The National Postal Museum has been working closely with the Smithsonian Digitization Program Office this past summer, preparing one of our international specialized collections, the Sidney N. Shure Collection, for a Rapid Capture digitization project. We have almost 100 albums in this collection of Palestinian, Israeli and Jordanian stamps and covers mounted on album pages. With each album averaging 50 pages needing to be numbered, catalogued and entered into our collection database, The Museum System (TMS), we had a lot of work!
As a preservation specialist, I usually work with artifacts after all of their cataloguing is completed, so I was excited to take a few steps back into the life of an accessioned artifact and help in this process.
In order to catalogue an artifact we need to be able to describe it as accurately as possible. Artifacts have their own stories; our registrar keeps files detailing their provenance, including original Deeds of Gift, conservation treatments records, loan information, and any other paperwork pertaining to that accession. Some artifacts have robust files which make cataloguing easier, while other files need some additional research before we can catalogue the objects. The Sidney N. Shure Collection was donated to the museum over a period of several years, which means we had several accession files to check before we could catalogue the albums. And while these particular accession files were fairly complete, there was some missing information – the Scott Catalogue numbers, especially – about the artifacts that we wanted to fill in.
One thing that is helpful about working with stamps is that most of them are already pre-catalogued for collectors in what are called postage stamp catalogues. At NPM we primarily use Scott Catalogue but there are many others such as Stanley Gibbons and Michel. In addition to owning your own hard copy, most catalogues are available online or at your local library.
The Scott Catalogue is actually a series of volumes that lists every stamp ever made from all over the world, alphabetically by country. Under each country is a brief biography along with a pronunciation code which is quite helpful and fun if you are working with unfamiliar names and are a geography junkie! Philatelists also use the Catalogue to research how much a stamp is worth as the price for an unused stamp is also noted in the listings.
Each stamp is then organized by 11 descriptors such as date of issue, illustration number, denomination and color. The illustration number correlates to the actual design of the stamp, minus the denomination and color, and a photographic example of each design is on the page as a guide.
Once you have the illustration number, you may just need to know the denomination and color to make a match, although color names can be a little tricky if you are not familiar with printing ink… Did you know that bister is a greyish yellow hue as well as a pigment derived from beechwood soot?
Scott Numbers are helpful because they are unique to each stamp. For this project where we are trying to efficiently catalogue hundreds of album pages, it has been quite beneficial to be able to capture information by using a Scott Number instead of having to write out a full description of every stamp. Check out the newly imaged stamps on the Collections Search Center in the next few weeks!
About the Author
Manda Kowalczyk: "After graduating with a BA in Arts and Culture, I began working in the Preservation Department in 2004 assisting with conservation treatments, rehousing, courier trips and exhibitions. I also serve as the museum’s Safety Coordinator by collaborating with staff to ensure exhibit and staff areas are safe for all!"