How to control the clutter in your collection

Aug 5, 2002, 1 PM

By Janet Klug

This summer I remodeled my stamp room.

Many years ago I installed shelves in the closet. Every few years since then I have made it a habit to reorganize the closet to keep clutter to a minimum.That simple declarative sentence encompasses about three weeks of hard work, blood, sweat and tears that began with the dreaded task called "cleaning out the closet."

That was the theory, anyway. In practice, the clutter continues to accumulate and just gets rearranged into neater stacks.

I'm a collector, you see. Actually throwing things away is anathema to me. But there have to be limits, even for me.

When the closet can no longer contain another thing and when the materials stored therein are no longer accessible, it is time to ruthlessly prune the tangle into a manageable assemblage.

So let's get organized . . .


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Step 1: Emptying the stamp closet or the boxes.

If your stamp room closet is like mine, it contains reference material, correspondence, unmounted stamps and covers, magazines, and journals and newspapers.

The first step is to sort through all this and discard all that is not essential to your collection.

The simplest way to go about this is to bring in three big boxes for sorting.

Mark the largest of the three "DISCARD," another "FILE & KEEP" and the third "SELL OR DONATE."

Begin systematically eliminating the clutter by placing every item in your stamp closet into one of these boxes. Anything that you haven't needed, looked for or used in the past three years should be discarded, given away or sold.

It is not easy to do this, but, for the good of your collection, you must be strong.


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Step 2: Put the clippings into files.

Clippings you have been saving for references should be filed.

If you are not going to file them properly, throw them away.

You will not be able to find the unfiled clippings when you need them, so keeping them makes no sense.

The simplest way to file clippings from newspapers, society journals or magazines is to put them into manila files and arrange them alphabetically by subject in a filing cabinet.

If functionality is more important than looks, steel filing cabinets are often available at cut-rate prices from used office-equipment dealers. New filing cabinets can be had at higher prices from the ubiquitous office-supply warehouse stores. You can also go as high end as your wallet can stand by having custom made cabinetry installed.

Once you have the filing cabinets installed, put them to use. File the clippings, articles and correspondence and keep it filed.

Letting this material accumulate will, in very short order, put you right back where you started — with a dysfunctional filing system.

An alternative to filing cabinets is to photocopy your clippings and then punch them for storage in ring binders, filed by subject. Ring binders, shown in Figure 1, are inexpensive and fit easily on shelves.

Just be sure to write on the spine what subjects are contained in the binder so you don't spend a lot of time and effort searching through your entire collection of reference binders for the one article you need.

If you don't have a lot of clippings, you might try putting your reference material into plastic folio files. These are sold for less than $1 at office supply stores. They come in a variety of colors, so you can color code your filing system. They will hold a stack of papers about an inch thick. They are secure because the flap folds over and closes with a string twist.

If you have a computer, a scanner, a compact disc (CD) burner, and a modicum of technical savvy, you can condense those many clipping files into digital files.

Scan them as text files and save them to a CD-ROM. You can now access the information you need quickly by doing a keyword search.


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Step 3: Organize your stamps and covers.

Stamps and covers present a different organizational problem.

Boxes full of loose stamps or covers crammed into a closet might eventually provide you with some entertainment.

But if they have been there gathering dust for years, you should probably either sell them or donate them to a worthy philatelic charity such as the American Philatelic Society, Box 8000, State College, PA 16803, or the Postal History Foundation, Box 40725, Tucson, AZ 85717.

Put anything you intend to keep into the KEEP AND FILE box. Do not make the mistake of putting that loaded box back into the closet. You will only have done the keep part of the task. The file portion of the job requires placing stamps and covers in albums or stock books.

This is the most essential task in the closet-cleaning regimen.

The best places for stamps and covers are in albums or stock books.

Realistically, we all know that most of us will end up with some of our collection salted away in boxes. Fortunately, there are a lot of readily available inexpensive organizing tools.

Cardboard shoe boxes are a good size for holding glassines, approval cards, or smaller covers.

They are not good for long-term storage, however, and they break down over time, especially if stacked atop one another. The lids are also prone to fly off at inconvenient times.

You don't want to spend a lot of time organizing a shoe box full of stamps only to have them spill out in disarray the first time you try to access the box.

Rectangular plastic storage containers, shown in Figure 2, are a better choice for both durability and ease of handling. They are readily available at any discount store. The lids fit tightly, and the containers are designed to stack without breaking down.

You can use a permanent marker to identify the contents for quick and easy access to the stored stamps, covers and other philatelic materials.

Many craft shops and office-supply stores sell archival storage boxes. These are most often heavy acid-free paperboard boxes. They come in a variety of sizes. Although not as durable as the plastic boxes, they are an excellent choice for storage of covers and stamp pages.

Label the boxes carefully. Remember, you want to be able to find an item quickly when you need it.

Make the labels specific enough to be useful. If half of your collection is United States, then labeling boxes "U.S." is not going to be of much help in finding that 1942 censored patriotic cover from Boston to Aruba that you know you have somewhere.

Break your holdings down into manageable groupings, such as by issue (Presidential stamp series, Great Americans, Americanas), year, type of service (certified mail, airmail) or other categories that match your collection.


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Step 4: Shelve books and albums upright.

Books, stamp albums and catalogs should stand upright on shelves, as shown in Figure 3. Storing stamp albums on their sides is asking for trouble.

Allowing stamp albums to lie on their sides subjects the stamps within to the accumulated weight of all the stamps and pages above them. Air cannot circulate, the stamps can eventually stick to the album pages and your collection will suffer both financial and aesthetic loss.

Books and catalogs are far more accessible if stored properly in the upright position in a book case or shelf.

If you are handy and have some basic tools, you can install shelves yourself.

You can also resort to the used-office-equipment dealer for serviceable, if not exactly beautiful, book cases, or you can buy new ones.


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Step 5: Keep the clutter under control.

Entropy (the trend to disorder) is inherent in any closed system. It takes a constant input of energy to keep it at bay.

Once you have the file cabinets and book shelves installed, use them. The best storage system in the world is useless if it isn't used.

After you have filed all the clippings, articles and correspondence that you have on hand, you must routinely file new material as it comes in to avoid finding yourself back in the same lamentable state as before.

Get a couple of small, flat baskets or letter trays. Put the clippings in one tray and the philatelic materials in another as you acquire them.

Once a week, file the clippings and place the stamps and covers into stock books or the appropriate storage area. Do not let it accumulate.

If you are contemplating purchasing a large collection or mixture, try to anticipate when you will sort it and where you will put it all after you get it.

Sorting large lots is great fun, but it is time consuming, and it can make your new found resolutions of neatness and organization fly right out the window.

There are many practical reasons to keep your collection orderly and to keep the clutter in your workspace under control.

Once you are organized, you will be able to find what you are seeking faster. You will have more room to spread out and enjoy what you have.

An added bonus on the domestic side is that those who share your living space will be less inclined to complain about how your messy collection is negatively affecting their quality of life and general well being.

One of the best reasons to keep your collection well organized and maintained is because it is worth more that way. Such a collection requires much less preparation by a dealer before he can offer it for sale.

That means more money in your pocket.