May 16, 2012

Building a killer catalogue app–part 1

It’s amazing what you get to thinking about when you’re awake at 3:00am.  Today I woke up at that time to realize that our whole-house fan was still running, but on my way back to bed, I got to thinking about my earlier post about the Scott Catalogue app.  Rather than just complain that it’s not quite the way I want a catalogue app to be, I’m going to start a series of posts to describe the specifications for what would make a killer catalogue app.  The ideas that I will present in this series will be a collection of thoughts that could be used by any catalogue, and as such, unless I am referencing a specific publisher’s work, I will use the generic term “catalogue” (with a lower-case c) to describe what I want.

So I mentioned last time that one of the first things I need is the ability to search by keyword rather than by catalogue number.  The Scott Catalogue app just added that feature this week to their app.  But as I thought about it more, the Scott Catalogue app is really just a different display method to look at the book series that they publish.  That’s not what I want in a catalogue app.  Now that’s not to say that what the Scott Catalogue has done is crap; far from it.  The Scott Catalogue folks have put together an app to display the research that they’ve been doing for decades, and I applaud them for at least trying to move the presentation of their data into an electronic format.

The catalogue data is really just that – data.  It shouldn’t be restricted in display to just one output format (and I don’t mean just print versus digital, I mean the way the data is displayed on whatever medium is used).

I can’t say “here’s what I want” right now and have it all laid out in one quick post.  There are just too many thoughts rushing around in my head to do that today.  What I want to do today is at least get some of these thoughts out into the public to get a discussion started on where catalogue apps should move in the future (hopefully a future that will come sooner rather than later).  So I’ll start with a few features that would be nice to include in the killer app…

Search by topic

I collect worldwide, but I’m also the webmaster for the American Topical Association (and as webmaster, it would be really nice if one of the catalogue publishers would supply me with a complete catalogue set that I could use as I work on the website; thankyouverymuch!).  As such, I’m often thinking about how to find stamps based on a particular theme or topic.  Earlier today as I started putting these thoughts together, I got to wondering if there was a checklist for stamps that related to Star Trek (I don’t see one yet, but there is at least one site that offers this topic).  That got me thinking of how I would search for stamps on this topic.  The most obvious method would be to type “Star Trek” into a search box and have it come up with all the stamps that relate to the Star Trek universe.

Now this is more than just keyword searching.  This is searching for stamps that relate to the topic that might not include the text “Star Trek” as an imprint on the stamps themselves.  It appears that all of the stamps currently shown on the sales site linked above include this text string somewhere on the stamp sheet.  But if the stamps are separated from the stamp sheets, each individual stamp doesn’t necessarily include the text “Star Trek” on them.  For example, on the sheetlet from St. Vincent & The Grenadines, Scott # 2377, the only place that has the text “Star Trek” is in the upper selvage; if one of the stamps from that sheetlet was removed and used as postage, it might not be as obvious that the stamp related to Star Trek unless the viewer recognized the costume that was depicted in the stamp image.

So what is needed here is a separate set of keywords to list the topic(s) to which a stamp relates that is itself searchable.  But every stamp that has ever been issued will fall into many different topics including: country of issue, denomination, primary stamp theme, year of issue, anniversary date of issue, etc.  Once we start looking at stamps that include several pictorial items in them, we add a bunch more topics to which the stamp could be added.  For example, looking at current U.S. stamp issues, the Miles Davis and Edith Piaf stamps that are due to be issued this year could be included in many more topics: joint issues, music/musicians, trumpets, trumpeters, singers, jazz, African American history, famous French people, and many more.  That means that every stamp in the catalogue will have a list of topics associated with it.  But then that leads to the question of how all this new data will be added to the database; well, that leads directly into my next thought…


No one editor will know or be able to recognize all of the topics into which a particular stamp might fit.  Also, no one editor will be able to track every single sales transaction to really have an exact market valuation of even the less rare stamps (where there were maybe 1,000 produced versus the millions for common definitives).  Wouldn’t it be cool if we, as collectors, could add information to the catalogue database too?

I’ve been an editor on Wikipedia for about eight years now (my first edit was in September 2004), and an admin for most of that time (I was promoted to adminship in March 2005).  I’ve seen both the good and the bad of getting editorial input from every possible contributor worldwide.  But it seems to me that when there are enough contributors who care about adding and maintaining good, accurate and well-sourced information, the trend appears to lead toward the positive.

For a stamp catalogue app to include crowdsourcing, it could be as simple as showing the list of topics for a stamp and allowing a visitor to add to that list.  For valuations, it could mean that contributors would be able to enter the dollar amount that they’ve paid for a particular item in an online auction.

Much more to come

There is quite a bit more that I want to say on this topic, but I’m running out of time today and have to cut this short now.  I’ll be back to talk more about this soon.

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