Save the phone book

Delivery of residential White Pages likely to be optional

December 04, 2010

The phone book — an old friend, a fixture in the home — is in trouble.

Verizon is seeking permission to make delivery optional for the residential white pages, what almost everyone calls the phone book. If the Public Service Commission grants the company's request, the thick tomes of residential listings won't be delivered to Baltimore area homes next year unless the customers request them.

This news is being greeted by phone book detractors — those who search for numbers online or with their smart phones — as an inevitable march of progress. Moreover, environmentalists cheer the fact that the proposed cutback in printed residential directories would keep an estimated 2,000 tons of paper from Maryland's waste stream. They have their points.

However, a few remaining friends of the phone book have spoken up for the benefits of printed matter, even as they are scoffed at by their younger digit-punching offspring. Librarians say the books are excellent instruments of genealogical research.

If a researcher wants to verify what year a person died, a good clue is checking when his listing disappeared from the local phone book, says Jeff Korman, manager of the Maryland Department at Baltimore's Enoch Pratt Free Library where the collection of local phone books dates back to World War I. The Library of Congress regards its phone book collection as a chief tool in local research and a part of American culture worth preserving. It still acquires printed versions of the phone book, says James Sweany, head of the library's local history and genealogical research room.

A student of the history of American whiskey making has observed that you find the same Scotch-Irish family names in the old phone books of Leonardtown, Md., and Lebanon, Ky. This reflects history. One generation of distillers made whiskey with rye, the dominant grain in Maryland, while another was lured west by corn grants, which gave land to settlers who promised to grow corn. The history of Kentucky bourbon, right there in the phone books.

After World War II, the cover of the phone book often displayed a local landmark, a point of local pride. This touch of nostalgia makes the books popular with collectors — there is at least one web page selling old phone books — as well as with prop wranglers who use them in movies or plays. A facsimile of a 1950s Baltimore phone book with a drawing of the city's new Friendship Airport on the cover found its way to Broadway for a production of "Hairspray." No online directory can claim that.

Spokesmen for Verizon and SuperMedia, the Dallas company that prints the directories, stress that the phone book is not dead yet. Verizon claims that its proposal will make every household happy. Those that don't use the white pages won't get the book. Those that do can request a printed version or CD ROM.

Meanwhile other phone books containing business and government listings, commonly called the Yellow Pages, will continue to land on doorsteps, whether they were requested or not. While the number of households using the white pages is dropping, usage of the Yellow Pages is climbing. Put another way, the phone book with white pages is fading, the ones with yellow pages and business listings will be around for a while.

The residential phone book may be antiquated, but it feels familiar to many users. Moreover, when you set it atop a piece of wood that you are gluing back into place, its weight works wonders. You can't glue with a smart phone.

—Rob Kasper

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