Two Cheers for Paper Directories

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The Washington Post reports Verizon's plan for making delivery of white pages optional in the Washington area. The yellow pages will remain:

SuperMedia plans to continue to distribute government and business white pages. And the change will not affect the yellow pages.

The Yellow Pages Association, which represents 400 companies nationwide, says that more consumers use the yellow pages - 65 percent - than any other source when searching for local business information.

"There's still a lot of value and high usage," said Amy Healy, the association's vice president of public policy and sustainability.

According to the Post article, only two percent of subscribers request the white pages in states where books are sent by request. But why stop there?  Even more paper would be saved by applying the same rule to the proliferating yellow books. The proportion of yellow to white seems to be growing steadily.

The Yellow Pages Association has their own "Yellow Is Green" web page, with this FAQ, including the following on why there are so many of them:

Several phone books in one community points to a thriving local economy and demonstrates high advertiser demand and high consumer usage. Competition in the industry assures that publishers deliver useful, robust and feature-rich products.

and how not to get them

In January 2008 the Yellow Pages Association together with the Association of Directory Publishers adopted Joint Environmental Guidelines recommending that all member directory publishers adopt flexible directory distribution policies that allow end users to opt-out from receiving a future distribution of a print directory. For specific delivery requests, consumers should call the directory publisher at the number listed in the front of the directory. . . .

But as the site also points out, many deliveries are made in bulk to apartment buildings and businesses. The last time that happened in my building, most of the stack went unclaimed.

Treehugger.com notes that the Yellow Pages Association is fighting a Seattle opt-out program as an unconstitutional licensing of the press among other things. And I wouldn't just dismiss their objections; given the workings of the law and unresolved questions of "commercial speech," the precedent might ultimately affect free-speech rights to distribute other published works. The Association promises a government-free, opt-out national website in the near future.

The Association's research reveals this pattern:

Yellow Pages usage increases significantly when people are experiencing life events such as buying a home, planning a wedding or preparing for retirement, among others. Two major demographic segments, Generation Y and Baby Boomers - which together number almost 160 million consumers, will experience many life events over the next 10 years or so, and many will use the Yellow Pages to help them evaluate their options and make a buying decision.

So the yellow pages aren't just for taxis and pizzas, they're really sleepers, lying there patiently, waiting for one of those "life events" -- including, of course, the ultimate ride.

Far from wishing to bury the paper yellow or white pages, I love them. They can have documentary value, like the old Sears catalogs. Growing up in still-industrial Chicago--Sears headquarters--I used to browse the massive yellow pages before they split off the business/industrial section, and when they did, my family made sure to get it. It was an encyclopedia of a technological cornucopia. Online directories and other information that is not migrated professionally by database developers and archivists risks being effectively lost.

So let's keep the paper option. But the phone people need to re-educate not consumers but advertisers, to realize that's it's better to have fewer, wanted, and used directories.

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Edward Tenner is a historian of technology and culture. He was a founding advisor of Smithsonian's Lemelson Center and holds a Ph.D in European history. More

Edward Tenner is an independent writer and speaker on the history of technology and the unintended consequences of innovation. He holds a Ph.D. in European history from the University of Chicago and was executive editor for physical science and history at Princeton University Press. A former member of the Harvard Society of Fellows and John Simon Guggenheim fellow, he has been a visiting lecturer at Princeton and has held visiting research positions at the Institute for Advanced Study, Woodrow Wilson International Center for Scholars, and the Princeton Center for Information Technology Policy. He is now an affiliate of the Center for Arts and Cultural Policy of Princeton's Woodrow Wilson School. He was a founding advisor of Smithsonian's Lemelson Center, where he remains a senior research associate.

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