White pages era coming to end

Lawmakers stop requiring phone company to deliver directories

March 29, 2011|By Julie Bykowicz, The Baltimore Sun

When you were a tot, they gave you a boost at the dining room table. As a kindergartner, you dipped their pages in watery glue to make papier-mache. In your teens, you scanned for funny-sounding names to prank call.

You might even have used them to look up a telephone number once or twice.

Yet now when they land with a thud at your doorstep, you probably toss them straight into the recycling bin.

The era of the phone book is passing.

This week, the General Assembly approved legislation to end mandatory delivery of the residential white pages, a step already taken by states across the country as fewer people turn to the once-trusty reference. Until now, Maryland has insisted that phone companies publish and deliver the books to all customers once a year.

Verizon, which provides telephone service to much of the state, is in the midst of making its annual delivery. But it is likely to be the last: Come next year, after Gov. Martin O'Malley signs the legislation, there will be one less item to clutter the front steps and yards of Maryland.

Phone companies would still provide residential directories in print or electronic form upon request, free of charge. Home numbers are also available online at verizon.com/whitepages.

Advertising-funded business directories, such as the YellowBook, are unaffected by the legislation.

It takes more than 2,000 tons of paper — that's 4 million pounds — each year to produce residential directories in Maryland, a Verizon spokesman said. National studies show that only about one in 10 people use them.

With more people relying solely on mobile phones, which aren't listed, the white pages aren't as comprehensive as they used to be.

Over the years, though, they have served as an overview of how we live.

Tucked in a tightly packed shelving area of the downtown library is a collection of residential white pages from every part of Maryland dating to the 1940s. Years ago, the books were more compact. The editions have thickened as the counties have grown.

Librarians use the books nearly every day, most often to assist people researching their family history, said Darcell Little, assistant manager of the library's Maryland department.

The library's Baltimore set of city directories dates back even further — to 1752 — on microfilm. The early directories, published more than 100 years before the invention of the telephone, included people's residences and occupations, making them a primitive Facebook of sorts.

The collection helps researchers understand how families grew and spread their roots over the years, and how particular areas developed over time, said Wesley Wilson, chief of the Enoch Pratt Central Library's resource center.

Another use for telephone books: Looking up telephone numbers.

"People still do that," Wilson said. "I still do that."

Wilson, who has worked at the library for more than three decades, hastened to add that he also has high-speed Internet at home.

Sen. Norman R. Stone Jr. was the only member of the General Assembly to vote against the legislation. The Baltimore County Democrat, a lawmaker since 1967, said he was relying on his gut.

"I myself would like to keep receiving them," he said. "I figured everybody does. Maybe I'm wrong about that, though."

The legislation requires phone companies to provide customers with a toll-free number to call to request a phone book delivery, to be included on their websites and at least once a year in customer bills. The Senate also wants the number displayed in bold red print inside any business directories the phone companies distribute.

The white pages have long provided more than just a way to look up names and numbers. Michelle Foels has fond memories of how a relative would "grab it, put it on our chair, then plop us down on it."

"If you wiggled too much, it moved and you fell off, so you learned quickly to sit still," the 46-year-old Mount Airy woman said.

Baltimore artist Jim Doran, 43, said the white pages inspired some of his first projects.

"As a kid, using phone books, some glue and water felt like I had unlimited possibilities available to me," Doran said. More recently, he has used the pages to make dioramas and papier-mache prototypes for larger pieces.

"I like white pages because they dry quickly, are easy to store and a little nicer to work with than newspaper," he said. " I am thinking I should stockpile them in my studio before they vanish completely."

The books might even have helped some with their self-esteem. As Steve Martin's character proclaimed in "The Jerk": "Page 73 — Johnson, Navin R. I'm somebody now! Millions of people look at this book every day!"

Verizon asked the state Public Service Commission last fall for permission to stop delivering residential directories to customers who haven't asked for them. The telephone company said it would still provide paper or electronic copies upon request. The commission denied Verizon's request, prompting lawmakers to intervene.

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