Phone books may become (white) pages of the past

By Anita Kumar
Washington Post Staff Writer
Wednesday, November 17, 2010

Score another one for the digital revolution.

The phone book - or at least the residential white pages - is going the way of the rotary telephone and the phone booth.

Verizon, the largest provider of land line phones in the Washington region, is asking state regulators for permission to stop delivering the residential white pages in Virginia and Maryland.

The company plans to make a similar request of the D.C. Public Service Commission in the next several weeks, Verizon spokesman Harry Mitchell said.

Instead, the directories will be available online or, by request, in printed form or on CD-ROM. But the inches-thick white pages, a fixture in American households for more than a century, would no longer land on porches with a thud each year.

Time to call the Smithsonian.

"I'm kind of amazed they lasted as long as they have," said Robert Thompson, a professor of popular culture at Syracuse University. "But there are some people nostalgic about this. Some people like to go to the shelf and look up a number."

For decades, regulators across the United States have required phone companies to distribute directories in paper form. The first directory - issued in 1878, two years after Alexander Graham Bell invented the telephone - was a single sheet of paper that listed 50 residents of New Haven, Conn. It eventually grew to become an indispensable staple of American life.

But now Verizon and AT&T, the nation's two dominant land line carriers, say that most people search for numbers online and store frequently used numbers in their cellphones rather look than look them up in the white pages. Land lines are being disconnected at a rate of almost 10 percent each year, according to the companies, and white pages don't list cellphone numbers.

A survey conducted by Gallup for SuperMedia, which produces the directories for Verizon, indicates that the number of households relying on residential white pages dropped from 25 percent in 2005 to 11 percent in 2008.

"The way of getting this information has changed," Mitchell said.

That means phone books often end up in landfills and recycling bins, or they are used for firewood or children's booster seats.

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