Wherefore telephone books?

Wherefore telephone books?

It wasn’t that long ago that telephone books played a fairly significant role in our daily lives. Whether you used one as a booster seat at dinner, or you were looking up the number of a neighbor or local business, telephone books were an incredibly handy tool. One could argue that they were the single most important resource about a local community before the internet.

To preserve the wealth of information contained in old telephone books and the precise “moment in time” snapshots of a local community they provide, the Washington State Library maintains an historic phone book collection that is still used by researchers.

Folks using our telephone book collection may be looking up their childhood address or telephone number. They could be doing legal research and establishing the location and phone number of a business. One of our customers wanted confirmation of when a neighborhood pizza joint opened (a big event in their community). Genealogists use telephone books to determine when a marriage or divorce may have occurred and new households established.

But what is the future of print telephone books? Most folks use Google now to look up a business telephone number online, and the vast majority of telephone books delivered for free end up in the recycling bin without ever having been cracked open. There are also significant environmental concerns.

And with more folks opting out of owning a land line, locating an individual’s telephone number often means resorting to paying a telecommunications company money to obtain the information hidden behind a paywall. This may be great for privacy and consumer protection advocates, but it means that our local historical record is entrusted to businesses that usually prioritize data monetization over historical value.

As a result of the changing market, printing telephone books is no longer as profitable as it once was. Businesses have other ways to advertise themselves than the Yellow Pages. Publishers have responded by drastically cutting back the number of phone books they print. Obtaining back issues (and sometimes even current editions) can now be difficult, costly, and sometimes impossible.

The State Library has pledged to keep the historic telephone book collection alive and healthy for as long as these resources continue to be printed. But we need your help. Our collection is missing some issues (most of them fairly recent), and we’re hopeful that someone out there may have the volumes we’re looking for. We’re also looking for more representation for some of Washington’s more remote areas.

So on Telephone Book Tuesdays, we’ll be posting some of our most wanted with a request to see if you might be able to help fill in the gaps in our collection. You can also check our online catalog and see what we may be missing by looking at the telephone directory entries.

Have questions or concerns about this collection or about this project? Feel free to contact Reference Librarian Mary Schaff at mary.schaff@sos.wa.gov

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