What happened to the phone book?

Published 7:03 pm Tuesday, February 6, 2018

in the short rows

Whatever ever happened to the telephone book?

For the better part of a century, one of the most unifying items in the life of a community was the phone book.

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In our homes, it stood in a place of honor — or, at least, of ready access — on a table underneath or beside one of our most cherished appliances, the telephone. Used day-in and day-out, it became frayed, often falling apart, pages with doctor or drugstore listings dog-eared for ready reference.

For many years, the phone book had a blank page in the back, a lined memo sheet for names and out-of-town numbers to be listed for easy reference.

And then, once a year, a new book arrived, originally by mail and then later, tossed in the driveway by people paid by the phone company to distribute them. And when a new one arrived, we would tear out the memo sheet from the old one and place it into the back of the new, promising that one day we would sit down and transcribe all those extra numbers to a nice, clean, new sheet. Of course, we never did. As a result, over the years, the number of memo sheets in the back of the book grew.

And so, the cycle of the phone book continued year after year until one year recently, they were gone. No announcement, no explanation. Just no new book. So old, worn out books have hung around until we now have to ask, where’s that old phone book? I wonder if it still has so-and-so’s number?

We do still receive phone books, of course, but they’re commercial products listing only businesses that cling to the notion that somebody somewhere might actually want to look up their phone number without using the internet.

Those books are dying as well. As fewer and fewer businesses agree to pay to be listed in them, they get ever smaller. We have one in the office that was published in 2014. It’s 180 pages including the cover. We received another one in 2017. It’s 90 pages — a precise 50 percent decline in three years.

You can still get a residential phone book as well, but you’ll have to ask. We called today and ordered one for each phone line in the newspaper office. The company managing them for Verizon was happy to fulfill our request, though we were told it will take about a month before they arrive.

Not that they’re terribly helpful when you do get them. They list Verizon’s landlines, which fewer and fewer people have today. And to save money, the type size has been reduced to about 7-point, a size too small to be read by the naked eye, unless it’s an awfully good one. They don’t come with a magnifying glass. You’ll have to provide your own.

Nevertheless, it is a residential phone book. If you still have a phone line that you’re paying for, you can get one. Just call 1-877-243-8339.

As a practical matter, most of our communication has moved away from the hall or kitchen telephone and into little boxes we carry around with us. And you can, indeed, find phone numbers on the internet, though it requires a lot of effort to locate them without paying a fee every time you want one.

Our personal listings of numbers have become one of our most treasured possessions, our own little portable phone books, ready to serve us at a swipe of the thumb or index finger. I learned just how treasured when I managed to lock myself out of my cell phone and had to have it scrubbed and reformatted a few months ago. I lost close to 100 listings that had to be rebuilt.

The world has changed with amazing speed during the past two decades and much of the change has been good. But along the way, we’ve lost some of things that once were the glue of society, and among them, I think, was the phone book.