About The Author

David Grabitske

David Grabitske is the manager of outreach services at the Minnesota Historical Society in St. Paul, Minnesota.

The St. Paul Pioneer Press for Friday November 12, 2010, printed an Associated Press article by Michael Felberbaum, “Familiar phone books dying in digital age.” As Internet penetration edges up in all parts of the state (see Electronic Access for Rural Minnesota), people rely on resources that are both more easily searched and perceived to be more up-to-date because people can often edit their own contact information.

Further, as the article notes, only about 11 percent of Americans rely solely on a landline, and cell numbers are not listed in phone books. Other estimates show that fully 25 percent of Americans only use cell phones. Thus a quarter of Americans would not be found using traditional phone books. It makes sense that phone books may disappear. Already New York, Florida, and Pennsylvania approved Verizon’s request to stop printing residential listings in those states. Virginia is considering it. How long will it be before providers stop printing phone books in Minnesota?

While some may worry about this change and only see the loss of a resource, as some are fond of saying, “History is all about change. If changes ever stops, historical organizations will be out of business.” Local historical organizations are always adapting, and this news story represents another call to arms.

Disappearance of phone books, though, poses a problem for local historical organizations. Phone books grew out of older “city directories” that enabled people to locate services and other people. Both have genealogical and research value to local historical organizations, and both existed together for a quite a while in some places. In some places city directories were dropped, but in some places they continue to be created. However, there does not appear to be a widely available tool to reach out and touch someone that has grown up alongside of phone books, as phone books did with city directories. Thus the problem is one of adaptation. Local historical organizations cannot migrate to a new resource with the loss of an older one.

In the past decade use of research libraries at local historical organizations has increased. With the convulsions seen among media formerly only in print formats, and phone books may be added to the list, access to these basic research tools calls into question whether the growth seen in the last decade will continue. Local organizations have put a lot of resources into developing strong research libraries to serve their growing clientele. In order to continue to encourage use, of course, adding resources is necessary. So how will local history research libraries compensate for the loss of phone books?

What might replace these mechanisms that allow us to connect certainly is hard to see. Perhaps to replace phone books as a research tool, local historical organizations will have to rely on the generosity of the constituents they serve who would be willing to download the contacts in their cell phones periodically or when upgrading. This begs many questions about privacy, of course, not to mention capturing people who don’t know their descendants might look for them in the future. Or, perhaps historical organizations will have to begin to mine connections of members linked to them on social media forums. Or, perhaps local historical organizations will need to develop resources beyond directories that their members and others might willingly populate. There may be a number of alternative resources in addition that local history research libraries could name.

Local historical organizations have amazing resources for certain periods of time, but in order to connect these resources to future generations, it seems as though additional records need to be generated or found to represent those living in the first decades of the 21st century. How are local historical organizations embracing this change in the loss of phone books? What other resources are you beginning to collect?

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5 Responses to Phone books call it a day

  1. Mary Warner says:

    Whew! We don’t even get two seconds to mourn the loss of the old phone books and we’re galloping on to the new! Of course, we always have change and historical organizations have to deal, but give us a moment to catch our collective breath.

    What phone books give us is a snapshot of where people were living at a given time. They also provide ads for businesses at a given time. By going through phone books year by year, we can see how things change.

    Moving to the digital, how often do we get a snapshot of a given point in time? Traditional websites didn’t provide this. Once the HTML was changed and uploaded to a server, whatever it replaced was gone from view. The Way Back Machine at archive.org saves iterations of some traditional HTML sites at certain points in time so people can go back and see the changes.

    Social media puts automatic date and time stamps on everything – every tweet, every Facebook status update, every blog post. It’s a historian’s dream!

    While we can read public blogs and follow those who make their tweets public, we can’t always follow every Facebook profile we might like because we have to have permission from the user. I’m okay with that. Historians don’t have access to every journal ever written. Yet, if we are forever denied access to a majority of these private social media accounts, we’re going to be hard-pressed to give context to the history we’re trying to write.

    Incidentally, I purposely avoided using the word “compile” in that last sentence – as in the history we are trying to compile. I’m not sure traditional historical organizations are going to be the main compilers of digital history. I see server farms taking that role because they are already doing that. They have the expertise; they have the equipment; they call the shots on saving the vast majority of our digital resources.

    How, then, do we help server farms understand their role in preserving our history? How might we, as historical organizations, gain permission to access the private information server farms hold?

    There is a movement afoot to encourage people to create a will for their online presence for when they die. Is there some way historical organizations can work to encourage individuals to name them as an information beneficiaries in their digital wills?


    Pam Girtz reply on November 14th, 2010:

    As a genealogist I have found phone books to be quite useful. We found my husband’s great grandfather’s business listed in the Duluth phone book. My Mom has older phone books from her home town which list what people’s occupations were. It is not always easy to find phone numbers on the internet. I think it’s a mistake to get rid of all of them.


  2. All the more reason to make sure we keep copies of those books. Now in our little town whose book is barely 120 pages cover-to-cover, storage is not nearly the issue it would be with a more metro edition of those.

    The other issue I see is with the quality of paper. Modern phone book paper is cheap. Eventually those pages, even if stored properly, will have conservation issues. So more permanent solutions are in order. Whether those be microfilming or scanning, the information contained in those books has tremendous research value.


  3. I think Mary and Mike bring up great points. Local history organizations are already trying to figure out how to preserve items that are born digital. I don’t read up on this much so I have no clue how this is working out for groups but it seems to be a real problem. If smaller history organizations are struggling to keep operating and make what resources they have available to the public, there is no way they will keep up with the growing digitization revolution.

    When I look at our research library and see the growing number of books on the shelf, I wonder where am I going to fit in all of this stuff in 5 or 10 years, let alone keep it in good shape so that people can still use it? I think Mike hit the nail on the head with microfilming both city directories and phone books. Many people are more willing to use microfilm in the case that the physical object is not available. In a smaller organization like ours, we don’t see a high demand for digital content except from the extremely tech saavy folks, who maybe use our research library once or twice a year. I would say these smaller organizations clientele are older, more traditional researchers so the digitization of objects can be held off for now. Microfilm is about as far as these folks are willing to push the proverbial envelope.


  4. Dick Wicklund says:

    Yes, of course loss of phone books creates some what of a stumbling block when it comes to research.
    One group that I don’t seem to see mentioned is the non computer bunch. Lots of elderly have never become computer people and many younger people have not interest, yes I know it seems otherwise.
    So with no computer how will these groups obtain an address yet alone a phone number.
    Don’t have a land line just cell OK allow your name and address to be listed. Will also indicate that either no phone or cell phone.
    If you want email address list it as such not just Mail


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