Telephone book: Vital or futile?

White-page and yellow-page directories lie open at a German labour exchange where unemployed people use them to track down potential employers. (File photo, November 29, 2006 in Augsburg, Germany.)

Braunschweig, Germany / DPA

What’s the use of old-style telephone books when all the numbers can be looked up on the internet?
Untold millions of people must have thumbed through the thin pages of directories seeking a plumber or a travel agent for a holiday.
But today you can find all that information on the internet. No longer do you need to run down columns of names in alphabetical order with your fingertip, muttering aloud the alphabet as you seek the entry you’re looking for.
Nevertheless telephone books are still printed and delivered round the globe. You find them piled up in the hallways of apartment buildings, in supermarkets or at collection stations and most are dutifully picked up by phone subscribers.
Why? Critics say the books are out of date when they arrive, and incomplete: most mobile numbers are not listed in them.
“I seldom look in a phone book
myself,” admits Rhett-Christian
Grammatik, a private telephone book publisher who is head of the Association of German Reference and Directory Media (VDAV).
The world’s first telephone directory was printed in 1878 in New Haven, Connecticut. Curiously, it had no numbers in it, just names. You
relied on the operator to connect you to the right subscriber. New Haven had 50 of them.
Initially, people thought telephones were a useless, show-off toy. When Berlin’s first telephone book came out in 1881, it was

referred to as the “Book of 99 Fools.” That was as many names as it held.
Despite the scepticism, the telephone and its associated book were only beginning their triumphant march. Then came the split into white-pages (residential) and yellow-pages (business) directories.
The Library of Congress in Washington DC has the world’s biggest collection of historic phone directories from round the globe: 100,000. Every year, another 1,500 arrive from 100 nations of the world, so it’s clear the printing presses are still rolling fast.
In Germany, and that would probably be true of most nations, there are big regional differences in how much a telephone book is used.
Grammatik’s association did a study in 2015 and found that “the older the user, and the more rural their residential area, the more they used the phone book.”
In hip, sophisticated Berlin just 28 per cent of people still leaf through a printed phone book to find anything, whereas in rural states such as Brandenburg or Saxony-Anhalt, the use can be as high as 70 per cent, surveys show.
Uwe Calm from a phone-book publishing company, Oeding Verlag, doesn’t have a simple answer as to why the printed phone book hasn’t died out yet. “People keep using them out of sheer habit, without really thinking about whether there’s an alternative,” he suggests.
What has kept phone books going in many countries is the advertising revenue they generate.
A full-page display in a German phone book costs 15,000 euros (17,000 dollars), says Heiko Hanslik from the VFT, the association that represents commercial publishers of give-away directories in Germany.
He predicts local phone books will be around for a while yet.
This should make a lot of Germans happy. A YouGov survey of internet users found that less than a quarter wanted to see the printed phone book abolished, even though half said they do use the internet to look up
telephone numbers.
“You can browse in them,” Calm says in defence of the printed book. “Perhaps you’ll discover something you weren’t looking for and lose yourself a bit.”
With 100 million units in circulation in Germany, where each locality’s directory is reprinted annually, the telephone book has managed to reach the same level of recognition as Chancellor Angela Merkel – 97.5 per cent. That’s how many people say they know what it-or she-is.

A telephone and a phone directory. (File photo, March 22, 2016.)

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