Turning a Stamp Album into a Book

It was in the lounge of our house in Singapore in the 1950s that my father took me through some of the pages of his album. I was about 7 or 8, and it’s my earliest recollection of stamps. Some big ones made particular impressions –  two portraying Spanish Galleons, one of a long grey one of a man, and a red one with a star.


A few years later I started collecting stamps myself. I wasn’t an avid collector, but the various accoutrements of my collection – albums (stick-in and stock books), tweezers, country envelopes, tatty envelopes full of stamps on paper waiting to be soaked off – had always been with me from those early days. It was something I did from time to time – a tactile and gentle pursuit – as had hundreds of thousands of like-minded collectors for well over a hundred years.

Sometime in the 1990s, when my father was getting on a bit, he gave me his stamp albums – including that one he had showed me in the lounge in Singapore all those years ago. I didn’t do much with that Meteor album for several years; but, as retirement approached in 2012, a germ of an idea started to formulate. The album wasn’t full by any means but it did contain a substantial number of stamps across about 30 countries. My father had always produced beautiful handwriting, and he had written the name of the relevant country in black ink and capital letters at the top of each page as in the example below.

I decided I would discard pages without a country name and would try and completely fill all the pages that remained in the album, unconstrained by date order, or whole or part sets, or whether they were mint or used; but guided by the eras of the existing stamps. I made one exception to this goal: Italy was particularly well endowed with stamps, so I decided to use the spare untitled pages to collect all Italian stamps produced up to 1980 as defined in the 1997 Stanley Gibbons Simplified Catalogue. I perhaps didn’t quite realise at the time how ambitious this might be, though, in my defence, I may have casually thought that it wouldn’t matter if some of the more expensive items were simply missed out (a seriously unrealistic misjudgement….). Anyway, once full, the album would then become a kind of memorial of my father and his stamp collecting and his immaculate writing. I could round it off with a page at the beginning describing how he collected stamps and inspired me to do so, and including some photos of him at various stages of his life.

I duly gathered together the pages with country headings, moved stamps on untitled pages, and set about finding stamps to fill the gaps. Having this goal inspired me to attend stamp fairs, and to start buying auction lots; and by about 2017 I’d completed 14 of the 33 countries; but I was starting to realise that it was going to be a big – and expensive – job to acquire the whole of Italy up to 1980.

It was also in 2017 that my second grandchild was born and I was beginning to wonder whether I, like my father, would be able to pass on my stamp collection to one or both of them. I knew that none of my own children were in the slightest bit interested in stamps; so, the grandchildren were probably the last port of call. However, there could be no guarantee that they would be interested either; and, in any case, what would happen if they both became collectors? How could I choose which one to give their great-grandfather’s album to? I ruminated on this conundrum as I continued to add to the album.

Sometime during the following few years, I decided to augment the burgeoning album with the catalogue entries for the stamps it contained (something I’d already done successfully in my Great Britain album by simply cutting out the relevant parts of pages from the ‘Collect British Stamps’ catalogue). I reasoned that the information associated with the issuance of stamps – whether to commemorate a person or event, or to indicate what reign of a monarch it took place in – was not only useful to manage the collection, but also interesting, perhaps even educational, even for those not generally interested in stamp collecting; and that the relative values of different stamps attest to the scarcity and desirability of the more valuable items. All this information would surely make the album that much more interesting to its potential future owners. To enable the reader to match a stamp to its catalogue entry would simply require that the relevant catalogue number was written next to each stamp.

I started with the Italian collection and placed cut-outs or photocopies of the relevant catalogue entries onto the relevant pages.

When it came to the other countries, though, I realised this wouldn’t work because, not being constrained to stamps from consecutive dates or sets, meant that there was just too extensive a range of catalogue entries to include. So, for those pages, I elected to scan the relevant catalogue pages and to cut and paste the entries relevant to a particular album page onto a single page using the PowerPoint software package (the blue highlights in the example below indicate which stamps are included in the album).

My plan was to print these pages out and to attach them to the inside back cover of the album so that the relevant page could be turned out to the right of the album and be visible when a particular album page was being looked at. I was confident that I could achieve this at the bookbinding classes I’d been attending for 5 years or so. I duly acquired two old 1999 and 2000 Simplified Catalogues for the non-Italian countries for about a fiver each on ebay (shown below) and set about assembling the catalogue entries for each country and labelling each stamp in the album.

In 2020, I had won an auction lot of a single album dedicated to Italian stamps including many of the more valuable earlier items. This made substantial inroads into my Italian Wants list.  It had cost me £380 – about double the amount I usually invested in an auction lot; but, after removing the stamps I needed, I was able to break up the contents and sell them for around £200 overall – an excellent defrayment of the original cost.

2020 was also the year I decided I would self-publish a book about my IT experiences over the previous 50 years, using an internet-based company called Blurb. The resulting 8×10 inch hardback with 440 glossy pages, lots of colour photos and images, and a glossy, full colour, wrap-around dust jacket initiated another germ of an idea. I realised that I could scan the pages of the filled Meteor album and include them in a Blurb-produced book. I could have two copies of the book produced, so that I could give one to each grandchild at some point. It wouldn’t matter if they marked or tore them, or damaged them in any way, as the digital version would always be available to produce new copies if necessary. There would be no concerns about damaging or losing valuable stamps, or of the album being sold off by young adults eager to release funds (a possibility perceived by my own youthful short-sightedness); and I could have a copy myself, secure in the knowledge that, if my collection was stolen at any time, or destroyed in a fire or random act of god, I would still have the book to look at and enjoy.

With these ideas firmed up and cemented in my mind, I set out with renewed vigour to complete the non-Italian countries, and to start acquiring the more expensive Italian stamps (by that point I’d decided it had to be ALL the Italian stamps to 1980). Ebay was my main source for this material, though I did get some stamps from eBid and Hipstamp. Using all these sites, I soon completed all but two of the non-Italian countries, and started to home in on the remaining Italian wants. It soon became apparent to me that the more expensive stamps could be purchased for a wide range of prices. This was partly due to varying quality but was also related to how quickly individuals or dealers wanted to realise their cash. I started to scour eBay regularly looking for bargain ‘Buy-it-Nows’ or low starting prices. I eventually came across Kilowareman – an unusual operation based in the Netherlands which appeared to have an unlimited supply of ex-dealer’s stock and which published dozens of new lots on ebay every day with a standard starting price of 1 Euro regardless of value, including many of the Italian stamps I wanted. I bought several of the high value stamps I needed from Kilowareman, and was never disappointed; despite a standard £1.50 postage cost to anywhere in Europe, they always arrived safely about a week after the auction in a cellophane packet attached to a page inscribed ‘greetings from Kilowareman’ inside a simple envelope. On one extraordinary occasion I won a lot of 7 overprinted stamps with a catalogue value of several thousand pounds (at 2020 values) with a bid of £54 which I submitted in the last few seconds of the auction while having a post-competition lunch at a golf club.

Common sense would say that they must be fakes – but they didn’t look any different from the real thing and I wasn’t going to start detailed investigations to determine if they were genuine or not. They would look fine in my father’s album; and, in any case, I reasoned that, if KIlowareman was selling bulk lots of ex-dealer’s stocks, then the original dealers would have had to be taken in as well or simply not have marked the items as of doubtful provenance – which was possible but perhaps a little unlikely. Well, that was my rationale for happily paying far less than catalogue value for the more expensive stamps.

By early 2022, I was very close to completing the whole collection with just 3 Italian stamps to get. One of the Italian stamps was specified as a 10 cent stamp in the Stanley Gibbons Simplified album, however, all my trawlings and investigations led me to believe it was a 40 cent stamp (which I did have). So, I emailed the Stanley Gibbons Catalogue Department and asked if this was the case. On 19th January I received the answer – it was indeed a long-standing misprint – reminding me that you can never be absolutely sure that anything in print or on the internet is correct: reader beware!

On the same day I bought one of the other two outstanding items in HipStamp, leaving me with a last remaining gap for PL650, a 30 cent blue Italian Parcel Post stamp from 1945. Not the most expensive Italian stamp according to Stanley Gibbons (£39 mint, £31 used), but the most elusive in my experience.  I finally found it a week later by searching an Italian Dealer’s items on eBay using the Italian word for parcel – ‘pacchi’. I’d missed this previously because, for some unknown reason, searches using the English equivalent, ‘parcel’, didn’t produce any hits – despite the word parcel being displayed in the title of the lot – ‘1945 Lieutenancy Parcel Post 30 Cent MNH’. However, all became clear when I got confirmation of my order from ebay: The actual title was, ‘1945 LUOGOTENENZA PACCHI POSTALI 60 CENT MNH’, and the title I’d been shown must have been an automatic translation which was not used in the search algorithm. It was a timely reminder that internet searching is not an exact science, and that some thought and perseverance may be required to find what you want.

By this time, I had started to explore how I would construct the book using Blurb’s BookWright software. I decided that there were too many stamps to include in a single album, so I bought another album just like the one my father had given me, on eBay. I then had one album for the Italian stamps and one for all the other countries.

Next, I turned to the practicalities of assembling the album pages in Blurb’s publishing programme – particularly the following:

  • Ensuring the stamps would be reproduced in actual size: The scan of a whole album page was too big for the book page, so when importing the scan to a Blurb page the system automatically resized it to fit thereby producing smaller than actual sizes of the stamps. To avoid this, I needed to crop the image before importing it; so, I created an overlay which lay on the scanner platen and on which the album page was layed. The outline of the overlay in the resulting scan was where the image would be cropped. Using this approach, and after some trial and error, I got the sizes of the stamps in the imported images in the book to be pretty much actual size.
  • Getting the composite catalogue pages in shape: The four-column format I’d used to construct the composite catalogue pages for each country was based on them fitting into the back of the meteor album. However, as I’d already discovered with the album pages, the Blurb book pages were smaller, and I realised I would have to rejig the country catalogue pages to a three-column format. This wasn’t too difficult using Powerpoint, and I exported the resulting images in png format ready for inclusion in the book. There was one issue – Blurb alerts warned me that the resolution of these images were ‘lower than that which Blurb recommends for great print quality’. This despite me scanning the catalogue pages at a very high resolution. I think resolution deteriorated through the various stages of cutting and pasting elements of the overall page.  Anyway, they were readable when I printed them out from PowerPoint, so I hoped they’d still be readable in the Blurb book, and indeed it turned out that they were.
  • Positions, sizes and colours of page numbers and running headers: I decided to provide a standard header on each page consisting of country name and date range of the stamps on the page, for example, ‘Ceylon, 1886 – 1926’. These would be placed in bold red 10 pt Times New Roman font at the top of each page, on the left side of the left-hand pages and on the right side of the right-hand pages. For page numbers, I used the standard Blurb function to place them in similar positions to the headers but at the bottom of the page, using bold black 10 pt Arial font. I realised that some of the page numbers might be obscured by the black surround of some album pages – but decided I would deal with that once I’d got everything in place.

With all these preparations complete, I started assembling the contents of the book on the 1st February. It took roughly 100 hours over a 17-day period to scan all 169 album pages, check all the catalogue images against each scanned album page, and to insert both album page scan and relevant catalogue image into the BookWright application. Conveniently, the last stamp I was waiting for to complete the album arrived on the penultimate day of scanning after a 30-day journey from Italy. I had been waiting for it for three weeks before messaging the vendor, Fisicol (an Italian dealer using the Hipstamp site), asking when I could expect it, and he advised that it often took three or four weeks; and sure enough it arrived a week later. Shortly after setting the status to ‘Received’ and providing feedback, I received the following memorable message from Fisical:

I duly placed this, the last of the two thousand and forty seven Italian stamps, with some sense of achievement, into the Concessional Parcel Post section of the Italian collection, replacing the single left-hand version for which I had been unable to obtain a right-hand partner. The whole collection totalled 4084 stamps dated between 1860 and 1980, from 33 countries.

After some final tidying and checking of the whole volume in Bookwright, I sent the book for printing at a cost of £81 a copy. I now have three copies of a beautiful, glossy, 274-page, book containing an introduction and both albums – one for myself and one set aside for each for my two grandchildren which I shall give them when they are a little bit older.

I also have a PDF version on my laptop, my tablet, and my phone; and an eBook version if I need it. In addition to their portability, these electronic versions have another advantage – the images of the fronts of individual stamps can be significantly enlarged should there be a desire to inspect them more closely.

Oh, and, by the way, I did succeed in using Word’s BOOK FOLD function to print out two folios of catalogue pages which I stitched together and fixed into the back of the other countries album as shown below.

Self-publishing a Photobook

To get an idea of the possibilities for photobooks, just take a look at the Blurb bookstore; there’s a huge diversity of subject matter, and the books look great. It’s clear that anyone who has a passion can create a permanent record which will sit handsomely on a bookshelf for around the cost of a meal out or less. Furthermore, authors can elect to sell their book in the Blurb bookstore and/or through Amazon; and they can specify how much money they want to make on the sale of each copy. Blurb will keep track of sales and remit the income due to the author each month.

I’d already had a go back in 2012 – but with a service designed more for the presentation of photographs rather than discursive text. The result was pleasing but not brilliant. I’d heard there were more appropriate online printing operations – and I determined to try one out sometime. My opportunity came last summer when I decided that I might have more success finding a permanent repository for my work document collection, if I had a book of memorable experiences based on the contents of the documents. I decided to use the Blurb service for no better reason than I’d had a brief look at it a few years ago after seeing it get a good rating in a review of self publishing services. There are many other such services available on the net today and I don’t know how they currently compare to Blurb.  You should check them out.

I decided that my book would consist of one page write ups of particular events, each one accompanied by a page of images. I opted to create the text first in Microsoft Word and then to decide what images to include when I imported each piece of text into Blurb’s BookWright page layout package.

I started writing the text in September 2019. It was mostly done by the end of January 2020, at which point I downloaded the BookWright software. Although it took a bit of getting used to, it wasn’t too difficult, and I found the functionality quite good. There were a couple of minor problems: first, the software closed abruptly, without notice, five or six times – but each time it fired up again and opened up the book’s contents successfully without having lost any data. Second, typing was sometimes slow to reproduce on screen. Exchanges with Blurb Support suggested it was due to a lack of virtual memory – which didn’t surprise me because I was using Word, Excel, Powerpoint, Filemaker, and a PDF package all at once to create the contents while I was using BookWright. Closing some of these seemed to resolve the issue.

The biggest issue I faced was with the resolution of the images I was including. The Blurb Help files warn against grainy, blurry or pixelated images, but, of course, you can only be absolutely sure you have avoided this pitfall when you get the printed book. BookWright itself provides a warning when it thinks an image will not be up to standard (which typically occurred when I was trying to expand an image to make it easily readable or to fill a page). I took notice of these warnings and either made the image smaller or found a way of increasing its resolution. I achieved the latter by either rescanning a physical document at a higher resolution, or printing out an electronic document in high quality and then scanning at a high resolution. Although these two approaches did seem to improve the quality of many of the images, they also substantially increased the file size of the book (about 4.2Gb at that point). A search on the net about the size of BookWright files, reassured me that uploads of that size and more were not unusual – but I did discover that eBooks cannot be produced for files over 2Gb. I also discovered – rather too late in the day – the BookWright advice to use the png lossless format in preference to jpg. I guess this just highlights the fact that I really don’t know too much image formats and resolutions. Nevertheless, most of the images seemed to turn out OK in the finished book. The key seems to keep image sizes below the threshold of the BookWright warning messages.

I had 195 separate stories, so there was at least one image to find and import for each one – and, in some cases, several images. It was a long haul and took me until the 19th March before I’d finished the first pass through in BookWright, and could start the final edit.

I’d elected to subdivide the stories into nineteen short stories – each one labelled with an icon comprising a unique set of different shapes and including the page number of the next story. The idea was that readers of a particular short story could find the next instalment at the specified page number. The page numbers went into the Contents list, and into the icons, on 27th March, and then it was onto creating the dust jacket and doing final checks.

On 30th March, I was ready to submit the 4.75Gb file using Blurb’s Upload facility. First the system ‘rendered’ the file down to 492Mb; and then it did the Upload. The whole process took about 37 minutes. I was all set to order a copy, but found that the discount code I’d planned to use, didn’t work. I searched the Blurb site and the net for 45 minutes and tried lots of codes – but none were current. I decided to wait – the full price of £103.59 was too much to ignore the possibility of a substantial reduction. It was worth the wait – on 1st April Blurb advertised a 41% discount code, so I paid the overall cost of £73.70 (which included a £2.99 PDF copy, £8.99 delivery, and 60p tax), and was told to expect delivery by 14th April.

The book arrived around 9am on 7th April. It exceeded my expectations, with a bold glossy cover, glossy pages, clear text, and bright images. I spent the rest of the day checking each page noting the corrections needed; and then the next two days making final changes. On the morning of 10th April, I did a final preview of the book and this turned up about a dozen further changes. At around 3.30pm I started the Upload process. The system took about 10 minutes to render the 5Gb file down to 496Kb; and a further 27 minutes to upload it.

Putting the book into the bookstore was not particularly difficult – but it did take a little time. There was a book description to write, categories to select, and keywords to specify. Then I had to decide how much profit I wanted to add onto the price of the book; and finally there was the specification of which pages I wanted people to see in the preview. I completed the whole business by around 5.30pm – glad to be able to take a break from the perishing book.

Overall, I’ve found it to be a very effective and satisfying experience. It has been a long and demanding exercise – but that was to be expected with a 438 page book of this nature. I elected to produce a photobook on 118gsm standard semi-matte high quality paper – however, I’ve no reason to suppose that the results couldn’t be commensurately as good for the other types of book and paper that Blurb offers. The BookWright software provides very flexible text options and layout capabilities, and seems to be able to handle images very well; and the bookstore facility provides a ready made distribution channel for the finished books.

However, there is one aspect that needs to be borne in mind. The price of a print-on-demand book is inevitably going to be greater than the price of mass produced books in a physical bookshop. Blurb books give absolute control to the author – but may price the book out of the market. There are volume discounts to be had – but the demand for a bulk lot has to be created by the author. When authors get publishing deals they do, indeed, cede much power to the publishers; but, in return, the publishers establish markets for the books and keep their prices down. This trade off becomes particularly apparent for large glossy books such as the one I have created. It is far less so for softback books with many fewer pages and of lower quality paper, of which many examples can be found on the Blurb bookstore.

Of course, these price concerns are of little consequence if all you are trying to do is to exploit some of the artefacts that you possess and make them visible. My experience with Blurb – and the huge range of examples in the Blurb bookstore – shows that using a self-publishing service provides ample opportunity to use your creativity and artefacts to bring to life your memories, ideas and passions.

Oh, and the book I created? Well here’s the cover. Clicking it will take you to the Blurb bookstore where some of its contents can be previewed.

Portfolio boxes for physical objects

This is an example of how the construction of a multi-purpose portfolio case can be used to store, display and describe physical mementos and other objects.

About 40 years ago I acquired a paperback copy of the I Ching – the Chinese book of change which provides a guide to divination or prediction of the future. The inside cover of this book notes that it was written in 1000 BC, is probably the oldest book in the world and is the most powerful distillation of Chinese wisdom. The divination method is to hold 50 sticks upright in a bundle and to allow them to fall randomly, and the text assists the reader to interpret the resulting positions of the sticks.

The book instructs that the fifty divining sticks should be yarrow stalks which should be stored in a lidded receptacle which is never used for any other purpose; so I duly collected yarrow sticks from a rural verge side and placed them in a terracotta lidded jar. I only used the I Ching a few times – and still have the notes I made on two of those occasions. The book ended up on a bookshelf and the terracotta lidded jar mostly resided on the bedroom window sill of the various houses I lived in.

In 2018, as part of my effort to eliminate all paperbacks from my bookshelves, I decided that I would convert the paperback to a hardback book and, at the same time, to unite the sticks with the book. This was achieved by first turning the paperback into a hardback and including the two sets of notes at the back of the book. The inside sleeves of the cover were used to document the story of the collection of the yarrow sticks, my use of the I Ching, and the creation of a folding portfolio case for both.

Then a case for the book was created as shown below.

Next a box for the sticks was created with thin magnets in the flap and in the side of the case, to secure the flap.

Then a surrounding cover was created onto which the case and the box were glued. Thin magnets on the top of the case and the top of the box help to keep the structure in place.

Finally a dust jacket was created and the story of where the yarrow stalks came from and where they had previously resided, with photos, was documented on the back cover.

Box Set

I was a keen athlete when I was at school and collected a number of ‘how to’ booklets and training aids which are now quite precious to me – see below.

Unfortunately they are thin soft backs which flop around and have no space for spine titles, so they don’t sit very well on a bookshelf full of hardbacks. I needed some sort of container on which a title could be inscribed.

I asked at the bookbinding class that I go to, and was told I needed to make a Portfolio – apparently a common construction in the bookbinding world. A Portfolio is made in two parts: the outside piece which folds over so that, like the outside of a book, it provides a base, a spine and a front cover; and an inside envelope with flaps, which is glued onto the base of the outside piece.  The finished portfolio is shown below.

To this basic construction I decided to add a dust jacket which is attached to the portfolio by gluing the right hand flap of the dust jacket between the outside and inside pieces. The remainder of the dust jacket wraps around the portfolio such that the left hand flap goes inside the front cover.

As with the rugby book, I used the dust jacket flaps to write about my athletics endeavours; and I included copies of some memento documents on the rest of the jacket. However, I tried out a couple of new things on this dust jacket: first, I included several old photos and this seems to have worked very well – photos are easy to see and speak for themselves. Secondly, I put thumbnails of the Portfolio contents on the spine instead of a written title. This too has worked well and produces a colourful and interesting spine on the bookshelf.

In retrospect, I think I was too ambitious with the memento documents I included – the text is too small and indistinct to read easily as a result of wanting to display the whole of a memento page. Perhaps next time I put a jacket design together, I’ll explore just including selected parts of a page magnified to a level where it is very easy to read.

Dust Jacket Augmentation

I have a bookcase of hardbacks interspersed with the odd paperback. When I started bookbinding last year I decided to turn the paperbacks into hardbacks (something I’d done as a school librarian many years ago). The first one turned out quite well: it was a Pan paperback and I photographed the cover after I had removed it so that I could print out a dust jacket for it.

After that, the cover was cut into front, back and spine, and each of the three pieces glued onto the new hardcover. I was able to use inside sleeves of the dust jacket I created in PowerPoint to reproduce summary text about the author and the book which was present on pages at the front and back of the book (see a previous post about how to create and print out dust jackets).

With this experience under my belt, I started on my next paperback – a history of the Kodak UK Rugby Club for which I played a few games in the 1970s. As before, I photographed the cover after removing it, and set about creating the dust jacket in PowerPoint.

However, this book included no summary text and the back of the cover was blank. I realised that here was a great opportunity to include some additional material from my memento collection. I duly placed copies of the 6 pages of the Club’s December 1976 newsletter on the back cover, and copies of 6 of the selection slips I had received to play in various matches in 1973 on the back inside sleeve. On the front inside sleeve I wrote some words about my rugby playing career and my time with the Kodak Rugby Club.

I do like having glossy covers on books, and this experience has convinced me that a dust jacket can offer even more. It can also be a great non-invasive way to include additional personal material which is then much more accessible on a bookshelf rather than trapped away in a folder in a cupboard. Regardless of such additions the books still look great on the bookshelf.

The Mutability of Books

There is little point in keeping things if you are not going to enjoy them and/or use them. By applying digital technology, collections can be exploited, made visible, and brought to life. There are a huge number of ways in which you can relate items together, tell stories about them, and use digital technology to present the results in some form or other.  This particular journey will look at ways in which books can be used to exploit the contents of collections.

Since the common experience of books is of finished, immutable, items, the idea of using books as vehicles for exploiting the contents of a collection may seem a bit strange. However, there are a surprising number of ways in which this can be achieved including creating your own books, adding dust jackets, creating portfolio boxes and slip cases, and including additional documents and artefacts into the fabric of a book.  These are some of the possibilities I shall be exploring in this journey.

There is one way of doing this that many people are already familiar with – creating a Photobook.  This capability is widely and cheaply available on the internet through services such as Snapfish, Blurb, Photobox and Truprint, to name but a few; and many people have either created and/or been shown the Photobooks they supply. However, although such services are designed primarily to assemble and print a set of photos into a bound book, It is perfectly feasible to include images of artefacts and documents, as well as descriptive text. They are very versatile and can produce great looking results: this is a link to my first attempt – a seventy page book of my retirement cards and work experiences – and I subsequently produced a fifty page 90th birthday book for my mother. These experiences have convinced me that Photobooks can be used very effectively for all sorts of things and I shall be reporting on my creation of another Photobook later on in this journey.