The telephone book was once a familiar part of everyone’s household. Some of the directories were big enough and heavy enough to be used as doorstoppers, but everybody would use them at some point to look up a neighbor’s number or just check to make sure the phone company had listed their own name and address correctly.
But the white pages directory of residential telephone numbers is another cultural artifact that will soon become obsolete, just as the buggy whip became unnecessary when Americans shifted from horses to automobiles as their favored form of transportation.
It is well on the way to obscurity here in Georgia. AT&T-BellSouth, which publishes millions of residential, business and yellow pages directories every year, has asked the Public Service Commission to exempt the company from its regulation that requires phone companies to provide a printed residential directory to all customers.
Business and yellow pages directories are still widely enough used to justify their continued printing and distribution, according to AT&T, but most consumers just don’t consult their residential white pages anymore.
A major factor in the decline of the printed directory is that more people have desktop or laptop computers. It’s usually quicker and more convenient to look up a telephone number online than to drag out a bulky directory and flip through page after page of listings.
The phone company also has, in what I’m sure was a deliberate strategy, made it all but impossible for a large segment of society to be able to read their white pages directories.
Older people, who don’t see as well and tend not to use computers as frequently as younger people, would continue to use the printed white pages if they could. But AT&T-BellSouth has shrunk and condensed the typeface of listings so much over the years that printed directories are no longer readable for old geezers like me (I’m sure some of our readers could testify to having similar difficulties).
During a recent PSC discussion of the directory issue, Rockdale County retiree Cynthia Babb said of herself and other senior citizens: "They don’t use the telephone book because they can’t read it. They have to go out and get a magnifying glass."
Another factor is that many subscribers, especially younger ones, don’t use landline telephones the way they once did. A growing number of Georgians rely on cellular telephones for all their personal communications needs, and cellphone numbers are usually not included in the printed directories.
There is also an environmental issue: discarded phone books comprise a large part of the solid waste that is dumped into landfills across the state. Eliminating the printed version of the white pages would relieve some of the pressure on those landfills and save a few trees in the bargain.
AT&T did a trial run last year by eliminating the printed white pages for a portion of its metro Atlanta customers. The company gave them instead a CD-ROM computer disk that included all of the residential phone numbers. Those customers were told they could still get a printed directory from AT&T simply by requesting a copy.
Only 1 percent of the customers who received the CD-ROM subsequently called the phone company to request a printed copy of the white pages, and fewer than 2 percent actually used the computer disk to look up a residential phone number, AT&T said.
"Based on the diminishing use of the printed residential white pages directories by customers and the growing reliance on and desire to use technological applications to retrieve directory information, change is in order," the company said in a PSC filing. "It no longer makes sense for AT&T Georgia to distribute residential white pages directories to every customer every year."
"These directories are just not used as much as they were in a previous time," said Dan Walsh, an assistant attorney general who provides legal advice to the PSC. "We do all agree that the status should be changed."
The PSC will vote soon on doing away with the printed phone book requirement, at least in the metro Atlanta area. The white page directories will hang on for a while in the more sparsely populated rural communities but clearly, it is a cultural institution that is on the way out.
Tom Crawford is editor of Capitol Impact’s Georgia Report, an Internet news service that covers government and politics in Georgia. His column appears Wednesdays.