Saving a Dying Hobby: Scott Catalog to the Rescue!

From 1982 to 2007, the average age of the stamp collecting population (at least the subset of collectors belonging to the APS) increased by 19 years. In 2007, the average age of collectors was 63. That increase should be alarming. Very few new collectors are entering the hobby. At the current rate, the hobby will die soon, unless we make a concerted effort to save it.

There’s lots that could be done to make the hobby relevant to a younger generation. This has nothing to do with trying to make philately seem “hip” or “with it” or “cool” because such attempts are always obvious to the target audience and inevitably make one look stupid. Instead, we should be asking what the barriers are that prevent that prevent new philatelists from enjoying the hobby to the fullest.

Such obstacles may be invisible to long-term collectors. Part of the fun of stamp collecting is knowing the value of the stamps in one’s collection, but how do you know what a stamp is worth? In the USA and Canada, the values are set by the Scott Catalog. The current catalogs weighs in at 6 volumes, is over 5000 pages and will set you back $599.94 if you buy it on Amazon. If you want to stay current, you have to buy the new edition every year. How welcoming is that to the new collector? That pretty much excludes everyone but the hardcore collectors and dealers from knowing the current value of their collection. Personally, I’m using a 2005 set that I picked up used. I figure it gives me a ballpark value that’s good enough for now.

It doesn’t have to be this way, though. All these values could go online and be made available for a modest subscription fee. It could be so much more than just an online version of the paper catalog, though. Facial recognition software is becoming prevalent, and is affordable enough to include in cheap applications like iPhoto. Faces are far more complex than postage stamps. An application could be written for  whereby one could scan a stamp. The stamp would be instantly identified. The user would find out where and when it was published and the stamp’s current value. It could even link to the Wikipedia entry that relates to the content of the stamp. All this could be put into an app on a smart phone, so the user wouldn’t have to be tied to a computer to use it.

The limitations of such an application could be used as a “teachable moment.” With current technologies, the identification it provided would be a best guess. It would be able to identify the stamp, but not necessarily the condition, perforation, or grille. But when it encountered such things, it could offer guides that would teach the user how to make such distinctions.

Such an app could also be used to create a catalog of one’s collection, to keep track of what you have and to know what it’s current value is. It could alert you when values change, and present you with graphs of your progress. It would get rid of the drudge work of keeping track of all that and make it a dynamic and exciting process.

It could also be a tool for trading. You’d scan in your collection, including multiples. You’d set the status of as many of these multiples to “Offering.” Meanwhile, the application would be able to identify the gaps in your collection, such as the stamps you need to finish a set or complete a year. You’d set these to “Want.” You’d receive an alert when a match occurred and it would be up to you to make the trade. The trade would be tied into the value of the stamps, so both parties would be assured of a fair trade. Starting out you’d be limited to trades of low value. For each trade you made, however, you’d earn “trustworthiness” points. The higher your rating, the higher the value of the trade.

All this would be fairly simple with current technology. It would make philately more approachable and exciting for new collectors while providing valuable tools for more experienced collectors. Subscription fees could be kept low while providing Scott with increased revenue. The expensive part, gathering the data and setting the values, is already done, so it’s a matter of leveraging that data into a new medium. That medium doesn’t have the expense of physically producing a 6-volume set of books. It wouldn’t cannibalize the existing market for the print catalog because the average collector isn’t buying it anyway. It’d be a win for Scott and a win for philately.

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