Friday, May 22, 2009

Normal Phonebook -- Then and Now

“The new phonebook’s here! The new phonebook’s here!” Do you remember that scene from Steve Martin’s movie “The Jerk”? I don’t think anyone really gets that excited when the new phonebook comes out. I’m not even sure that phonebooks get used that much anymore because so many of us turn to the Internet instead of the Yellow Pages for business information and the phonebook doesn’t list cell phone numbers.

Compared to our current phonebook’s information about residents, information in the local phonebook back in 1962 was amazingly detailed (and intrusive). The first section listed the name of the resident, the spouse’s name in parentheses, their occupation and place of employment (or if they were retired), and their home address. If the spouse was deceased, that was noted with a “w.” The head of the household was indicated by an “h” before the address, while other members of the family (and roomers) were indicated by an “r” before the address. If the person owned a business, that person’s name was noted in parentheses after the name of the business.

The second section was arranged by streets and street addresses, with the occupant’s name and phone number listed after the street address. So, if you wanted to know the person’s phone number, you needed to first look up that person’s street address. It seems kind of odd that finding a phone number – the primary reason for a phonebook – was a two-step process.

Think of the problems of using that system today! People change employers, move frequently, and change spouses once in a while. All of this information would get updated just once a year, so the phonebook would always contain a lot of misinformation. And there would probably be a great deal of resistance to publishing some of the personal information. Would we want our occupation and employer listed? How would the phone company designate “head of household”? And do we want people to know about our marital status?

Gone are the days when people stay put and stay married. And even though lots of people today are willing to share (too much) information about themselves publically, they want to control that information. So the old style of phonebook listing would never work today. And maybe the phonebook itself is on the way out. That’s too bad, because a phonebook is a good source of information about a community and its culture.

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