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What can you find in 1.7 million phone book images?

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The Digital Content Management Section (DCM) is excited to announce the release of over 1.7 million images scanned from the Library of Congress U.S. Telephone Directory Collection. These images originate from thousands of reels of black and white microfilm held in the Main Reading Room – now available on the Library’s website.

The process for getting this collection online required a fair amount of metadata wrangling, as the only metadata previously available online for this collection was in the

Portion of a cover from a 1938-1953 Belle Glade through Pahokee, Florida, Telephone directory.

form of 16 state and city level MARC records in the Library’s catalog. Reel content descriptions were originally compiled into physical binders and only made available in hard copy at the reference desk in the Main Reading Room. There were no digital surrogates available online for any of the original reels.

Using the original data compiled by the contract scan team, DCM staff conducted bulk extractions to identify reels that could go online. Taking a “More Product, Less Process” approach enabled staff to create metadata descriptions for over 3,500 items, without having to inspect each individual reel. For the online collection, each record functions as an item; however, in many cases, an item may contain multiple phone books, and sometimes, multiple reels. As a result, the items have names like “Pennsylvania – White pages and Yellow Pages – Delaware County – June/1956.” In addition to the metadata tasks, colleagues in the Office of Chief Information Officer (OCIO) helped with organizing this content so it could go online – we could not have completed this project without their innovative work and support!

Image 202 of Alabama - White Pages - Birmingham - December 1949
Detail of an advertisement from a 1949 Birmingham, Alabama telephone directory.

The original microfilm collection consists of more than 8,000 reels for 14 states, the city of Chicago, and the District of Columbia (you can read about the history of the collection here). We have made available approximately half of the entire collection, which includes 1220 reels for California, 486 for Pennsylvania, 369 for Alabama, and a thousand more. Please explore the “Locations” filter on the Collection’s page to see all of the available localities! Users can search the titles of the reels, which include geographic information and information on the years for the phone books. Currently, the phone book images are not associated with searchable text, so users are not able to do searches for names or addresses. In the near future, a portion of these will have this kind of searchable text added and in the long term, we plan to get searchable text for all the pages.

Also on the new Collections page, we have selected a handful of images that represent and aim to capture the breadth of the collection. There are advertisements for everything under the sun in the reels containing yellow pages, including yachts, yarn, and yeast from this particular 1939 Connecticut phone directory. In addition to advertisements, there are instructions provided by telephone companies that describe etiquette for using a party line, how to call emergency numbers, and how, when (and why!) to use the telephone. The instructions could be of interest to those who want to learn more about the lost art of making or receiving a phone call! By placing these online, we hope that you will perhaps find names and former addresses of relatives, friends, and even prominent American historical figures.

This collection is also an opportunity to explore some of the tools the Library makes available via LC for Robots. You could use the API to get the metadata for some reels or make a Twitter bot! One of the questions remaining from this release is this: how many original phone books are visible on each of the reels? Let us know in the comments if you have any ideas to help us get that number!

Comments (8)

  1. Squeee! I am so excited and happy to see this digitization project launched. I cannot wait to explore it. Can I get a Woo Hoo for Telephone Directories!

  2. Thank you so much! Jennifer Harbster, I am just as much excited as you! I recently found that there are loads of scanned documents and newspapers. I haven’t fully explored everything… but there is a lot of cool fun stuff to look at. I love going through looking at the old newspapers and reading the stories and ads! I can’t wait to view the phone book pages! Great reading material!

  3. Oof me likey likey

  4. Would appreciate something a little more specific than “near future…long term”
    . In the near future, a portion of these (images) will have this kind of searchable text added and in the long term, we plan to get searchable text for all the pages…thank you

  5. There are a series of technical dependencies involved in enabling full text search for these items which means we cannot forecast when full text is likely to be available for them.

  6. Great work! Is there a way of downloading an entire phone book, or can you only save just one image at a time? Thank you very much.

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