Postal history lives on in Bellefonte research library

This article originally appeared in the Centre Daily Times, April 29, 2017, and is reposted here with permission.

By Frank Ready (photos by Phoebe Sheehan/Centre Daily Times)

You could hear a pin drop.

One would not necessarily expect to find a preponderance of pins in the American Philatelic Research Library, but nevertheless, it’s nice to know that the option is out there.

Silence may be preferred among some of your finer book repositories, but at the American Philatelic Research Library, the waste of perfectly good acoustics probably had less to do with decorum than the realities of mid-morning foot traffic on a Tuesday in Bellefonte.

There was one visitor wandering the first of the postal facility’s two floors, a maze of towering bookshelves and rectangular research tables tucked way in the back of the refurbished Match Factory.

Navigation duties had fallen to Scott Tiffney, one of the library’s five regular staff members. It wasn’t an unusual scenario, just atypically executed.

The majority of the 1,500 to 2,000 research requests that Tiffney estimates the library receives each year are made remotely, either over the phone or via email.

It saves on stamps.

“I’m currently working on a request from Paris and another request from a gentleman in Germany,” Tiffney said.

Which begs the question, in this age of instantaneous global communication, exactly how big does a postal research library need to be in order to catch the attention of the international philatelic community?

To arrive at an exact estimate, you’d of course have to factor in the facility’s collection of 85,000 volumes, the shelves and shelves of books populated by titles collapsing into one another like a Russian nesting doll, plus an assortment of envelopes that came to and from Bellefonte during the 1800s.

“This is, we believe, the largest one in the world,” Director of Information Services Tara Murray said.

So pretty big, then.

A lot of that heft has to do with the density of the subject matter, a nexus for different disciplines that just so happen to have yielded a lot of novelty stamps.

“I find that people who collect are interested in history and art and science,” Murray said.

According to Murray, the bulk of the library’s postal-related volumes and memorabilia came by the way of private collectors, including a hand-drawn map of the postal routes that ran through the original 13 colonies.

Her clientele ranges from the mildly curious to the scholarly to the kind of folks who pack overnight bags.

“One of the things we do here is help people however they enjoy collecting,” Murray said.

Gary Loew belongs to the overnight bag crowd. A postal historian based out of Atlanta, he said that his story is not uncommon among philatelists — boy discovers stamps, boy discovers girls, boy misses stamps.

Where others might look at an envelope and see an antique, Loew is able to discern historical footprints — cycles of economic development, trends in communication or the progress of war.

“Postal history can really tell a story about how (envelopes) started, where they ended up and how they got in between,” Loew said.

He’s visited the research library in Bellefonte several times over the years to consult journals or etch out chapters for a new book.

Aside from the obvious perk of having knowledgeable staff at his disposal to help with research, Loew’s appreciation for the establishment is rooted primarily in good old-fashioned team pride.

“I think it speaks a lot about the hobby and its place in society,” Loew said.

Postage stamp catalogs are lined up on shelves at the American Philatelic Society Library in Bellefonte.