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Phone directories ring the bell of progress

NOT many people use telephone directories. There are more mobile phones than people in the country and each has its built-in phonebook of regular numbers. Add in the fact that one can go online and access the directory directly and it is easy to see why there is less and less call for big paper directories.


Indeed, in some quarters, they are criticised as being wasteful. Upwards of two million metric tonnes of greenhouse gasses are generated in their manufacture and distribution. In 2012, some American cities attempted to ban their distribution but were defeated in the courts. Here in Ireland there is severe criticism of the manner in which they are distributed in that they are simply thrown outside doors. When they are still there weeks later, it simply advertises that the house is unoccupied or the owners are away.

Telephone directories do feature in the Guinness Book of Records but not for anything so mundane as a number. No, just for the number of directories that people can tear in a given time.

Tearing directories has long been considered a feat of strength. An evangelical pastor, Rev Charon, used directories as aids to his sermons. He tore phone books while comparing each to an addiction or violent crime. As his finale he tore a 1,000 page directory announcing that God can break those habits. He even performed on late night talk shows. His first record was tearing 19, one-thousand page directories in three minutes. He lost his record in 2002 but reclaimed it two years later by ripping 39, one-thousand page directories and was disappointed that he didn’t make it to 40. He said that  Portland Oregon directories tore better than others.

The first telephone directory was issued in New Haven Connecticut in 1878 and listed 50 businesses on a single sheet of cardboard. It had no numbers  and neither had the first British directory in 1880. That listed 248 names and addresses of telephone users in London. There was no need for numbers because in those days you had to contact the exchange and ask for the person you wanted to call by name. Not unlike what applied in this country with rural manual exchanges.

One hundred years later, in 1981, the first electronic directory system, called Minitel, appeared in France and in 1996, the first directories went online in the United States.

Here in Ireland we have different directories for different parts of the country depending on the STD code like 06, 05 ,01, 02 and so on and each area also has its own Golden Pages.  This is just a symptom of the number of phones in the country.

There was a time when there were only two directories – one for the Dublin Area and one for the rest of the country. Prior to that there was only one directory for the entire country, with the Dublin numbers in one half and the rest in the other half. Those were the days before there was any serious effort made to make telephones more readily available. The publication of the two separate directories was seen as a major achievement and a symbol of progress in the country.

Those two separate telephone directories were first published on February 25, 1976 – 37 years ago this week.

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