Losing a data source: the white pages of the phone book

A number of phone companies have recently made requests of states that they stop publishing white pages. With this information available online and few people using the thick phone books, it looks like the phone book is on the way out. We might say “good riddance” but then briefly reflect on the usefulness of residential phone listings as data sources:

If the white pages are nearing their end, then Emily Goodmann hopes the directories would be archived for historical, genealogical or sociological purposes.

“The telephone directory stands as the original sort of information network that not only worked as kind of a social network in a sense, but it served as one of the first information resources,” said Goodmann, a doctoral student at Northwestern University who is writing her dissertation on the history of phone books as information technology. “It’s sort of heartbreaking … even though these books are essentially made to be destroyed.”

Particularly in studying communities in the late 1800s and early 1900s, phone listings can be an important source of data. In fact, they may be the only common source that lists a majority of residents.

(Interestingly, the article also notes that the Yellow Pages are doing just fine – and will continue to be printed.)

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