Some stampy tips on how to be a good collection curator

Oct 27, 2008, 1 PM

By Janet Klug

Being a good curator is the responsibility of every stamp collector. It should also be the joy and pleasure of every collector.

If properly cared for, the stamps and covers in your collection will find their way into the collections of future stamp collectors and postal historians.

Taking care of your collection is not difficult. You probably already have most of the tools and supplies necessary to do the job properly.

Stamp tongs are tweezer-like tools a stamp collector uses to pick up and handle stamps. Use stamp tongs every time you handle stamps so that you do not transfer natural oils from your hands onto the stamps.

Tongs can be purchased with pointed tips, spade tips, rounded tips and angled tips in a variety of lengths. Try them all before you purchase a pair so that you can get tongs that feel comfortable to you. It takes practice to use tongs properly, but soon using them becomes habit. Stamp tongs help keep your stamps fresh and clean.

The boy on the 1985 United States 22¢ Boy Examining Stamp Collection (Scott 2199) stamp shown in Figure 1 is properly using a pair of rounded-tip tongs to pick up a dog stamp that he will put in his album.

Storage techniques can affect the condition of the stamps and covers you have in your collection. Glassine envelopes are convenient for storage, but they are not archival quality and are not intended for long-term storage. Over time, glassine envelopes turn brown and brittle and might affect the stamps and covers held within. Use glassines only for temporary short-term storage.

For long-term storage, stamp albums, Mylar or Melinex pouches or sleeves and stock books are the best ways to house a stamp collection. Look for materials that are of archival quality. Some envelopes and sleeves may look like Mylar or Melinex but are an inferior grade of plastic. I have seen these turn yellow and sticky, ruining the material held within.

If you already have stamps housed in some kind of product, but you don't know what that product is made of, check it carefully and look for signs of discoloration, brittleness, stickiness or a plastic odor. If any of these are present, remove the stamps and covers and get them into safer storage as quickly as possible.

A clean work area will keep your treasures safe. Keep your stamp collection and your favorite beverages away from each other. Do not put your drink on the same work surface as your stamps. Spills happen. Don't allow one to happen to your albums.

Keep food and crumbs away from your stamp collection. Food particles can stain and ruin stamps, as well as attract vermin that will eat the food and the stamps.

The baked stuffed haddock illustrated on the cover of Great Britain's £1 Stamps for Cooks stamp booklet (Scott BK125, shown in Figure 2) might look yummy, but don't eat it while working on your stamp collection.

Don't smoke around your stamps. Stamps are fibrous. They will pick up the smells and tars from cigarette or cigar smoke. Hot ashes could burn a hole in a stamp or even take out the whole collection, so put out the cigarettes, as shown on the Philippines 30-sentimo World Health Day stamp (Scott 1463, shown in Figure 3), before working on your stamp collection.

The best idea, of course, is to lengthen the life of your stamp collection and yourself by not smoking at all.

Insects on stamps, like the beetle seen on the 15¢ Ethiopian stamp (Scott 1361, shown in Figure 4), make a nice collecting topic, but some bugs can be ravenous paper-eaters.

Check your albums periodically for signs of damage or infestation. You cannot fix the problems if you don't know they exist. There is an added benefit. It is a lot of fun to flip through the stamp albums and reacquainting yourself with your old friends. Do this periodically to enjoy the collection and to watch for problems that could develop over time.

Shelve your albums in the upright position. Never stack stamp albums on top of one another. It is fine to have the albums flat while you are working on them, but do not leave them flat for extended periods. You could find your mint stamps are firmly stuck to the album pages if they lie flat with the weight of the book pressing down upon them.

Issued in 1983, the 3.25-rupee stamp from India (Scott 1008) illustrated in Figure 5 shows President Franklin D. Roosevelt working on his stamp collection. Notice that stamp albums on the right side of the stamp near the president's elbow are stacked one on top of the other. This is not the proper way to treat your albums.

Another demand of being a good stamp curator is properly sheltering your stamp collection from direct sunlight. Sunshine coming through the windows is a cheerful sight, but stamps that are exposed to sun will fade or change color in a surprisingly short time.

I prefer to use stamp albums that have slipcases. It cost a bit more, but a slipcase keeps out the sun's harmful rays as well as dust, so it is a good investment in the end. Bookcases with doors that shut, as shown in Figure 6, are a great alternative. Barring that, building bookshelves in an unused closet with a door will also help protect your stamps against dust and sunlight.

Never jam dozens of stamps into a stock book or envelope. Give stamps some breathing room and you will avoid bent corners and stamps that are stuck together in an inseparable blob.

It does not take much extra effort to keep your stamps and covers in good condition. Use a little TLC (tender loving care) and a lot of common sense and your stamps will give you a lifetime of pleasure, and you will give the next generation of collectors something special to place into their own albums.