You can fit an entire story on a piece of paper the size of your thumb.
At the American Philatelic Society in Bellefonte, which celebrated its grand opening on Saturday, those stories fill the 19,000-square-foot library off Willowbank Road. The world’s largest philatelic library brims with about 85,000 volumes dedicated to the history found in stamps and the postal service.
But sheer size doesn’t tell the whole story. In each tiny postage stamp, there’s more to know.
“What’s fun about working here in the library is that when people are researching their stamp collection or their postal history collection, they’re touching on geography, political history, art and design, transportation, military history,” said Tara Murray, the society’s librarian and director of information services. “They say you learn a lot of culture and geography through stamp collecting, and I really see that here.”
Ken Martin, the society’s COO, agrees. Behind a pair of glasses and a Cheshire Cat grin, he says stamps can tell you how nationalism takes root, how wars were won or how businesses, even in the age of email, separate themselves from the pack.
Among the stacks of the Bellefonte gem, the pair sat down to discuss both the past and the future of postage. Excerpts have been edited for content.
Q: Tara, you mentioned you were fairly new to stamps when you started here in 2010. What surprised you about stamps and postage?
TM: I knew there was a big library here and research was a big part of it, but I think it surprised me how into research a lot of stamp collectors get. The whole second floor of the library are journals. The neat thing about Saturday from a librarian’s perspective is that people weren’t just here to see this beautiful facility, the ribbon-cutting, or to mingle with the VIPs in attendance.
Q: My mailbox isn’t as full as my inbox. Where is the future of postage heading?
KM: While the first class mail volume is decreasing a little bit, even with email and everything else, if you have purchases on a website, they still have to get to you somehow. In fact many of the packages sent by FedEx or UPS go most of the way and then they’re turned over to the U.S. Postal Service to deliver. For companies like Amazon to exist, they need the U.S. Postal Service.
Q: Stamps have been used as an extension of political power. What are some examples?
KM: A stamp program is normally a reflection of a country’s heritage and culture. In some governments, maybe the dictator has control. In Nazi Germany, for instance, Hitler was on most of the stamps. Stamps have been used for propaganda in many cases by countries.
Q: In business sense, how do companies harness direct mail to help the bottom line?
TM: Across the board, I think companies and nonprofits are kind of seeing a return to direct mail marketing because people get so much electronic communication and so much junk, and the volume mail has decreased. So a direct mail piece can stand out a bit more. And for smaller volumes, if you see a handwritten address and a stamp, even if it turns out to be promotional, people are more likely to open it.
KM: I agree with that. I think there’s a long way away from elimination of mail. A thank-you note or a birthday card — yeah you can send it via email. But there’s still a market for the real thing.