Tips for building your own philatelic reference library at home

Jun 24, 2013, 2 PM

By Janet Klug

Stamp collecting is a robustly varied hobby, full of highways, byways and tangents by which a single-country collection, for example, can surprisingly veer in other directions and turn into a multiplicity of associated collections. This is one of the factors that keep the hobby fresh and exciting for us over time.

There are handbooks, catalogs, manuals, compendia, monographs, encyclopedias, atlases, guidebooks, yearbooks, almanacs, reports, newsletters and journals.Road maps that make all of the byways of our hobby accessible are contained in the large number of specialized reference works in the realm of stamp collecting.

It is safe to say that whatever in the philatelic world you collect, there will be some reference works containing information pertinent to your interest.

Having that information on hand when you need it makes collecting — and working on your collection — much easier and more interesting.

Perhaps you have a stamp with a curious postmark. If you have a reference work that can help you identify when and where the postmark was used, you will have a greater understanding and appreciation of the marking. You might discover that the postmark you have is scarce and possibly even valuable.

But how do you figure out which published materials you need? Where do you go to learn what literature is available that might help you? Should you buy a book or borrow it?

The fastest way to learn about a new interest is to join a specialty society. For the cost of dues you can expect to receive a newsletter or journal and also have access to specialists who can steer you in the right direction and recommend reference works. There probably will be a website for the organization that might contain information you can use.

Some specialist organizations now have digital archives of the back issues of their journals and make them available online to all of their members. A great example is the U.S. Philatelic Classics Society at The society's website contains articles of interest to any user, including those who are not yet members.

If you do not know if there is a specialty society for your particular interest, search by collecting subject on the American Philatelic Society's web site at If you don't find an organization listed for your interest, try using your favorite Internet search engine to look for a specialty society or to find web sites related to your area of study.

An excellent way to look for useful literature is by searching the philatelic library databases in the Global Philatelic Library at

Once you know the name of a book or publication you would like to read, you might be able to borrow it (or obtain photocopies or scanned images from it) through a philatelic library. A list of these institutions is available at

Check the lending rules of the library that owns the material you want to borrow. If you cannot borrow directly, ask your local public library about using the nationwide interlibrary loan program (ILL). This is a cooperative effort in which many libraries participate, with materials being sent directly from the owner library to the borrowing library, and then handed on to the patron for a set period of time.

Give the title of the book or publication you want to the librarian and ask her or him to send an electronic request through the ILL system to see if the item can be lent to your library and then to you.

Once you begin reading books about your collecting interests, you will soon discover which references you are consulting most often and are finding to be most useful. These are the books you should consider adding to your personal library. It is certainly easier, and often less expensive, to buy a book than to keep borrowing it. Plus, you will always have immediate access to the information you seek.

Buying philatelic books is not difficult. There are dealers who specialize in the literature of the hobby, as you can discover by checking the ads in this issue of Linn's, or by searching the APS website for relevant dealers at

Thanks to the thousands of independent booksellers who now list their inventories online, you can also check marketplaces such as, (which has more than 21,000 entries under the subject heading of philately), and online auction websites.

Every stamp collector should have access to a text that explains how stamps are produced.

The classic Fundamentals of Philately, by L.N. Williams, accomplishes this task with excellent illustrations and clear text. It is a must-have. A few basic works, such as those shown in Figure 1, probably will end up being the most consulted books in your library.

You may not need a stamp catalog for every country in the world if you collect only one or two countries, but you certainly should have catalogs for the material you collect. Catalogs are essential, helping you to identify stamps correctly, create an inventory of what you have and what you need and provide specific details about the stamps.

Many individual collecting areas – countries, topicals, postal markings, airmail, and so on – have specific catalogs that go into greater detail than is found in more general country catalogs.

For example, ship mail is a popular area of collecting and there are many excellent works that are must-haves if you want to figure out the rates, route markings and stamps on early ship mail covers. Figure 2 displays a short stack of works in this field.

Only a few of the many helpful ship mail books include Ship Letters by Alan W. Robertson; Australia New Zealand UK Mails, Vol. 1 and 2, by Colin Tabeart, Understanding Transatlantic Mail, Vol. 1 and 2 by Richard Winter, andThe Private Ship Letter Stamps of the World, parts 1-3 by S. Ringstrom and H.E. Tester.

Collectors of United States stamps will find a host of useful books available for the home library.

The list of essentials begins with the Scott Specialized Catalogue of United States Stamps and Covers.

A handy all-in-one volume is the Encyclopedia of United States Stamps and Stamp Collecting edited by Rodney Juell and Steven J. Rod.

If your focus is on the stampless era, the three-volume American Stampless Cover Catalog edited by David G. Phillips should be a resident of your personal library.

Classic period collectors will want to own The 19th Century Postage Stamps of the United States by Lester G. Brookman.

Many of the best stamp collecting books are now out of print, which can make finding them for purchase a challenge, though the Internet marketplaces make the search easier than ever before. But you will find that the search is worth it when the result is having essential books conveniently at your fingertips when you need them.