How Has the Internet Helped or Hurt the Hobby?

By Donald Sundman

\"danols\"Sundman is president of the largest stamp dealer in the U.S., Mystic Stamp Company, and chairman of the Smithsonian National Postal Museum’s Council of Philatelists. In 2005, he traded America’s rarest stamp, the 1868 1¢ Z Grill, for the 1918 Jenny Invert Plate-Block Number — an epic exchange that made philatelic history. Today, he’s captivated by Civil War covers.

While stamp collecting is a practice founded in paper, gum, ink — and messages carried by hand — hobbyists have had to adapt to an ever-digitized world. The collecting community has been slow to come online, in part because our core audience didn’t grow up plugged in, and yet the hobby has taken new, broader shape in the digital sphere.

In this shift, most of the changes have been to the obvious advantage of the collector: He or she can connect with hobbyists, dealers, and auctioneers from all over the world. The websites of stamp clubs and societies, like the American Philatelic Society, and publications like Linn’s Stamp News, are vast warehouses of information both historic and very new. Collectors in the U.S. can bid on stamps at auction in London or Berlin (and small dealers with strong sites can contend with larger dealers). The web is the world’s largest library benefiting the collector.

Yet in this philatelic frontier, there are a few pitfalls. Some auction sites can be a bit of a Wild West: Sellers may or may not know what they’re really selling, and stamps might be misidentified or wrongly described to fool the buyer. Collectors can skirt these concerns by buying from dealers who allow a window of time to examine stamps before deciding to keep or ship them back (this practice lends the added benefit of seeing stamps in the light of one’s home, with the collector’s own magnifying glass and tongs, without pressure). Collectors can also look for stamps that have been certified by the Philatelic Foundation, or search the stock of the many reputable dealers who belong to the American Stamp Dealers Association. And for the most part, these sites comprise a great marketplace, not unlike a virtual flea market, and they score by simply introducing more people to stamps.

While the digital surge has breathed new life into the hobby, other corners have been dampened, including a few long-standing traditions. Some hobbyist print publications and small stamp shows have been snuffed out. (Big international events, on the other hand, like the already anticipated New York 2016 show, still offer opportunity that not even the web can rival, it seems.) Perhaps most hurtful, the digital world delivers so many diversions — social media, online gaming, and the like — that crowd out activities such as stamp collecting, especially for young people.

In the end, collectors still value the time-honored, tactile ways of buying stamps: stamp shows, catalogs, price lists, and phone calls. The community has its own oral tradition, with collectors who have spent decades observing stamps — and acquiring stories that surface in conversation with other hobbyists. Digital images cannot replace the excitement a collector feels handling his or her stamps, looking at them, and admiring the handsome history of those small pieces of paper.(source-uspsstamps.com)

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