I am president of the International Society of Guatemala Collectors (ISGC). The society was founded in 1948. Its first set of handbooks took 12 years to research and publish.
But what happened to those handbooks as time went on?
Our philatelic handbooks are precious resources … but they are dead. Allow me to explain. Once upon a time, members of our specialty societies gathered knowledge from members, scoured published research and formed a team to prepare handbooks. Often taking years to research, collate and publish, these handbooks became the mainstays of philatelic research. Printing plates were prepared, and they were printed in bulk and distributed.
Sometimes these books were revised and updated, but, eventually, the original printing plates were discarded. Later, some societies reprinted books using photographic techniques.
Disorganization followed. After the initial publication of a handbook, society members wrote articles, monographs and books according to members’ special interests. Often, no effort was made to coordinate these later publications with the original handbooks. Contents and style were a mishmash.
The handbooks were published in (from left) 1969 (54 years old), 1971 (52 years old) and 1991 (32 years old).
Signs of a moribund handbook:
- Outdated and out of print.
- No overall coordination with later publications
- Poor quality illustrations (black and white?)
- Unable to update
- Missing lots of content that is now available through other sources
- Not searchable
The result? Loss of interest in collecting the subject of the handbook. Limited growth of the specialty society. A hodgepodge of publications.
Our society’s board was frustrated! We knew we had a problem, but it was a problem that affected every stamp collector.
We began with a stated desire to “update our handbook” and evolved to addressing a pressing universal challenge. In meeting after meeting updating, the handbook was mentioned… but then abandoned. It was just too hard: too big a project. We had a few volunteers, but, as president of the society, I realized that if I, personally, did not take charge and initiate the project, it would probably never be undertaken. While this gave me a lot of control over the direction of the project, it resulted in hundreds of hours of work for me over a one-year period.
The Postage Stamps of Guatemala (2008), 15 years old; Papel Sellado (1999), 24 years old; The Postal Markings of Guatemala (2007), 16 years old; Guatemala Fiscal Handbook (2000), 22 years old; Guatemalan Telegraph Stamps (1993), 29 years old.
Philosophy: accessibility, preservation, community teamwork and growth
Early on, I realized that any roadmap developed during this process, needed to be shared with all societies and stamp collectors because the need for a solution is universal to all. Any solution had to be based on principles of accessibility, preservation, community teamwork and growth.
To promote the concept of Bringing Philatelic Handbooks Back from the Dead, besides publishing a new handbook, our efforts needed to include presentations at national stamp shows; this article; an article in an upcoming Philatelic Literature Review; a video on YouTube; and web postings.
Accessibility. We intend the handbook to be available to everyone via free downloads. The software to read the handbook needed be free and readily available.
Preservation. The handbook editors will determine which of our archives will be promoted to easy public access through inclusion in the handbook. The handbook files will be preserved on multiple servers as a preservation effort.
Community teamwork. Input will be solicited from a wide range of stakeholders, from society members to casual collectors. Through community teamwork and a Wiki-like process, the handbook will become a living document. Anyone who contributes will receive mention in the handbook.
Growth. The handbook will be published initially with more than 1,100 pages and 3,500 illustrations. The board will decide the priorities moving forward. Growth will come from articles appearing in the philatelic press, articles promoted from the society’s archives, and information created especially for the handbook.
Left: A page from the Handbook of Guatemalan Philately. Right: A CZUR book scanner.
A close look at one society’s dead publications
Much of the research for our society’s first dozen handbooks took place in Guatemala and required deep searches through government documents. The major handbooks are titled “Guatemala-1,” followed by “Guatemala-2” and “Guatemala Philately – 1972-1990 issues,” often referred to as “G-3.”
The first set of handbooks shown here are hard-to-find, though are sometimes seen on eBay.
Several volumes and monographs followed, including the five shown.
To bring philatelic handbooks back to life, there are three stages to navigate.
Unedited results of using optical character recognition.
Phase I – Text capture
Capturing text from old handbooks requires scanning and the use of Optical Character Recognition (OCR) software. The scanner produces a photographic image of each page, but you will need editable text to proceed further. Shown above is an image of a page from one of the original handbooks.
This page presents several challenges to the scanning/OCR process. The font is tiny and type is blurred so that lowercase c’s look like lower case e’s. The paper is also glossy, which causes reflections that obscure the text.
The use of a book scanner is highly recommended, as page-by-page scanning using a flat-bed scanner can be laborious. The book scanners, like the CZUR scanner shown can scan open books, with rounded contour, and produce flat images. It does a laser pre-scan to model the curvature of the pages and produces flat text images. It includes OCR software to produce searchable text.
OCR produces a raw text file with LOTS of errors that will need to be manually corrected. Careful proofreading is required by multiple proofreaders. The edited text will be pasted into the desktop publishing software.
So far, we have examined how the text is captured, but what about the images? These include stamps, covers, and everything except text. One of the major advantages of publishing an electronic version of the new handbook is that high-resolution images can be captured and the reader can enlarge the scans to reveal fine detail. It is suggested to use a simple, inexpensive, flat bed scanner, like the one pictured on the next page.
Choosing the correct scan resolution from the beginnig is very important. If the resolution is too low, the reader will not be able to sufficently enlarge images. If it is set too high, the file sizes will grow to an unmanageable size. It is recommended that stamps be scanned at 600 dpi (dots per inch). The covers should be scanned at 300 dpi.
Typically, stamps are inserted into stock pages and then scanned as those shown on next page. It is impossible to insert them perfectly straight, so the images will have some crookedness or “skew” that will need to be corrected. You will need to decide on the type and color of the background. It is suggested that the background be black, to highlight the perforations, and that it be scanned with margins that can be cropped away. Cropping to the perforation tips provides stamp images that have consistent margins. Microsoft Photo does a great job of de-skewing and cropping.
Phase II - Publishing
Selecting a desktop publishing program
Once the text scans are complete and images have been de-skewed and cropped, the next step is to select a desktop publishing program. This is very important because the new handbook is about to become a living document!
Years, maybe decades, from now the new handbook will be updated electronically. Once you choose a desktop publishing program your handbook will live there. It is critical that the software publisher is still in business and supporting the application. New editors will need to get up to speed quickly, so the program should be intuitive and easy to use. For this reason, Microsoft Publisher was our preferred choice.
Some handbooks also are more like catalogs when it comes to pricing information. If valuations are provided, the post-publishing task of updating prices may become a daunting task. Consider using relative pricing, instead of absolute pricing. This allows you to state prices as multiples of the most common variety. For example, if a variety exists once in a sheet of 100 its value would be 100 times.
An alternative is to provide relative valuations for singles and multiples, used or unused. For example, in the Guatemala Handbook:
-------------- Unused --------------- ----------------Used----------------------
Single Block of 4 Single Block of 4
Catalog Number 45 5N 25N N 8 to 20N
Publishing: electronic vs hard copy
There are pros and cons of electronic publishing vs. hard copy or book publishing. Our board went round-and-round on this with some board members pressing for electronic only, print only, or, both. Since we had a society booth at the Great American Stamp Show in Sacramento, we decided to pose the question to booth visitors. The results, again, were inconclusive! In my role as editor, I created a list of pros and cons and chose electronic only.
Electronic publishing Pros Cons
Fully Searchable Some people just love books!
Full color possible Users require reader program like Adobe Acrobat Reader
Enlargement of images Computer/tablet or smart phone required
Easy to update
Internal links available to internal
Easy to create index
Inexpensive to publish
Hard copy (books) Pros Cons
Some people just love books! Expensive to print
“Search” by flipping pages Expensive to ship
Ability to jot down notes Hard to index
Hard/expensive to update
A flatbed scanner.
Distributing the new handbook
Each specialty society would need to figure out how to distribute a new electronic handbook.
On the technical side, the publication’s file format must be determined for public distribution. Microsoft Publisher will produce a proprietary “Publisher” file with a file extension of “.pub.” Most readers will not have access to Publisher as it is quite expensive.
The most common format for publicly readable use is the “.pdf” extension made popular by Adobe with its Acrobat Reader program. While Publisher can export the publication in .pdf format, Acrobat Reader Pro should probably be purchased. There are extensions to Acrobat Pro to allow for auto-indexing the publication.
Now that we know the “what” of what is to be published, the “how” of distribution needs to be considered. An internet host is needed to house the publication and make it accessible. This can be a website or an online file storage website such as a Drop Box or Microsoft One Drive.
Now comes a hard question. Who should have access to the handbook?
First, decide which is more important: 1) revenue for the society; 2) growing the awareness of the specialty within the hobby; or, a combination of the two.
The ISGC decided that growing awareness within the hobby was the priority and would itself produce revenue. By growing the awareness of Guatemala specialty within the general philatelic community, membership will also in turn increase.
The final result is that as of January 1, the society will allow anyone to download the new 1,100-plus page Stamps and Postal Stationery of Guatemala for free. Society members will receive notices of frequent updates and be able to download them. Non-members will have to wait a full year for the publication of the annual updates. The new handbook is the most complete handbook for Guatemala ever published. Readers need only upload the file from a link on www.GuatemalaStamps.com.
From left to right: an original scanned image, a de-skewed image and the final de-skewed and cropped image.
Phase III – Crowd sourcing
When a publishing date for your new electronically published handbook has been set, you may feel that you are publishing too soon; that content is still missing, and errors need to be corrected. Resist the temptation to delay publication. Remember, this is a living document and it will never be complete or perfect.
In the year following publication, you might look at the society’s internal publications, like its journal, and external sources for content to add. When you are ready it may be time to try crowd sourcing, a Wiki-like process.
The editors of the new handbook are responsible for soliciting new content and selecting which new information to add. What better way to find new content than by going back to the society’s membership? Ask your members to closely review your already-published handbook and examine their collections and research for:
- Items missing from the handbook.
- Better quality scans.
- Information to supplement what has already been published.
The ISGC set up a special email account – [email protected] – to collect this crowd-sourced input. Contributors can be acknowledged in the handbook.
Into the future
The ISGC handbook is a compilation of the three major publications: G1, G-2 and G-3. It covers the stamps and postal stationery of Guatemala. In the future, the monographs will be compiled into another electronic volume covering postal history, postmarks, first flights, railroad post routes, routes and rates, and revenues.
Reviving philatelic handbooks is no small task. It will surely occupy hundreds of hours and require the active participation of many individuals. One benefit I forgot to mention to this process: increasing the awareness and popularity of a specialty is likely to increase the value of your society members’ collections.
If you need advice on resurrecting your society’s handbook, feel free to contact [email protected].
Michael Bloom started collecting stamps at age 10 and he has never stopped. He recently finished a six-year term as a Director of the American Philatelic Society and was a member of APS’s Campaign for Philately. He has served on the APS Membership Committee and as chair of the APS Education Committee. His newly found freedom led him to become an Apprentice Judge. Michael’s current philatelic interests include collecting Latvia and Guatemala. He is co-author of the book The Municipal Revenue Stamps of Latvia: 1883 to 1945 and editor of the upcoming handbook The Postage Stamps and Postal Stationery of Guatemala (January 2023). Michael is president of the International Society of Guatemala Collectors and is on the board of the PIPEX show in Portland, Oregon. At World Stamp Show New York 2016 he was on the Organizing Committee and designed and implemented the Welcome to Stamp Collecting Pavilion. He will do the same at Boston World Stamp Show 2026. Michael believes that we owe it to future generations to keep stamp collecting alive by making research and writing accessible, in other words, by bringing philatelic handbooks back from the dead.