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Death of the directory: When was the last time you opened a phone book?

They can be used to press flowers—or as a booster seat, door stop or laptop desk. However, fewer and fewer phone books today are employed as originally intended—to look up telephone numbers. So why are they still regularly dropped at our doorsteps? 

The main reason: the law. In most states, phone companies are still required to provide the directories to landline customers, even if the tomes might soon make their way to landfills. In fact, less than 16 percent of adults recycle their old or unwanted phone books, according to a survey conducted by WhitePages, a popular online phone directory. Now, the company is sponsoring a "Ban the Phone Book" initiative to encourage phone book "opt-in" delivery programs, reports Grist. A few of these plans, which require subscribers to actually request the books, have already sprung up in parts of Georgia, Ohio and Florida. (Many more areas offer the less efficient "opt-out" programs.)

Atlanta and Columbus, Ohio, are two of the latest cities halting the automatic delivery of AT&T's directories. "Consumers use other resources to get residential numbers, such as storing contact numbers in their cell phones, creating their own personal directories or from community bulletins," Chris Bauer, an AT&T spokesman, told UPI . "And many people are now using their cell phones as their sole phone line, and cell phones aren't listed in the residential directory."

The first printed U.S. phone directory was likely New Haven’s 50-number listing in 1878, reports Slate. "The most popular printed work ever" has acted as a "barometer of societal change," notes the online magazine. Southern cities typically printed two books—numbers were segregated by race, like everything else in society; temperance groups banned brewery ads. Perhaps, the directory's downfall signals American society's acceptance of the transition into the digital era. "We stopped riding horses, too," Rick Watson, a professor in management information systems at the University of Georgia told the Atlanta Journal-Constitution. "It’s just part of technological change that occurs and the move to electronic services, which are more convenient."

In 2007, Bill Gates predicted in an address to Microsoft, "Yellow Page usage among people, say, below 50, will drop to zero—near zero—over the next five years." This would be welcome news for the nearly 5 million trees cut down every year to produce the increasingly popular kindling. And for businesses that host online directories.


Picture by PinkMoose via Flickr

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