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Screentime – James Gavin, The Digital Philatelist (Full Interview)

*Published Spring 2024

In June 2020, Australian philatelist James Gavin launched The Digital Philatelist, an online index of philatelic resources aimed at helping the modern philatelist find useful information about the hobby more easily. Today, the award-winning site directs visitors to everything from society websites to philatelic Etsy shops to instructional YouTube videos – all resources either gathered by Gavin himself or submitted by users. James joined us for an interview and shared his thoughts about the hobby today.ed us for an interview and shared his thoughts about the hobby today.

What do you think people should know about The Digital Philatelist?

Prior to The Digital Philatelist, I was the Publicity Officer for the Rhodesian Study Circle (RSC), curating their website and bringing their offerings up-to-date. To join their society [at the time] you had to fill out a four-page membership application using a paper form.

When I joined, I said to them, “You have fewer questions to get a house mortgage than to join this stamp club!” It didn’t make sense. When I took on managing their website, I created the ability to allow online membership so people could just click to pay or click to renew. I also established their Facebook page, we got their website up to date, and then I watched the metrics, what was happening and who was joining, who was visiting Facebook and other platforms. I had been doing that since 2013.

When COVID hit, everyone was going online. During this time, I was putting a lot of effort and time in managing their site because RSC members are extremely active contributors – they are not afraid to share knowledge, which is what every group wants, right? You always want to encourage that, but at the same time, it really became a bit too much for me.

So, I said I’d stand back and decided that I was gonna focus on my own collection. And at the same time, I was thinking, “Oh, you know what? I really want to make sure that I don’t lose access to the data of what social media platforms people are using.” It had been like two separate communities – traditional stamp collectors and philatelists, and then this quickly growing online community of people who were also collectors.

Well, that all changed with COVID, when a lot of those traditional clubs and societies had to transition over to Zoom or online meetings. It just changed the landscape. They started looking at [the online world] and going, “Oh, well, hang on. This is actually useful.” And new people were starting to appear out of the woodwork. And so I created The Digital Philatelist mainly to show that, you know what? There’s all these social media platforms and here are the people who are using them. And most of these people do not belong to your club or organization. So, that’s really how the Digital Philatelist website was born. That’s what I did during the extreme lockdowns here in Melbourne, Australia. So, that’s really what kept me busy during that time was to play around with that.

Do you feel like it helped your own collecting or put it on pause further?

The work that I did with the RSC definitely advanced how I collect. I think for most collectors, you get your stamp, you put them in an album, the album goes into a bookshelf. There’s nothing really further there.

But what I saw when I was working for the RSC, was that we have tons of material on that website that reached out to not only stamp collectors but also non-stamp communities. And that’s not even what’s included in their quarterly journals. So, I thought, “I could do some of this.”

So, I began collecting the Bahamas. My goal there was to put every stamp and postcard that I acquired onto the website, and it’s going to be available to everyone. No paywalls or anything silly like that, or having to join – just open source. Every item that I’ve got from Bahamas has gone onto that website, mainly postcards, advertising covers, postal history and stamps.

And I also did it to say, “You know what? We don’t have to exhibit on a piece of paper in an exhibit frame where there’s thousands of frames that all look the same.” There’s a different way to do it. You can make it completely interactive. I can put YouTube videos on there. I can link to resources if someone wants to read more. People can see high-res images of the stamps without needing a magnifying glass. If they want to learn something, they can.

For example, my collection was focused on tourism in the Bahamas. So, I can say, oh, here’s this hotel on this island. I can then click off to that island, and then make a page about the island. And then I might have a postmark and post office on that island. So, people can go whichever direction that they want that interests them, whereas on a piece of paper, you can’t really do that. You’re limited to that piece of paper for your storytelling.

Exhibiting could be due for a revolution.

We haven’t welcomed a different thought or a different approach to exhibiting. Why is it that the Smithsonian National Postal Museum gets all these visitors, but a stamp show doesn’t? Because there’s a difference. The Smithsonian brings together a focused, curated story. Whereas an exhibit is a bunch of information next to a stamp, then here’s a lot more information. It doesn’t work with modern audiences. It’s out of date.

Well, it needs a different approach. Take a look at how a museum curates a collection. They don’t put every item out – if they put every Roman or ancient Egyptian pottery item on display, people would just not care. They curate it. They have the story-line and then they show something that is the best example of that story. And then they move on. I don’t need to see every item in their collection to enjoy it.

So, now that you’re a few years out from starting The Digital Philatelist website, how do you feel about how it’s grown? The people it’s reaching, the things that you’ve been able to add on?

The biggest challenge I have at the moment is there’s too much content for me. It’s very difficult for me to keep up with it, compared to a few years ago. When I started, I reckon there was probably about, let’s say 10 YouTube channels. Now I monitor about 120. And that’s probably not all of them.

I get about a hundred thousand visitors a year, at the moment, and we’re I’m three or four years in. That’s good.

The top two drivers of traffic really are non-traditional, anyway. They’re software and apps and crypto stamps. They’re the two biggest things that people come to the website for.

Do you have criteria for deciding what you include on The Digital Philatelist?

For videos, yeah – anything but shorts. Any videos generally under five minutes, I don’t bother with anymore, because the content is just not there to drive the traffic. There has to be something of value there.

I do put up content that goes for an hour, but it doesn’t work. And I try to tell people this, especially established organizations that are used to including all of this detail and making hour-long presentations, but it just doesn’t work

I said, “People are tuning out after 10 minutes.” I can see it in the metrics. You can’t go for an hour. I said, “You’re better off breaking it up and then doing it as a series or something like that rather than just these big chunks.”

I think a lot of philatelic societies don’t really understand how to make social media work in their interest. They say, “Here’s a video, we’re now on YouTube.” Or, “We’ve created a Facebook page, we’re now on Facebook.” They don’t understand the difference between having something and actually taking it to the next level.

In the discussions that I hear about going online, people ask the same question, “Which [social media platform] do we use?” I think what a lot of these organizations need at the moment is more of a deep dive into, like “this is how to determine whether you’re getting a return on your investment.” There’s no point in having a Twitter account if you never post, if no one is joining your club, or engaging in that social media platform.

Get your material out of your closets. No one enjoys them in a closet. Get them out. Let everyone enjoy them.

What’s the next big thing, whether that’s a trend or a frontier of the hobby?

If I was a collector right now with a smaller budget but wanting to build up a valuable collection: anything from the ’60s and ’70s and ’80s. For the US, UK, Australia, there’s a lot of material there that you can get your hands on. But if you search outside of those, for example the British Commonwealth and some other countries, the material is actually not there. And if it is there, it’s so ratty and dirty that it’s really difficult to find a copy of, say, a first day cover, that’s in really good condition, that hasn’t been destroyed over time by rust and scrunching and marks.

So, I would definitely say first day covers and postal history from the 1960s to 1980s in particular. Also because a lot of collectors at the time chopped up the covers in order to get the stamps – it was just the style of collecting at the time.

So it’s easy to find the stamps from this time, but finding those [intact] covers can be quite hard. I would say that needs to be on your radar [if you] want to start out and not have to spend a lot of money, because at the moment you can get it cheap, but it’s starting to increase in price.

I think Instagram is going very well at the moment. Especially the #Extremephilately trend that Graham Beck (Exploring Stamps) started. I think that’s the modern way of exhibiting. There’s some really great work that people do, just for one photo, that makes the stamp look great and appealing.

Twitter is a bit of a lost cause at the moment. I don’t know what’s happening there. [laughter] Everything has changed. The traffic has changed. I used to be able to just view all the stamps in my feed, and now it’s all this irrelevant stuff and you just can’t get rid of it.

I know we’ve had folks like Leven Parker and a couple other people on TikTok.

The good thing with Leven is that he’s connecting stories to what he collects. He puts historical context to stamps. So, it’s a story. And it’s funny because back in 2016, the APS released a paper on the future of philately, and they talked about hidden collectors at the time, and they talked about the importance of stories. Well, these are the two things that are coming to fruition now that we need to focus on. I enjoy Leven’s work that he does on TikTok, but he might be impacted because if the U.S. decides to ban TikTok, which, you know, the bill has passed.

Yes, it did. And it was signed.

It was signed. So, that could be the end of TikTok in the U.S. That means Leven’s platform is dead. So, he’ll have to transition over to another. That’s one of the downsides of social media platforms. They do change. [laughter] So, you have to keep up with them sometimes.

Contribute articles back to the organizations that are actually putting it into print, which will last forever. Hopefully.

One thing that we’re talking about a lot is preserving born digital knowledge, because there are all of these small, very niche websites in the hobby. And sooner or later that information is going to be lost.

I mean, you have the Wayback Machine where you can go and look at old websites, and some go back to the ’90s these days. But [losing the websites] is actually a threat to the information. I guess it’s no different to someone who knows so much about a stamp and then they die without ever having written a book or article about what’s in their head. So, how do you capture all this?

This is why I always try to tell people, you should join a club or society and definitely contribute articles where you can, because they are valuable at the end of the day. For Bahamas writers, everyone kind of goes up to the ’50s and then they just go, “Yeah. Everything was produced en mass after that.” So, there’s not really a lot of information after that. The only information that you do have is in these old journals and these old articles from the ’60s and the ’70s, where you’re getting contemporary sources of information to say what was happening at the postal services and what was going on at the time, to really build a picture. The back issues of journals, there’s a lot of information in there that’s really, really, really valuable. So, create your website and everything, and I actually would always strongly recommend that, but at the same time, contribute articles, contribute some of that work back to the organizations that are actually putting it into print, which will last forever. Hopefully.

Endorsement of print was not something I was expecting to hear from you, but I love it.

That’s probably because it really frustrated me that a lot of these organizations didn’t take digital seriously. During COVID, when people were pulling out stamp collections they hadn’t touched in decades and were getting back into it, they didn’t go to a club and say, “Hey, I’ve got a collection. Can I join and learn about it?” They went online and started posting. There were so many Facebook comments like, “Oh yeah, look, I’ve got this, what is it? And is this worth anything?” Stuff like that is all part of our conversation. It’s all part of our hobby, whether we like it or not.

So, digital is so important, but the other important thing is the long term. We’ve got to get the information out of here [taps head] somehow. That’s the first challenge. You’ve got to preserve some of that information that’s really, really good, with other contemporary sources.

I’m with you there. I’m a big fan of print. [laughter] There are some things that we publish in our library’s journal, the Philatelic Literature Review, which is just for library members, so a limited subscriber base. One article in the most recent one is like, “I went through the minutes of the Royal Philatelic Society London from like the 1910s through the 1930s, and here’s everything interesting I found,” which like, yeah, actually that’s cool.

You find some great stuff. I just happened to be looking for some old advertisements for some Rhodesian businesses back in the 1910s, 1920s. And I read this magazine and I came across this advertisement for postcards for one of the publishers, and I was like, “No one has probably ever seen that before. So, I’ll send it to our members that collect it.” And it’s just one of those little gems. And a lot of those old journals are full of these little gems. You’re like, “oh, really? That’s what happened.”

I actually think that’s a good thing to put into a magazine. “Hey, look at this weird thing back from 1910.”

Or like, “You know the big names of the fathers of philately, now here are the cat fights they were getting into back at their society.”

Yeah. Like the correspondence for some of the Southern Rhodesian stamps between Rhodesia and London. Oh, God. Backwards and forwards about the smallest of things, and I say, “It’s just a stamp.” But to them it was this massive, big, big deal. And if it’s not right, the world is gonna fall down.

The thing that traditional collectors always say is “We need new collectors, we’ve got to go to the youth.” There’s an emphasis on creating those brand-new collectors from scratch from young people, when there is an existing community of young adults who actually like stamps and postal history or other things already. Should we be shifting the emphasis or do you think youth really are the future of the hobby?

I have a big problem with the word youth, because the way that “youth” are treated in traditional philately is as children, anyone under 18. And I think, if someone called me a child at 18, I’d tell them where to go jump.

I get that when you’re talking children under 12 years old, there’s a different approach, different learning patterns. They collect differently. But once you get into those teenage years, some of those teenage collectors are quite knowledgeable. It’s their hobby. They’re not working, they’re not raising families. So, they can devote a lot of time to just reading material, whatever they can get their hands on, they can surf the internet without a problem. So, they actually have quite a lot of knowledge.

Just treat a youth as an adult. Because those kids who are collecting, their mindset is different. I’m not sure how to really explain it, but they’re not thinking like a child. They’re thinking critically, what is this stamp? What is the watermark? What is the perforation? What is the background? Who’s on it?

It’s an adult way of thinking, so we can’t really treat them as kids.

New collectors aren’t children… They can be 60, 70 years old. They can be 40, 50 years old… Don’t pigeonhole new collectors as youth.

In February’s AP, we published two articles by teens, and they were easily at the level of any other author who writes for the magazine. Very thoughtful, diving into sociopolitical context. They’re dialed in.

Yeah, they are. I mean, a lot of the people running philatelic organizations are 70 and 80, so their version of youth is what youth was in the ’50s and ’60s.

Our youth today, they’re not anywhere close to what they were in the ’50s and ’60s. It’s completely different. It’s just like, “You know what? They’re a collector. Treat them as an adult.” One-on-one, they might need a little bit more guidance, but they could contribute more new information than what you might think. So, let’s treat them as equals and work with them based on that.

In the same way, new collectors aren’t children, they’re not always youth. They can be 60, 70 years old. They can be 40, 50 years old. From my website’s metrics, most of the collectors actually sit between 35 and 55 years of age, and that’s one of the largest online demographics.

So definitely don’t pigeonhole new collectors as youth, which is a big, big problem, a big pothole that a lot of organizations fall into.

What is the coolest project you’ve seen within the philatelic world?

One of the problems is it’s hard to get innovation out of the hobby. So, I’m someone who likes innovation. I like to see new things and how they all kind of work together and how you can do them. Virtual Stampex is one of the best inventions that I’ve seen in a while. And they try different things each year.

It would be great to have a stamp show where they have a few monitors and let people look at things and play with things. Even something as basic as a QR code on an exhibit. So, you can watch a video about whatever you are seeing, or you could have an actual audio guided tour that you can follow through a QR code. I mean, these things are not difficult to set up. It’s that blending of different media to create an experience that people connect with, that’s the innovation. “Make it like a Comic-Con.” I always say Comic-Con as the example, because people want to be there, people want to know what’s going on there. It’s like, if I’m gonna travel all the way around the world to America, I don’t want to get there and then there’s just frames and dealers.

Other than PTS’ Virtual Stampex, honestly, I really can’t think of anything majorly that’s excited me, personally. It’s just the truth.

I mean, people will say, “Zoom was the most amazing thing that’s ever happened to our hobby.” And I’m like, “It’s Zoom.” I mean, it was good. It served the community well because people start saying, “Oh, we can do this online. I don’t actually have to drive to a meeting. I can look at it online.”

Is there anything that you’d like to talk about that you think the readers of StampEd should know or even our more traditional collecting audience, that you’d like them to know?

One is to get your collection out of the cupboard, out of the closet and get it online. It doesn’t matter how, whether it’s Insta or Twitter, X or whatever it may be, get it out there and put it up. The benefits are just amazing long term. But also, contribute to stamp magazines or journals or whatever, find a story, write a story with your stamps, and then submit that. But you just show the collection, show them what you found, write it up, write an article about it and get it out there.

There’s an added benefit, which people don’t realize, which is that cataloging something creates a demand for that material. So, when there’s a demand, that means prices go up, which means the overall value of your collection goes up.

The Rhodesian Study Circle does what they call an encyclopedia, where all the members will give images and details of everything they hold in their collections. They then curate them in one PDF document, outline the images, where the images were sourced from, copies of the production artwork, and the trial proofs, and the background, and imprints and where they’re located. Plus all the first day covers that are known, totally free for everyone to use. But since they started this, a couple of years ago, the price of Rhodesian materials has gone up. A normal catalog (Stanley Gibbons or Scott) it’ll just say, here’s the stamp, here’s the mini sheet and then that’s it. But then we came and said, here’s all the varieties, here’s all the errors, here’s all the first day covers, suddenly the completist collectors say, “Oh, I don’t have those.”

But really, just get your material out of your closets. Stop. No one enjoys them in a closet. Get them out. Let everyone enjoy them.

And the other thing that I would also recommend highly, is that people like and subscribe to content creators that they like, because a lot of content creators, they’re not making money from it, and it takes a lot of time to do some of the social media stuff. So, subscribe and follow people and recommend people and share content among groups and with friends.