There are numerous stamp catalogs, covering different countries, topicals and languages.
Depending on where you live, and which country or topic you are collecting, there is a catalog that will fit your needs.
Let’s start with United States stamps and related materials. The most well-known catalog used by collectors in the United States is the Scotts Standard Postage Stamp Catalog – in this discussion, we’ll shorten that to “Scotts”, since that is what most people call it.
The Scotts catalog is broken down into volumes 1 thru 6, which cover countries from A to Z, with each volume divided into 2 parts, A and B. For example, Volume 1, Part A covers the U.S., the U.N. and related possessions, like the Ryukyu Island, Canal Zone, and starts with the letter A countries (A – Austria), while Volume 1 Part B – starts into other countries starting with the letter A (Australia, Andorra, Azerbaijan). Volumes 2 thru 6 follow the same alphabetical scheme up through the letter Z.
In addition to the 6 volumes mentioned above, Scotts also has a separate U.S. Specialized catalog, covering most back-of-the-book stamps. They also produce a Classic World Catalog, covering all countries of the world from the 1840s up through 1940. This catalog provides additional detail over what the general world volumes contain.
For most collectors in the United States, these Scott catalogs provide enough information for just about any stamp from any country. However, if a collector desires more detailed information about stamps from other countries, there are many stamp catalogs produced and sold in those countries. These catalogs are usually in the language of the country they cover – for example; Yvert and Tellier (for French stamps), Stanley Gibbons (British stamps as well as world wide coverage using their own catalog numbering system), Michel’s (German stamps as well as other country coverage), and many others.
Other catalogs cover topical stamp collecting. The Lollini Espace catalog covers the entire range of the space and rockets stamp topic. There are topical catalogs covering U.S. Civil War era stamps, Great Britain’s Queens and Kings, French Art Masterpieces, etc. There is probably a catalog for just about any topic you may desire to collect, from seashells to animals, to autos, and more.
So, we see that there are many catalogs, but what does one do with these catalogs? The first thing would be to find or identify a stamp, as to coming from a particular country, using tools within the catalog like stamp identifiers and language identifiers. Once a stamp has been identified, there are usually values associated with the stamp and its varieties. The value may be for mint or used stamps and will usually indicate the quality or condition the stamp in question must be to meet the suggested price. The listings will also indicate perforation numbers, colors, design differences, watermarks and many other features that distinguish a particular stamp from another.
Most stamp catalogs contain a wealth of information in the preface to the actual stamp listings, and these prefaces contain much needed information about the stamp collecting hobby as well as how to use the catalog in question. The stamps for a particular country are listed in release date order from number 1 on, and there are many instances where a suffix is attached to the catalog number to identify a different stamp, than the one listed first. After the commemorative and definitive stamps are listed, there are usually listings for Charity stamps (B #s), Airmail stamps (C #s), Postage Due Stamps (J #s), and so on. These listings are also set up by date issued and follow the number progression from 1 onward (B1, B2, B3…).
In the US, the Scott catalogs may be found in your local libraries and usually can be checked out to use at home. There are also digital editions of many catalogs available. Specifics about particular catalogs and their availability can be found by searching the internet. You will be amazed at the volume of material available and the many catalogs that you can choose from.
As an added reference, any APS (American Philatelic Society) member can login to the APS website at www.stamps.org and go to this link (https://stamps.org/the-american-philatelist ) and review the online versions of the APS magazine. If you look for the January 2022 issue, you will find a complete magazine dedicated to stamp catalogs, their uses and references for them. This reference guide covers all the major catalogs (Scott, Michel, Yvert & Tellier and Stanley Gibbons) as well as specialized catalogs for individual countries, topicals and more.
IPDA members can see another article on this topic discussing many other catalogs in the IPDA Newsletter archives from February 2019.