover to various destinations.

In addition to listing U.S. postage stamps, those of all U.S. territories and offices of the United Nations, the specialized catalog also lists U.S. revenue stamps, postal stationery, local stamps, die and plate proofs, specimens, essays, savings stamps, post office seals, duck stamps, encased postage, Christmas seals, sanitary fair stamps and Confederate postage stamps and postmasters' provisionals.

More and more traditional collectors seem to be drawn exclusively to the stamps issued in the first 100 years of stamp production. The Scott Classic Specialized Catalogue of Stamps & Covers 1840-1940 is a must for collectors of classic postage stamps of the world. Although its listings end at 1940 for the rest of the world, the stamps of Great Britain and the British colonies are covered through the reign of King George VI, which ended in 1952. This specialized catalog is an in-depth reference that includes more detailed listings than the standard catalogs as well as values for some stamps on cover.

Another advantage for the frugal collector is that, because new issues are not added each year, a copy of this catalog may serve you for many years for purposes of stamp identification. Of course, for current stamp values, you still need to invest in a new one periodically.

Another option that saves both shelf space and expense is the Scott catalog on CD-ROM. Countries available on individual CDs and CD sets include Canada, France, Germany, East Germany, Great Britain, the Channel Isles, Israel, Italy, the United States and the United Nations.

There are many good, basic books available to stamp collectors. Several of the best are shown in Figure 2. A few basic books are no longer in print, such as one of my perennial favorites, Foundations of Philately by Winthrop Boggs. It is possible to find this book through philatelic literature dealers.

Fortunately, two of the best references that I refer to most often are still in print and worth their substantial weight in gold. Linn's World Stamp Almanac, sixth edition, is one of those books that you can pick up, flip open to any page and begin reading something fascinating that you probably didn't know anything about.

Contained within its 1,000-plus pages are stamp collecting basics, postal regulations, fun facts about stamps and lots more. It is geared to U.S. stamp collectors, but the content is varied enough to be on the bookshelf of every stamp collector. The price is a modest $25, in softcover, available from Linn's.

Fundamentals of Philately by L.N. Williams is available from the American Philatelic Society at $60 for nonmembers, $48 for members (contact APS, Box 8000, State College, PA 16803, or see the site This 800-plus-page hardbound book is a fascinating account of how stamps are designed and printed. The text is augmented with lots of photographs. It is well indexed, easy to use, and a thoroughly absorbing read for anyone remotely interested in printing or stamp collecting.

Auction catalogs are an economical source of stamp information. Many auction houses produce catalogs lavishly illustrated in color. Some are available free upon request. Others you might have to pay for initially, but once you buy at an auction regularly, most firms will send you future catalogs free.

Auction catalogs often provide color illustrations of rarely seen stamps, and prices realized sent to bidders on request can provide invaluable market information. Occasionally, the auction of an outstanding collection can produce a catalog that is a landmark reference for the field.

A good catalog and one or two basic reference works are the starting point for a philatelic library. Some specialized works on stamp collecting are shown in Figure 3. Your specific needs and interests should dictate what other titles to add to your growing library. U.S. collectors might wish to add The Micarelli Identification Guide to U.S. Stamps to their shelves. This book helps make sorting the challenging regular-issue U.S. definitive stamps such as the Washington-Franklin series a great deal easier. Published by Scott in 1991, the book no longer appears in the Scott online catalog, but it is available from philatelic literature dealers.

The three-volume United States Postage Stamps of the 19th Century by Lester G. Brookman is also no longer in print, but it is a worthy and highly useful addition to a U.S. collector's library.

Knowing what books to buy is at least as important as knowing where to buy them. Ask the dealers with whom you do business to recommend titles to you, and don't pass up the opportunity to peruse the offerings of philatelic literature dealers at stamp shows.

Check out the online card catalog of the American Philatelic Research Library at Doing a search for a specific area of interest might turn up some titles that you are unaware of. You can either borrow items of interest from the APRL for a small fee or put them on a want list for purchase from a philatelic literature dealer.

Investigate new titles published by stamp organizations and specialty societies. Many stamp-collecting books are published in extremely short print runs. If it covers a popular subject, such a book is quickly absorbed into the marketplace, so sometimes you need to buy right away.

Hundreds of specialist organizations serve nearly every whim a stamp collector might imagine, from U.S. stamps to topical collections of masks on stamps. Their annual dues will usually bring a newsletter or journal devoted to the group's specialty. That alone is worth the price of dues, but add to that the priceless value of networking with people who share your passion and making new friends. It is truly money well spent.

Amos Hobby Publishing is trying to save you money as you build your philatelic library. The Amos Advantage is a new program open to all subscribers to Linn's, Scott Stamp Monthly and Coin World.

Subscribers receive a substantial discount on all Linn's and Scott publications and CDs. This makes some of the best philatelic references available to subscribers at truly minimal expense. To order the products, call 800-572-6885 or order online at