Friday, May 24, 2013

The Case of the Mysterious Stamp Collection

A medical librarian friend of mine recently began clearing out some of the supply cabinets at her library. Deep in the recesses of a drawer, she came across a plastic note card box, filled with small envelopes. Each had a number written on them: 3.55, 1.97, 15.84. Looking inside one envelope, she found that they were filled with postage stamps, ranging in denominations from 1 cent to several dollars. With the advent of postage meters and the introduction of the "forever" stamp, her library had stopped using postage stamps to mail inter-library loan materials, and the varied collection had been forgotten.

And yet, she certainly didn't want to throw them away. They retained their worth and could still be used, of course, but they also held an intrinsic value, especially the oddball ones; the ones that looked old or unique. Of course, my friend knew she hadn't stumbled upon her retirement fund, but the stamps were far too interesting to just shove back into a drawer.

National Letter
Writing Week
She then contacted me, since medical libraries don't generally carry stamp identification books. At C-SPL, we carry the "Scott Standard Postage Stamp Catalog" and the U.S. Postal Service's "The Postal Service Guide to U.S. Stamps." The bulk of the multi-volume Scott Catalog is devoted to stamps issued by other countries, and is intended for collectors looking to put a retail value on their stamps. The USPS guide gives retail prices as well, along with an index and color photos. Unfortunately, neither catalog was of much help in identification, since I didn't know the year the stamps were issued in.

Fortunately, this isn't the first time we've needed to identify something odd with very few clues. In this case, a reverse Google Image search seemed to be the best method. After scanning and uploading the images, I found the website Arago: People, Postage and The Post, the online database of the Smithsonian National Postal Museum.

Named after French physicist, astronomer and politician, François Arago (1786-1853), the website has information and resources for amateurs and avid collectors (philatelists) alike, and I was able to identify all the stamps in question. The above "ink & quill" stamp was issued in 1977, as part of the Americana Issue series. I found several from the same collection, including a stamp issued in commemoration of the 700th anniversary of the founding of Switzerland and another issued in 1982 on the 100th anniversary of Franklin D. Roosevelt's birth. I - and my medical librarian friend- were thrilled!

Blanche Stuart Scott
While some might raise an eyebrow to our excitement, collecting things - be they stamps, figurines, dolls or bread clips - is something nearly everyone does, though some to a greater degree than others. When interest crosses over to obsession, however, things can get ugly. Many books have been written (and TV show made) about collectors and collecting, from research into why we collect, to the world's most famous collections and to accounts of collecting gone terribly wrong. Click here for a list of books and DVDs on the subject that you can borrow from our collection. (Just please bring them back; we're a little compulsive about that!)

~ Allison, Adult Services


  1. Brilliant! Collecting is great, especially when it's in some kind of order. It's wonderful that the public library has these materials, and that the librarians know how to use them. They know everything!

  2. What a great blog posting! Creative and smart. And unexpected. Shows this library has some great staff.

  3. Thanks you both! Spontaneous research projects are always the most fun!