Online Resources and Exhibits

Philatelic Literature is the Heart of the Hobby

Michael O. Nowlan

(Posted on the Saskatoon Stamp Centre website in September 2009)

Published in The Canadian Philatelist, Vol. 60, No. 4, July-August 2009.
Canadian Philatelist is the journal of the Royal Philatelic Society of Canada.

Philatelic literature is the pulse and heartbeat of stamp collecting. It goes without saying that the literature of the hobby is triggered by research and the enthusiastic and dedicated collectors whose interest goes well beyond themselves and their little pieces of adhesive. They want to share what they know. Because of them, stamp collecting probably has one of the largest ‘banks’ of literature among the most popular hobbies of the world. Sadly, however, there are many collectors whose library, if you dare call it that, is sparse.

Ralph A. Kimble (How to Collect Stamps, New York, 1932) wrote “I do not consider any person proficient in collecting or in knowledge of collecting until he has at least a working acquaintance with the greatest of all sources of information, the philatelic press.” He goes on to say “here you will find a very gold mine of information, covering a vast range of topics, information that would be inaccessible if it were not presented through this medium.”

Kimble talks about literature that “comes under two heads: books and periodical literature.” He further divides books into catalogues, technical reference books, and non-technical works. For each type, he has appropriate comment. In 1932, Kimble spoke of “hundreds of specialized writings on the various phases of philately.” If there were hundreds in 1932, the numbers today will reach well into the tens of thousands.

Stamp collecting has a world of knowledge packed between the covers of magazines/journals and books. There is information on almost every topic or feature of collecting. The world of books and magazines surrounds the hobby like a cloak.

My philatelic library has in excess of 500 volumes, but it never seems to be enough. When I was asked to give a talk to a local arts group on “The Art of the Postage Stamp”, I had little of use among my references. I quickly sent a email to the American Philatelic Research Library of the American Philatelic Society. Within a few hours, I had several resources from which to choose. I took the list to our public library where an order was sent through the interlibrary system and within two weeks I had several titles from which I gleaned much for my talk. Moreover, I was introduced to another most interesting feature of the hobby.

There are several titles that I consider most valuable for information. The catalogue, of course, is a priority. I have several catalogues, some of which are specialized while others look at specific countries. The Unitrade Specialized Catalogue of Canadian Stamps is the ultimate source for collectors of Canada. It is such an improved manual in the last few years! There is much more information that relates to specific stamps, and editor Robin Harris has listed titles of appropriate books that focus on certain stamps or sets of stamps. The Stanley Gibbons Commonwealth and British Empire Stamps 1840-1970 is very useful, and who would not be satisfied with a set of Scott Catalogues?

A title that I must extol is James Negus’ Philatelic Literature. Published in 1991, this is a classic of its kind. Negus says he was always attracted to the literature about stamps, and after “graduating to serious philately as an adult, I found that reading about stamps was quite as interesting as looking at them.” Philatelic Literature is an examination “on the writing, publishing, and indexing” of philatelic literature. It is one title that does not leave my shelf unless it is in my hands.

Winthrop S. Boggs’ Foundations of Philately is another must for collectors. This one goes back to 1955, and, even though many facets of the hobby have changed in over 50 years, it remains a wonderful handbook, especially for the beginner. It covers “every phase of collecting from the simplest principles to the details of specialization.” Another volume, and this one is a volume, is the 1990 revised publication by L.N. Williams on Fundamentals of Philately. First published in 1971, Williams’ work is thorough and exhaustive.

A.L. McCready, perhaps Canada’s greatest philatelic literature enthusiast, delivered a paper on “Canadian Philatelic Literature” to the Ottawa Philatelic Society on November 6, 1952. It is an excellent source on early philatelic publications in Canada. In closing his talk, McCready said “the collecting of philatelic literature is a fascinating hobby.”

A delightful little title published for young collectors in 1951 is L.N. and M. Williams’ Postage Stamps, a Puffin Picture Book No. 69. I picked it up at a local stamp club auction for $2. Nobody else bid. I was disappointed, but I got it for a steal of a price.

One of the disappearing acts in philatelic literature is the weekly or monthly Stamp Column in daily newspapers. Very few still exist. I wrote one for our daily for over 10 years, but it was phased out in place of wire stories that had nothing to do with stamps. In the 1930s, Ralph Kimble was praising the advent of the stamp column. He said “Now in all parts of the country the larger papers have a weekly department devoted to the interests of the stamp collecting fraternity.” He said “This “division [for stamp collecting] is yet in its infancy ... you are going to see an astounding growth.” That did indeed happen. Alas, the contemporary tone within newspaper management has missed giving philatelic news a priority. Only when what looks like a ‘big’ story comes along does the daily press get involved with philately or collectors.

This is just a sample of the significance of philatelic literature. There is so much more! Happy reading and please enhance your library every chance you get. I have found real treasures in used book stores.

Michael O. Nowlan began writing a monthly column on philatelic literature, "Philatelic Bookshelf", for Canadian Stamp News in March 1992. 24 years later, in 2016, he retired from the column, having written almost 300 of them. He died on 17 February 2021. His obituary appears in Canadian Stamp News, Vol. 45, No. 24, 16 March 2021.

Copyright © 2009 Michael O. Nolan
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