Q: What ever happened to phone books? Do they still make them, and if so, why? Isn’t it a colossal waste of paper?
A: Ah, remember the days that your new, crisp, fresh-smelling phone book would arrive at your doorstep all shiny and new? In our house, we’d get one white (residential) and one yellow (commercial), and I’d immediately run to replace the old ones at the top of the front hall closet. In those days, we didn’t exactly recycle the old one but we did reuse it — it was my seat cushion in my dad’s old Dodge Shadow when I was first learning how to drive. And how handy to have a portable way to look up phone numbers on the go, right?
Well, long gone are those days. These days, you’re more likely to see phone books outside the house than in. I’ve seen phone books left outside so long, they become lawn ornaments. In fact, nobody I know actually uses a phone book anymore. Actually, that’s not true. I think my great-aunt Hilda does. I’ve seen her use it to stand on to get something in the top cabinet in her kitchen.
And while we’re on the subject of phone books, don’t you wonder about those movies where the unassuming boyishly good-looking hero looks up a number in a phone book in a nondescript phone booth in the middle of town. And then he circles the number and rips out the page? Come on, really? You’re telling me the guy can take apart a bomb in seconds but he doesn’t own a Blackberry? And he’s in a phone booth? With an actual phone book in it? Where is he, New York, circa 1955?
But I digress …
Remarkably, phone books have been around for 100 years and at one point were the most oft-read book in many houses. That’s because even if you didn’t read a work of literature, a romance novel or even a comic book, you sure as heck looked up the phone number of a plumber when the toilet started to gurgle.
But nowadays a local plumber is just a few clicks away.
In fact, so many people have seen the uselessness of print phone books that WhitePages.com has started an campaign called Ban the Phonebook, promoting the idea of an “opt-in” phone book delivery program, which would allow consumers to receive white pages only if they so desire. The site claims that 5 million trees are cut down each year to make phone books and that only 22 percent of those phone books are properly recycled.
The Yellow Pages Association (also known as the Local Search Association), which is the trade organization for the phone book industry, counters that phone books are in fact made only from recycled paper and sawdust. They go even further to say that there are rural areas in the U.S. that have limited or no Internet access and rely solely on phone books. If they stopped making them, those people would essentially be cut off.
But what about the rest of us who get our phone books and then promptly toss them out? I’m not so sure they have an answer for that one.
In an attempt to curb waste, though, they have created an “opt-out” program, which, through a series of steps, allows you to choose not to have phone books delivered to you. That's definitely a step in the right direction, if enough people take advantage of it.
Either way, phone books might very well be obsolete sooner than you know it, so while they’re still around — take a moment to peruse one if you’ve got it, feel the featherweight paper in your hands, and try to find some funny last names. Know that soon enough, you probably won’t have the opportunity.