Not so long ago, a significant number of everyday reference questions asked at the library’s front desk were answered with a quick flip through the phone book. Today, of course, most of those same questions are answered by Google.
Our local history room still has a small collection of old area phone books. As historical documents, they can be quite useful for looking up addresses, occupations and businesses: where did your grandparents live? What was the name of that shoe store on the corner? Old phone books offer a slice of life of days past.
The covers of phone book are fascinating, too. In many ways they reflect the aesthetics of the era. If you happen to have a modern phone book nearby, look at the cover; chances are it’s just another ad. In days past however, they were artful. Here are two favorites from our collection:
The inside pages also include interesting tidbits. Early directories had detailed instructions on how to call the next town (ie, long distance), how to use a party line, sometimes even histories of the region.
In the modern age, phone books may have lost their usefulness, but in the ephemera you can track the evolution of the technology that has led to the devices now small enough to be carried in our pockets.