The APRL is hobby's greatest treasure trove

Mar 25, 2002, 4 AM

Kathleen Wunderly

As Samuel Johnson famously said, "Knowledge is of two kinds: We know a subject ourselves, or we know where we can find information about it." For stamp collecting, reputedly the hobby with the largest quantity of literature, the American Philatelic Research Library is the place to go to find information. The APRL is often referred to as the research and educational arm of the American Philatelic Society.


The APRL is the largest nongovernmental philatelic library in the world. Unlike many such entities, it is a public library. Varying degrees of services are available to anyone, anywhere in the world. The library is a 501(c)(3) nonprofit organization under the Internal Revenue Code. Gifts to the APRL in kind or in cash are tax-deductible within the limits of the law.

The APRL is the landlord of the APS, as the owner of the building that houses both institutions in State College, Pa. It also is the recent purchaser of the extensive 19th-century match factory complex in nearby Bellefonte, which is to be renovated in part as the future home of both the APRL and the APS.

As far as the APRL is concerned, the move to new quarters can't come too soon. Second only in size to the Smithsonian Institution's philatelic literature collection, the APRL's holdings cram nearly two linear miles of shelving. Included are more than 18,300 literature titles, more than 4,800 periodical titles and more than 375 journals currently being received. The journals are published in many countries, and Figure 1 shows a few of them.

Books, catalogs, government documents, maps, indexes, clipping files, manuscripts, software, microfilm, auction catalogs and dealer price lists crowd the reading room, shown in Figure 2, and the work areas of the library.

The magnitude of the APRL's holdings is remarkable for a library that is only about 34 years old. The APRL was created on Oct. 28, 1968. A library had been discussed almost immediately after the founding of the APS in 1886, but it did not materialize until 1968.

The collection runs from the beginnings of the hobby to the most recent books, journals and CD-ROMs. For example, Figure 3 shows a 1923 first edition of the Scott Specialized Catalogue of United States Stampsatop the 2002 edition.

Naturally, those who are most aware of the APRL are the most frequent users, consisting of the members of the APS and the APRL. Members of both groups have full library privileges. Library members ($15 annual regular membership) also receive a quarterly journal called the Philatelic Literature Review, which focuses on APRL news and the field of stamp publishing.

Thanks to its reputation and Internet presence, the APRL has patrons, researchers and writers from throughout the world. It is also used by stamp artists and designers, cable television programmers and postal agencies, including the United States Postal Service.

Library services include lending books by mail, photocopying of materials from the collection and limited research service. APS and APRL members can borrow books. Nonmembers in the United States can request books through the national Interlibrary Loan System (available through public libraries with varying fees set by the libraries themselves). The APRL charges modest fees for processing and shipping books and photocopies or sending faxed information.

Particulars about the APRL's services and fees are available on the library's portion of the APS web site at This includes the library's card catalog (a listing of the holdings that was converted to a database format in 1985). In addition to the catalog database, the APRL web site also has an index of articles in philatelic publications, a volunteer effort created and updated by member Gene Fricks. The Fricks index currently has more than 150,000 entries.

Simply because the technology is capable, many library users believe that most or all of the information they are seeking exists in computer-accessible format. This is desirable but far from true. Most of the hobby's literature was created over 150 years by writers and publishers more interested in their subject than in adhering to standard scholarly practices.

This means that many books have no index or bibliography. Worse yet, most of the hobby literature consists of serial publications –– magazines, journals and newspapers in every possible format –– for most of which no index of their contents exists. Thus, the majority of the published information in the hobby is not easily accessible.

The APRL staff frequently experience what Franklin P. Adams meant when he wrote: "I find that a great part of the information I have was acquired by looking up something and finding something else on the way." Library Director Virginia (Gini) Horn calls this serendipitous research, when the staff is looking for one thing and sees something else on a nearby page, answering an entirely different question or giving a new angle on the question at hand. The staff tries to keep track of these finds, because they are otherwise so elusive.

Horn's staff consists of three full-time, one half-time and two casual (fewer than eight hours a week) employees plus one volunteer. Horn has headed the APRL since 1984. She holds a bachelor's degree in history and a master's degree in library science. She recently returned to college for advanced course work in library and archival preservation and digital preservation.

Some have suggested that library space problems could be resolved by converting to digital storage. This suggestion ignores preserving the paper artifacts of the history of the stamp hobby. Expert opinion in the profession also opposes the idea.

Converting from one software to another demands labor-intensive proofreading with each migration, as the process is called. "It costs 16 times as much to maintain a digital file as a paper file, according to one expert in the field," Horn says. This doesn't mean that the APRL spurns technology. "The Web has been very good for us, opening the library to an entirely new group of patrons," Horn says.

The APRL site averages more than 100 hits per day. They come from all over the world. Last year the APRL processed more than 2,000 requests, more than half of them coming by e-mail. Many requests, especially from noncollectors are for the value of specific stamps or covers. Some include scans of covers with requests to analyze the postal markings and assign a value to the item.

Library assistant Ellen Stuter says, "People think that everything's been written about." A recent e-mailer asked for a catalog listing of uncataloged errors. Horn urges researchers to frame their questions carefully, so that the staff can be as helpful as possible. "It's frustrating to go back and forth multiple times, trying to clarify a request," Horn says, "only to have the patron finally say, what I really want is . . ." Stuter recalls many queries asking, "Tell me everything about such and such a stamp," and eventually it emerges that the person really just wants to know its market value.

Some queries are complicated because the collector wants information about a specialty area whose best or only literature is in a language other than English. This can be further complicated when English might not apply, such as books on Japanese philately written in Danish. Some types of queries are perennial. The ongoing strong interest in U.S. stamps reflects the collecting specialty of the majority of APS members.

Horn notes that there are trends and fashions in hobby research. "Pneumatic mail is hot right now," she says.

The APRL's book acquisitions are limited by its extreme space crunch, but it does access books that come in for review to its own journal or the American Philatelist. Sometimes the APRL trades duplicates for needed items from other libraries.

Horn was one of the organizers of an unprecedented example of philatelic library cooperation in 1996, when the International Philatelic Libraries Association was formed during the Capex 96 stamp exhibition in Toronto. Forty-five representatives from 25 libraries in Canada, France, England, Germany, Finland, Cyprus and South Africa attended, plus others. This organization remains active, with every continent represented.

It's been an extremely helpful means of communication, Horn says. All of the people in the IPLA are in the profession of sharing information, with deep knowledge of their country's philatelic literature and a willingness to help one another in the organization.

One unique asset of the APRL is the archives of the American First Day Cover Foundation, which includes files on U.S. first-day information organized by Scott catalog number and by cachetmaker. Other research opportunities include the huge files bequeathed by famed philatelic writers Ernest Kehr and Belmont Faries. Photocopies of many award-winning exhibits are in the collection. A collection of stamp show programs and awards lists (palmares) is another valuable accumulation for researchers.

The American Philatelic Research Library is located in the APS headquarters building at 100 Oakwood Ave., State College, Pa. The mailing address is Box 8000, State College, PA 16803-8000; telephone 814-237-3803; fax 814-237-6128; e-mail