Phone books call it a day

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Phone books call it a day

By: grabitsdm | Information Technology | November 13, 2010
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?