Burying the Book: Phone Directories Becoming a Page in History

By Carter, M Scott | THE JOURNAL RECORD, December 10, 2010 | Go to article overview

Burying the Book: Phone Directories Becoming a Page in History


Carter, M Scott, THE JOURNAL RECORD


When she was younger, Tarian Loyd used one all the time.

She used it for information.

She looked up her friends' numbers in it.

And, when she needed an impromptu ladder, her phone book was right there.

"I'd stand on them to reach stuff," she said.

For a time, Loyd and her friend the telephone book were tight. But that was years ago, and times have changed.

Today, Loyd is plugged in and her bulky, dog-eared telephone book is a distant memory.

"I stopped using one several years ago," she said. "Now I use the Internet. I think the telephone book wastes valuable resources and it takes up too much space. Now I just use Google or go online to the Yellow Pages to find what I need."

She isn't the only one.

Across the country, the once-ubiquitous telephone book has faded from American life quicker than Lindsay Lohan's latest movie.

A baby by Bell

Most historians believe the telephone book was born in 1878 in New Haven, Conn. Spawned by Alexander Graham Bell's 1876 patent of the telephone, the first telephone book wasn't actually a book at all. It was one sheet of paper (about letter size) printed on the front and back.

It listed the names of 16 families, a few physicians (there were no numbers) and advertisers.

By 1926, the telephone and its directory were so prevalent that the Manhattan edition alone required 500 rail-car loads of paper and 100 tons of binding glue and had a print run of more than 1 million copies.

Fifty years later, the Bicentennial Edition of American Telephone and Telegraph's telephone book - which included all 2,400 local telephone editions - would total 187 million copies and, because all the books featured the same cover design, the press run is considered to be the most widely reproduced book cover of all time.

Things went downhill after that.

Information, please

Today, with most households connected to the Internet and an ever- increasing number of Oklahomans packing only cell phones, the telephone book has tumbled from its reign as king of information directories.

But that doesn't mean you can't find one.

Because telephone utilities were once regulated, they were required by state governments to provide directories to their customers.

In fact, telephone companies are still required to produce a printed directory of their subscribers.

"Oklahoma telephone companies are still required to provide a printed phone book," said Matt Skinner, a spokesman for the Oklahoma Corporation Commission. "But they are only required to provide them to those residents who request them."

The rule was changed a few years ago, Skinner said.

"AT&T came to us. They said they wanted to save on paper and expenses and said there was no need for the printed telephone book anymore. And they wanted to stop," he said.

A compromise was reached, Skinner said. The telephone company was allowed to stop production and routine home delivery of the residential white pages, provided they made directories available to anyone who asked for them.

"Back in the days before computers, there was no other way to get the information," Skinner said. "Back when the telephone company was a regulated utility, it was the whole idea behind allowing a single service utility; it was reliability. And in order to take advantage of the service, you needed phone numbers."

"That was the rule for decades," he said. …

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