Young Reporters, Old Tricks: How the Phone Book Saved My Story (Really!)

Posted: 12/12/2012 by Gillian Frew, freelance writer Huffington Post

After 25 minutes of fruitless searching through outdated posts on genealogy forums, I close the lid of my laptop in frustration.

“I can’t find any Beattys living anywhere,” I complain to my mother.

I have two browsers, three windows and countless tabs open on my MacBook. None of them contain any information relevant to the story I’m trying to write. I’m right up against deadline on my holiday feature, and trying feverishly to track down contact information for any living relatives of a Walla Walla, Wash. family pictured in an archival photograph from the mid-1940s.

It was either that, or confess to my editor in the eleventh hour that I had art but no story to go with it.

“Have you tried the phone book?” my mom suggests.

I hadn’t. In fact, I’m embarrassed to admit that the idea hadn’t even occurred to me. I’d gotten so comfortable with the assumption that all the information I could possibly want or need was available online that I was on the verge of giving up. If Google wasn’t returning any relevant results, I reasoned, the information just must not exist.

This, of course, is anything but the truth. Plenty of online material isn’t searchable, and far more material isn’t digitized at all, but rather resides in dusty filing cabinets and library basements. According to The Chronicle of Higher Education, only a tiny fraction of archival material has ever been read, let alone posted to the internet. Google estimates that there are upwards of 129 million books in the world, but only 15 million (about 12 percent) have been digitized.

So I flipped through the local phone book (after locating it behind a row of cleaning products in a lonely kitchen cabinet) until I reached the B section of the Walla Walla white pages. Lo and behold, there were three Beattys living within a two-mile radius. Success!

Now I’m not trying to sound overly dramatic, but this small discovery felt almost like going back in time. It was all still in there, I marveled: names, phone numbers, even street addresses. Who knew? I was reminded of all the times growing up when I’d forget to write down that night’s homework assignment, and my parents would bust out the trusty phone book to look up a classmate’s last name so I could call them up and ask. Since we lived in a relatively large city and I wasn’t in the habit of memorizing the names of my peers’ parents, it always had to be someone whose last name was fairly unique or had an unusual spelling. I also remember feeling just a tiny bit superior because my home number was unlisted.

Getting back to the present, I hope my misadventures with the phone book will serve as a reminder to all young reporters out there: In the digital age, with more information available online than ever before, we still need to remember the basics. To scope out stories and suss out sources, reporters must rely on all of the tools at our disposal, both hi-tech and low. Sometimes, when all else fails, the solution might be as simple as remembering to check the phone book.