Phone Companies Hanging Up the White Pages

The white pages are heading into retirement, as regulators in New York, Pennsylvania and Florida have approved Verizon Communications Inc.’s wish to no longer distribute residential phone books. According to phone companies, the majority of people now look up numbers on the internet instead of consulting the bulky book.  “Anyone who doesn’t have access to some kind of online way to look things up now is probably too old to be able to read the print in the white pages anyway,” quipped Robert Thompson, a Syracuse University pop culture professor.  There’s also some sound environmental reasons for discontinuing the white pages in terms of using less paper and ink.

The initial phone book was issued in February, 1878, in New Haven, CT.  It was a single page that listed 50 customers, and eventually grew into a book that was a staple in American homes for generations.  In an age when more people rely exclusively on cell phones (which aren’t listed in the white pages), the big books have become an anachronism.  Additionally, caller ID systems on land lines have the ability to store many frequently called numbers.

In the last three years, states that have granted permission to stop publishing residential lists or that have pending requests include Alabama, Delaware, Florida, Georgia, Indiana, Missouri, New Jersey, New York, North Carolina, Ohio, Oklahoma, Pennsylvania, Texas, Virginia and Wisconsin.  In New York alone, discarding the white pages will save 3,375 tons of paper annually and conserve the energy required to print, bind and distribute the directories.  Despite the impending demise of the white pages, their business-oriented counterpart – the yellow pages – is faring quite well, according to the Yellow Pages Association, which says that more than 550 million combined residential and business directories are printed annually.

Emily Goodman, a doctoral student at Northwestern University whose dissertation is about the history of the white pages as information technology, said “The telephone directory stands as the original sort of information network that not only worked as a kind of a social network, but also served as one of the first information resources.  It’s sort of heartbreaking…even though these books are essentially made to be destroyed.”  Goodman hopes that the white pages will be archived for their historical, genealogical and sociological importance.