Save the phonebook!

Greenies, e-hipsters, phone companies, and especially the online directory services would love to kill the old-fashioned White Pages. Here's why we might want to think again.

Crosscut archive image.

The distribution of phone books has been targeted by environmentalists and others in much of the world: This Flickr photo from Australia has a caption mocking paper phone books.

Greenies, e-hipsters, phone companies, and especially the online directory services would love to kill the old-fashioned White Pages. Here's why we might want to think again.

In mid-2011 the Seattle-based Sightline Institute launched its Making Sustainability Legal project, dedicated to overturning laws that ban or hinder environmentally and socially beneficial practices. It’s a worthy effort. But even worthy efforts can overshoot. Earlier this month, Sightline founder Alan Durning took stock of the first year’s progress on legalizing 16 measures the project had targeted.

Which issue did he lead the list with? Clotheslines, graywater recycling, car sharing, or pay-as-you-drive insurance —  valuable, underappreciated eco-gems also targeted by Sightline?

Nope, phonebooks.

That is, saving the world from unwanted phonebooks, but not the duplicative Yellow Pages that multiple publishers foist on consumers in order to up their numbers and sell more ads. Seattle has already addressed that, in a 2010 law that lets consumers choose which, if any, Yellow Page books they want to receive, and other jurisdictions will doubtless follow suit.

Sightline is crusading against the White Pages.

Unlike the ad-filled Yellow Pages, the White Pages aren’t a profit center. But regulations in this and many other states make the phone companies (landline, not cell, of course) provide them to all phone subscribers, to enhance communication, consumer access, and community cohesion. (Italy used to go farther. It required that everyone, including politicians and other bigwigs, have listed phone numbers. It being Italy, those who really wanted to found their way around the rule.)

The phone companies would love to be able to forget that rule, since it just costs them money. They've succeeded in getting similar requirements reversed in Canada and a number of U.S. states. I wonder if our local provider, CenturyLink (formerly Qwest) has already forgotten it here, at least as far as one consumer is concerned. For a couple years now, I’ve received no White Pages at a phone number I’ve held for many years — despite opting in to receive the companion Dex Yellow Pages — until I wade through the phone tree to order them.

Sightline and other anti-phonebook crusaders would like to make everyone who wants the White Pages jump through a similar hoop — to go out of their way to opt in, even though the opposite default prevails with the Yellow Pages. (You must opt out to avoid them.) No big deal, writes Sightline’s usually insightful Eric de Place: "For the vast majority of us... the White Pages are wasteful, costly, and unpopular — but required by law." Only a “small number [of] people on the 'other' side of the digital divide, including some seniors and low-income families, who may have land lines but no cell phones and limited access to computers and the Internet” would ever think of using a phonebook anymore. Let them eat opt-ins. 

That ignores the fact that those cohorts, and disabled consumers who also may depend on print directories, are the least likely to be aware of the option and able to act on it. What are they going to do, go online to search out the opt-in page? Some will languish with out-of-date books or none at all, potentially losing touch with friends and emergency services.

Phonebook-bashers make another presumption: that paper directories are unquestionably inferior, “obsolete” modes of information retrieval. In fact, they have several advantages over online directories:

• They work when your battery dies or the power shuts off. Like old-fashioned landlines, phonebooks operate when the grid goes down. (Remember that scene in The Day After, in which a working pay phone proves a lifesaver while the rest of civilization tumbles down?) Of course, that couldn’t happen again here; it’s been four years since large parts of Seattle and environs got blacked out for up to a week.

• They won’t withhold information and try to upsell you into buying it (or paying to see whether there’s any there), as some online directories do. Nor, worse yet, surreptitiously bill you for ongoing "post-transaction services" after you order a single seach, as the Bellevue-based Intelius and others have done.

• They’re browsable, enabling users to scan for alternate spellings and vaguely remembered names — or even to compare the relative numbers of Andersens, Nguyens, and Muhamads over the years, a handy snapshot of demographic change.

• Old phonebooks preserve numbers that have since been unlisted or cancelled — useful for investigators and journalists, if unappealing from a privacy view.

• You can often find numbers faster in the phonebook than online, especially, but not only, if you have to go to your computer or wait out a pokey smartphone. Don’t believe me? Neither did the young coworker who sneered at phonebooks till I challenged him to a race.

I don’t even know if online searching is always more resource-efficient than well-used phonebooks (which are made from recycled paper), and I suspect the phonebook-bashers don't know either. Online searches and the hardware that performs it aren't an environmental free lunch. Google's and others' server farms are enormous energy hogs. It takes loads of power and water to manufacture silicon chips, and tantalum from Congolese rainforests and other high-impact metals to make laptops and cellphones. Certainly today's skinny White Page books contribute much less to the scrap-paper load than the multiple door-stopping Yellow Pages.

Of course, online directories have important advantages, too: They can be corrected and updated (though obsolete listings still seem to show up). You can find numbers around the world without dealing with operators and paying for their services. They’re as close as your smart phone, if you’re on that side of the digital divide.

Which medium’s better? Depends on the circumstances (local or long distance, etc.). Use the right tool for the job. But that sort of versatile variety is vanishing in a commercial culture built on superficial brand diversity and substantive homogenenization. Take pencils. A few years ago each little stationery store stocked just a few brands but a full hardness range, from soft, smeary #1 (for drawing and scribbling) to superhard #4 (for technical precision). Now we have just three big-box stationery chains; they stock many more pencil brands, but only “standard” #2s. (You can still order others online.)

As with pencils, so with newspapers and phonebooks. The phone companies would love to do away with the unremunerative White Pages, to save the cost of producing them and perhaps to switch users over to fee-based operator and ad-based online searches. Someday they’ll find a way to charge for the latter.

Sightline has a strange bedfellow in this cause: Seattle-based, the leading online phone directory. It’s campaigning to end mandatory white-page laws under the battlecry “Ban the Phone Book.” Translation: “Kill our competition.”

Unwanted phone books are a nuisance and a waste, but that’s no reason to make the White Pages less accessible to those who need them, pushing everyone across another digital divide. Better to at least treat them like the Yellow Pages: We should be able to opt out if we don’t want them, not forced to seek them out if we do.


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About the Authors & Contributors

Eric Scigliano

Eric Scigliano

Eric Scigliano's reporting on social and environmental issues for The Weekly (later Seattle Weekly) won Livingston, Kennedy, American Association for the Advancement of Science, and other honors. He has also written for Harper's, New Scientist, and many other publications. One of his books, Michelangelo's Mountain, was a finalist for the Washington Book Award. His other books include Puget SoundLove, War, and Circuses (aka Seeing the Elephant); and, with Curtis E. Ebbesmeyer, Flotsametrics.