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The Fascinating Phonebook


The phrase "I'd rather be reading the phonebook" as a (mildly) preferable alternative to boring tasks has given telephone directories a bad reputation. One that I admit I never thought to put to question before. Recently, however, when Special Formats Processing began working on a large collection of telephone directories from the United States and numerous countries around the world, I was pleasantly surprised at how enjoyable the directories turned out to be. Of course, there isn't time to actually read any phonebook cover to cover (although the covers themselves can be very entertaining) but with dozens of phonebooks going through my hands daily, I discovered that they contain lots of interesting and useful information.

The collection, over 2,500 linear feet, dates from the late 1800s and continues until the early 2000s. It is divided in two parts, the United States Telephone Directories, and the World Telephone Directories. The United States Telephone Directories are now complete, and accessible at the General Research Division through a fully searchable inventory. Please note that they are located offsite, so be sure to give yourself some extra time for delivery.

In today's digital times, a physical collection of such extent and coverage is a rare example, especially for a format that by default is considered temporary. The information they contain, primarily names, addresses, and telephone numbers of individuals and businesses, is valuable raw material for historical, sociological, and genealogical research, just to name a few. In addition, aside from numbers and business listings, telephone directories are a goldmine of diverse cultural information.

Desk set [telephone], Digital ID 98286, New York Public LibraryCandlestick telephone

What is striking in the content of at least the first eighty years of directories is that the telephone was still considered a new concept for many. Directories are full of instructions and advice on telephone usage, culture and etiquette.

Today, you can only see candlestick telephones in old movies or perhaps a good antique store, but rotary dial telephones are not entirely phased out. Making a call on such devices has quickly become a lost art, but for those who would like to recover it, instructions are included in pretty much every directory. You 'd have to reach back to the first decades of the 20th century for the candlestick telephone, but you should be able to find instructions for rotary dial calls from the time such telephone appliances became available, around 1919, until at least the 1960s.

Telephone conversations in the beginning of the 20th century were no quieter than they are today (think of that person next to you on the bus…) At least in the past there was good reason for it: connections, and even more so speaker and receiver technology, were still developing, so people actually needed to shout during calls. Even worse, before World War II, telephone subscribers in the U.S. were usually part of a group of sometimes up to 20 people, who all shared a telephone line. Anyone in the group, called a party line, could pick up their receiver and listen to your conversation (Pillow Talk, anyone?!) In case of a wrong number, though, top marks for politeness should go to Canada, specifically the Inuit! Inuit nunanganniittunut, Canada (1982)Inuit nunanganniittunut, Canada (1982)I am obviously not the only one who has found such great interest in the pages of telephone directories. Ammon Shea wrote a whole book on the subject: The Phone Book: The Curious History of the Book That Everyone Uses But No One Reads. It is a thorough and interesting work, that promises circus sideshows, criminal investigations, mental-health diagnoses, and much more! Also have A Look at "The Book," in this previous post by Philip Sutton.

Stay tuned for more interesting finds in the New York Public Library's telephone directories, as we go down the alphabet, and around the world through their pages!


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Great post on a very interesting collection. Who knew?

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