Maintaining A Cover Collection: Organization Is Everything
by John M. Hotchner
My friend Doug Quine poses this question: “One of the great challenges in philately to me is that a cover (or article) that I collect today for an interesting stamp, postmark, or usage may prove to be of interest tomorrow because of its auxiliary marking. How do you manage to seemingly have your massive collection and reprints organized in such a way that when a new item appears you instantly know when you last saw it and how many you have?”
Doug seems to think I have mastered this particular devil. But given that at least once a month I dig for something I know I have and can’t find it immediately, I’m not so sure. There are, however, processes I’ve developed to minimize the problem, and I’m happy to share them.
The first is based on the assumption that file folders are cheaper than losing things.
I’m going to use as my example for this piece my Auxiliary Markings (AM) collection. AMs are the messages usually in purple hand stamps pre-1980, and often on computer paste-ons since, that tell us why the Postal Service has not been able to handle a letter as routine — leaving it damaged, undelivered, delayed, in need of more postage, or suffering from any of dozens of other problems.
I began accumulating them in the 1970s — examples, often free or inexpensive — went into a box. No need to organize at this point. But by the late ‘80s as children began going off to college followed eventually by weddings, I could no longer afford to feed existing collections and needed something cheap to play with. Down from the shelf came that AM accumulation.
To make a long story short, over the next 15 years that box of covers developed into a Gold and Grand Award winning exhibit, the source of inspiration for many articles, and the basis for founding, with Doug’s help, the Auxiliary Markings Club.
In the process, the collection supporting the exhibit grew in volume to fill six Xerox boxes.
The exhibit began by covering the entire 100 years of the 20th century. Over ten years, the amount of material needed to illustrate the period covered dictated a reduction in scope from 100 years to 75, and then from 75 to 50, and the present form of the exhibit just covers 1900-1949.
I’m hopeful that time and health will allow for preparation one day of a parallel exhibit covering 1950-1999 delayed mail. And I have not ruled out an exhibit for 2000-2025 (by which time I will have turned 82!) The result is that I’m actively accumulating candidates for those exhibits, as well as trying to improve the existing exhibit.
If covers were the only thing to organize, store and access, the challenge would be difficult enough. But there is another dimension because there is no single reference for information about delayed and undeliverable mail. So my horde of covers is augmented by something over 2,500 clippings, articles, printouts of Post Office rules, and images of covers in other collections and from auction catalogs.
This is needed to support research to explain the covers in the collection, and practices that acted on the covers in the exhibit. And it is also essential background for my writings in Linn’s, LaPosta, and other venues, as well as to answer questions from readers.
Bottom line: This mass of material demands a high level of organization so that I can find things. How to do that? There is a process.
The first sort for incoming material, be it covers or information, is into one of four boxes labeled Pre-1900, 1900-1949, 1950-1999, and 2000+. As time permits and necessity dictates, these boxes periodically get sorted into file folders labeled by time period and for the type of delay. For example, each time period has folders for Transportation Delays, Postage Due From Sender, Postage Due From Addressee, Natural Disasters (which can be subdivided into Earthquakes, Hurricanes, and Floods) Delays, Damage in the Mails, and much more.
It may be evident that one cover or clipping could fit into more than one folder. So, in addition to fat file folders being subdivided into ever more specific categories, there is a need to cross-index by writing on the folders a note about where else to look for a specific item. An example would be “See also Suspended Mail Service” on the “War Covers” folder.
This can get to outlandish proportions as with the category of “Inability to Deliver the Mail” which for 1900-1949, where most of my work is concentrated, now subdivides into 28 subcategories including for example, “Deceased,” “No Such City in State Named,” “Signature Refused,” “Addressee Gone Away,” etc.
This system works for me, but it is not enough by itself. For 1900-1949 there is also a folder for “Candidates for the exhibit” and another for “Information to update the exhibit”.
Of course there are also other complications: Articles in progress require gathering of a group of covers and information on the desired subject into a clear plastic page protector, which goes into the appropriate “pending drafting box” for one of the nine publications to which I regularly contribute.
Those packets may take six to nine months to be translated into article form and be published. And once sent off to a publication, the pending article and its support materials go into a separate pending file. With all these places to look, is it any wonder things get “lost,” at least temporarily?
I can say with a straight face that I have a pretty good memory. I know if I have seen a marking, if I have it, and if I have information about it. And if something is not where it is supposed to be, I may or may not recall what I may have done with it, but I do generally know where else to look. It may be in the exhibit, in one of the pending files, in the primary sort box, in the current correspondence file, or (rarely) in a big box of stuff that I have declared excess and available for trade or sale.
There has even been the occasional misfile. So it comes down to this: There is no perfect system, even as there is no perfect human. But if one is willing to devote the significant amount of time to developing and using a logical system of organization, almost everything can be located because the alternative locations where it can be found are limited and defined.
So, Doug, I hope this helps you and others.