List Media: The Telephone Directory and the Arranging of Names




list, telephone directories, list media, telephone books, database, copyright

How to Cite

Goggin, G. M. (2012). List Media: The Telephone Directory and the Arranging of Names. M/C Journal, 15(5).
Vol. 15 No. 5 (2012): list
Published 2012-10-12


… there is nothing remotely creative about arranging names alphabetically in a white pages directory. It is an age-old practice, firmly rooted in tradition and so commonplace that it has come to be expected as a matter of course.

— Justice O’Connor, judgment in Feist Publications v. Rural Telephone Service Company, 1991

Does a telephone directory have an author?

— Justice Finkelstein, judgment in Telstra v Desktop Marketing 2001

I own the copyright to my information. I collect the listings and I put them in a database for print or digital (online) use, and that database is my book, my brand, my copyright.

— Greg Ellis, Sensis general manager, 2004 (quoted in Barker)

The Telephone Directory as a Species of List Media

Once a common fixture in households and businesses with a telephone service, the telephone directory illustrates the beguiling nature of lists. At first glance, the telephone directory looks like a simple list of the names of subscribers, their phone numbers, and addresses. As the telephone spreads across societies, reaching something like “universal” coverage in many countries in the 1990s, then telephone directories become much more elaborate. They are stuffed full with many more names, though it is not only their heft that distinguishes them. The telephone directory is a lucrative vehicle for advertising, for many years a significant competitor to, if not outstripping, other forms of “main media” advertising (CEASA). The telephone directory also functioned to enable direct marketing of potential products and services to customers. As we shall see, the complexity of telephone directories deepens with computerisation of lists and advances in software and programming, as the database becomes their paradigmatic form.

Thus, the practice of making a list of telephone subscribers is far richer and more consequential than it ordinarily seems. Over its nearly one hundred and fifty year history, there is a persistent, perplexed plaint that this kind of list-making is entirely ordinary. Not perceived as the slightest bit creative, the directory is just a matter of arranging names. Yet, from its inception, the nature of telephone directories was more complex than this. Furthermore, as directories grew in size, reach, and financial worth, the compilation of telephone directories has become much more complicated still. To make a telephone directory in the twenty-first century entails the computational, network, and human resources, of some of the largest corporations in history—who remain on permanent guard against incursions from competitors wishing to enter the phone list market.

Accordingly, contemporary telephone directories are not the kind of literary lists of which Robert Belknap writes: “personal constructions that invite different interpretations from different readers” (Belknap xv). For Belknap, there is a “principle of expandibility” that characterises the shopping list, or telephone directory,

which retains numbers of individual entries and orders them according to a straightforward principle for ease of use. In this instance, elements are added alphabetically, rather than tacked on at the end, but fundamentally both the grocery list and the telephone directory readily assimilate additional members. (Belknap 31)

While expandability might apply to literary lists, Belknap feels that:

literary compilations have a limit to the number of items they can hold, beyond which the addition of further units becomes detrimental. One of things that can go awry with a list is that it can go on for too long: though without bounds in principle, the list has a load limit of what it can skilfully hold. (Belknap 31)

Thus, the disciplines of metre in poetry mean that with “such impositions, it is impossible to attain telephone-directory exhaustiveness” (Belknap 31). Exhaustive they might be, but the problem here is really that the telephone directory does not scan so well as literature. Or at least on Belknap’s model of literature created from the confines of narrow lists—rather than works created from technologies of the word-becoming-data.

To do justice to lists, and their prevalence and central role in contemporary culture, I propose that it is much more productive to approach the telephone directory as a form of media. As I shall argue in what follows, the notion of list media is a much more fruitful way to assess the cultural practices, meanings, economies, and social correlates of telephone directories, and their implications for lists in our worlds.

From a List of Subscribers to the Telephone Book

One of the antecedent forms of the telephone directory was the city or town directory used by people to find someone: “In 1655 a directory for the city of New York provided 255 names of households, arranged by location rather than by name” (Shea 51). City directories coexisted with telephone directories, until the latter superseded them (Shea 51). From their own inception, telephone directories were also a relatively prosaic and useful, yet also socially complex, form of list. In 1893 the telephone directory for the state of New South Wales was entitled New South Wales Government Telephone Exchanges, Sydney ... List of Subscribers (NSW Government). Later, it simply became Telephone Directory (with the name of the district covered).  The first Australian telephone exchange and telephone directory was established in 1880 (Sensis). It was published in succession by the Postmaster-General’s Department, the Postal and Telecommunications Department, Telecom Australia, then finally Telstra (still Australia’s dominant carrier).

The telephone directory helped subscribers to know and locate the details of an interlocutor with a telephone, in order to request the operator place a call:

Since the telephone numbers can be used regardless of the point of origin of calls, the same directory information may be given to all subscribers. Directories for any region may be prepared in bulk and distributed throughout the Commonwealth as required. Also, subscribers may include their national numbers on letter-heads and in advertisements, providing a useful supplement to Departmental directories and a valuable advertising feature for the public. (Turnbull, Hams, and Pollock 37.1)

As the telephone diffused more widely across Australia, the directory became an effective, if still incomplete, list of citizens living in a place. As a public record, the telephone directory was harvested by many historians including, notably, Claude S. Fischer in his social history of the telephone in USA (Fischer). Telephone directories also took on ambiguous social functions in households, especially during the decades when telephones were still not widely used––recalling that in 1975, for instance, in Australia, there were still only 39 telephone instruments in service per 100 head of population (ABS 412), a figure that at least was significantly up from just over 13.6 telephones per 100 in 1950 (Commonwealth Bureau 204). Yet, even early on, furniture was designed around the telephone, with hall-tables designed to accommodate the directory volume: instructions for a telephone table with a “directory compartment […] no larger than necessary to hold the telephone books” is given, for example, in an article in a 1923 issue of Popular Science (Collister).

As well as constituting a network of calling parties, the list of telephone subscribers also held considerable commercial value. The commercial and non-commercial interests of subscribers were probably blurred early on in the life of the telephone. With the importance of the telephone instrument for business––advertising and marketing enterprises, and their services and products, as well as contacting them––separate directories were provided for subscribers. The first business listings were published in a trade listings section in the Adelaide White Pages in 1906 (Sensis). Stand-alone commercial directories saw the creation of the Pink Pages as in, for instance, the 1958 the Melbourne classified telephone directory: complete listing of business, professional, commercial and trade subscribers (PMG, Pink Pages). This is distinct from the Telephone Directory, which remains a “list of subscribers to the Melbourne telephone exchange system,” though it does contain a “classified advertising section” courtesy of O’Brien Publicity Company (“by arrangement with the Postmaster-General”) (PMG, Telephone Directory). In 1975, the Pink Pages was succeeded by the Yellow Pages––a commercial directory as well as a “buying guide” (Telecom). In the same year Telecom also established the National Directory Service to manage publication and distribution of its directories (Sensis).

With the deregulation of telecommunications around the world from the 1980s onwards, the value of telephone directories and directories-associated services––such as directory assistance to subscribers––rose higher still. A New York Times article estimated that, in 1997 alone, US Yellow Pages generated US$11.5 billion in sales (Elliot, cited in Rysman)––very likely close to the highwater mark for telephone directory revenues. Typically, directories were provided free annually to subscribers, and their cost was covered by advertising revenue (Busse and Rysman; Rysman). Directories were also dominated by telephone companies, with some competition from independent publishers who had not achieved much success (Rysman). Because of their relative lack of competition, and their significance in advertising for small business in particular––who often lacked the wherewithal or clout of large corporations to negotiate better deals––telephone directories became a target for deregulation.

Across the world, carriers that had previously enjoyed a monopoly on directories were obliged to unbundle their directory services, and to ensure that their information was made available, with appropriate safeguards, to other telecommunications competitors (Chung). Directories could no longer be used as a privileged branding vehicle for the dominant carrier, and policy discussions ensued about how to deliver essential public and emergency information, while ensuring competition was possible. Argument ensued as to whether the databases that now underlay directories were private goods, and thus fully open to competition, or whether they were actually public goods. Heated discussion ensued about the trade-offs among the different considerations of economic efficiency, stimulating competition, reasonable return to the carrier, and safeguard of appropriate intellectual property rights (Richards). Before its final decommissioning in July 2012, the French Minitel service was in the vanguard of public innovation allowing users to search data from directories (Barr). By the end of the 1990s, ideas and prototypes for directories were fast emerging to deal with a range of associated issues posed for the future of directories by burgeoning email and Internet services, in the face of which listing people, organizations, and addresses was not as straightforward as it had become with telephone directories (Patel and Ryan).

At the turn of the century, then, the telephone directory was at a crossroads. The list of subscribers had become something that, as the title of a recent history has it, “everyone uses but no one reads” (Shea). The telephone directory had itself become part of the bundle of essential telecommunications services that governments were prepared to intervene to ensure continued—as a right of citizens. In 1997, the Australian government posed a licence condition on Telstra to produce an “alphabetical public number directory” annually, by geographical area to all customers supplied with a “standard telephone service” (the key policy concept operationalising universal service), with the exclusion of details of customers with unlisted numbers (clause 9, Australian Government). Also protected as an obligation was the new concept of the “industry-wide integrated public number database,” necessary in a competitive market in which carriers and service providers had their own customer databases (clause 10, Australian Government).

Arguably, the directory helped the telephone itself to become a “social fact”––Émile Durkheim’s concept of something essential to society that Rich Ling has recently used in relationship to the mobile phone (Ling). The directory was commonly referred to as the “telephone book,” a conceit taken up by theorist Avital Ronnell as the pretext for her discussion of philosophy, technology, and communication (Ronnell). This term for the telephone directory raises the interesting question of in what way a list may become a book. However, a much more significant question, as I suggested at the outset, is when does this genre of the list become a form of media.

Following Lev Manovich’s account of media evolution at the turn of the twentieth-century, we could argue that by the time it is a database the telephone directory is well-qualified to be described as a medium. Manovich draws our attention to the dynamics driven by

the need for new technologies to store, organize, and efficiently access [the unprecedented amount of media materials accumulated since the beginning of the nineteenth century] … The emergence of new media coincides with this second stage of a media society, now concerned as much with accessing and reusing existing media objects as with creating new ones. (Manovich 35)

For this reason, Manovich proposes that the database is central to contemporary media:

The database becomes the center of the creative process in the computer age […] It is not surprising, then, that databases occupy a significant, if not the largest, territory of the new media landscape. (Manovich 229)

Regardless of how new media objects present themselves, Manovich suggests, “underneath, on the level of material organization, they are all databases” (Manovich 229). On Manovich’s definition, it is clear that the directory-cum-database is certainly as much about re-using existing telephone directories, and renovating and extending them for a time of digital cultures and networks. It is also about creating new kinds of media characteristics, functions, and possibilities for the telephone directory—parlaying the older form into the kind of agile, ductile, and extensible list media adequate to contemporary conditions. For telephone directories, as we shall see the possibilities and politics of the database as the foundation of a new, second stage of media society prove especially challenging.

“A Garden Variety White Pages Directory,” or Stealing Names and Numbers?

As telephone directories transmuted into databases, furious battles broke out over the rights to these lists and the information they contained. Customarily, the list of telephone subscribers containing names, numbers, and often addresses were collected in a directory, published as a book, and widely distributed. Can this information be used by others for their own commercial purposes? Or is the telephone directory tantamount to proprietary information, owned and controlled by the telephone company that has collected it?

A landmark legal case in the US relating to telephone directories involved a publishing company, Feist Publications. Feist specialised in area-wide telephone directories, covering a number of contiguous calling areas––a much larger geographical range than directories offered by the phone companies. In order to compile its 1983 directory, Feist approached each of 11 telephone companies in the North-West Kansas area, requesting the right to licence their directory information. One company, Rural Telephone Service declined to grant this right, so Feist copied and edited information from their directory, hiring staff to verify relevant listings and seek additional information (Feist v Rural Telephone). When it sued for copyright infringement, “Rural asserted that Feist’s employees were obliged to travel door-to-door or conduct a telephone survey to discover the same information for themselves” (Feist). In return, Feist argued that this requirement was “economically impractical” and that copyright protection did not apply to the copying of this information (Feist). The District Court found for Rural, on the precedent that “courts have consistently held that telephone directories are copyrightable” (Rural Publications v. Feist) and the relevant Court of Appeals upheld the judgment. However, the Supreme Court reversed this decision, on the basis that originality, the sine qua non of copyright, was not demonstrated:

The selection, coordination, and arrangement of Rural’s white pages do not satisfy the minimum constitutional standards for copyright protection […] Rural’s white pages are entirely typical. Persons desiring telephone service in Rural’s service area fill out an application and Rural issues them a telephone number. In preparing its white pages, Rural simply takes the data provided by its subscribers and lists it alphabetically by surname. The end product is a garden-variety white pages directory, devoid of even the slightest trace of creativity. (Feist)

The Court noted that there may certainly be creativity and originality in a compilation, that sustains a claim of ownership for copyright. Moreover, that Feist appeared to concede the directory as a whole was subject to a valid copyright––because of some “forward text and some original material in the yellow pages” (Feist). However, to establish infringement, the Court felt that it needed to be shown that Feist copied “constituent elements of the work that are original” (Feist). What they copied, the Court determined, was the White Pages material, which fell short of originality:

Rural's selection of listings could not be more obvious: It publishes the most basic information—name, town, and telephone number—about each person who applies to it for telephone service. This is “selection” of a sort, but it lacks the modicum of creativity necessary to transform mere selection into copyrightable expression. (Feist)

The judgment in Feist vs Rural Publications occurred at a time when competition in telephone directories was intensifying, especially because of the technologies that allowed copying and compilation of data to be achieved much more easily.

As well as publishers wishing to compete in the telephone directories market, new products and services emerged that made innovative use of listings. One such service was the reverse telephone directory service, developed during the 1990s. Rather than looking up someone’s name or business to find their phone number and address, the reverse directory allowed a user in possession of a given telephone number to search for the associated subscriber and address details (if not unlisted). Typically the provider used cheap typing services available in low-wage countries offshore to copy information from available telephone directories and compile a list. The list would be combined with a program, and made available on a CD-ROM. The reverse directory raised privacy concerns, and so was subject to regulation in many jurisdictions.

Another new technology that allowed gathering of telephone numbers and identification of related subscriber names and address as was caller identification (caller ID; also known as calling number display) (Seecof). In the ensuing debates it was evident that citizens strongly felt attached to their telephone number, as a crucial piece of personal and private information––hence the visceral response many consumers had to the veritable blizzard of telemarketing in this period (Albert). This affect associated with the telephone number only intensified as mobile phones grew in popularity during the 1990s.

Before long, these issues raised by the change in telephone directories with competition and new technology were eclipsed by the full-blown development of the commercial Internet. More than anything it was the advent of the Web and associated search engines that fundamentally changed how telephone lists were made, and in turn, how profits were made from them.

“That Database Is My Book”

Like their American counterparts, Australia’s lists of subscribers were a telecommunications industry commonplace by the time the Web arrived. Not so the corporate arrangements that had evolved to compile, use, and profit from the directories. Australia’s Telstra shifted its directories business into a wholly-owned subsidiary called Pacific Access that, in 2002, became the current Sensis company (Sensis). Today, Sensis styles itself as an innovator in new online and mobile technologies. It takes pride in its century plus of information provision via directories, believing still that this incumbency offers a firm basis to compete with search providers (such as Google) or locative media companies. To this end, Sensis and Telstra have vigorously sought to fight any competitors making use of the White and Yellow pages.

This stance on the part of the historic owners of Australia’s directories can be seen in the cases in the early 2000s that went to the heart of the database technology. As noted, databases became the format taken by many lists, including lists of telephone subscribers–­­–resulting in international moves to devise a unique legal framework for the protection of intellectual property in databases  (Fitzgerald and Bartlett 309). The first significant occasion where these matters were considered in Australian courts was the 2001 case Telstra v Desktop Marketing. In the Federal Court, Justice Finkelstein held that Telstra did have copyright in its Yellow and White pages, and that the respondent’s copying had infringed this:

the substance of the information that has been taken from Telstra’s works (the directory portion of the directories and the headings that appear in the yellow pages directories and headings books) has been reproduced in the CD-roms. It must be remembered that copyright is not claimed for each particular entry, because copyright does not subsist in each individual recorded fact. It is claimed in the whole of the collected data, ordered in a particular way. As regards the directories, the significant recorded facts (name, address, telephone number, and the relevant type of business) are the same, or substantially the same, as they appear in Telstra’s works. (Telstra v Desktop 84-85)

On appeal, the Full Bench of the Federal Court unanimously, though in separate judgments, upheld the decision (Desktop v Telstra), and the High Court later refused special leave to appeal. This outcome raised queries about the application of the law (see discussion in Ice TV). It also highlighted serious policy concerns, leading commentators to question whether copyright was the best way to protect databases:

The major difficulty with the decision is that it will be unlawful to innovate on top of or, by using the Telstra database, to create a new improved yet similar database. Extracting facts from all the books in the world is allowable if my book is differently expressed, but extracting facts from all of the Telstra databases to innovate on top of them in a similar (yet standard) alphabetised way is not allowable for life of the author plus 50 years […] It seems once again that we are threatening to stymie the innovations of digital technology by adopting the approaches of a bygone era. (Fitzgerald and Barlett 324-325)

By the end of the decade, however, the Australian courts were taking a different direction on telephone directory databases––in Telstra v Phone Directories (2010).The initial judgment usefully described how the list of subscribers is now created:

Telstra collects and maintains information in relation to the names and addresses of its subscribers. Sensis […] conducts the business of publishing the WPD [White Pages Directory] and YPD [Yellow Pages Directory] throughout Australia.

Each WPD and YPD lists the names, addresses, telephone numbers and other information in relation to residential or business customers for a particular geographic area. In the case of the WPD, the entries are free, but revenue is earned by persuading customers to add enhancements to their free entries for a fee. In the case of the YPD, revenue is earned in the same way and by taking advertisements for customers under multiple headings. (Telstra v Phone Directories)

The trial judge records very detailed information on how the design and publishing process is automated, noting with respect to 91 affadavits tendered by Sensis that “there are substantial parts of the directories that do not have human authors [...] are automated to the extent that human involvement is minor [...] or have authors who cannot be ascertained […]” (Telstra v Phone Directories). Despite these complex processes, the appellate judges citing Feist, felt strongly that:

The name and address of a particular subscriber does not relevantly “originate” with an employee who takes a note of these details from the subscriber. This information is factual in its nature: it is not “created” by the person who merely records it […]. (section 59, Telstra v Phone Directories, Full Court)

In late 2011, Telstra was refused leave to appeal the Telstra v Phone Directories decision in the High Court. In response, the corporation signalled that it would advocate an extension of copyright law to afford protection to databases. Sensis Chief Executive Bruce Akhurst told the American Australian Chamber of Commerce luncheon that:

There have been companies that have been copying our books for a long time. It has taken a long time to get through the legal process […]. It is really, I think, a matter of principle and public policy as to whether that form of copyright is appropriate and whether copyright law needs to be modernised to take account of modern technology and the way things are created these days. (Akhurst quoted in Kitney)

Akhurst’s remarks underscore that the “way things are created” in lists is precisely what still is at issue, despite the protracted judicial consideration of the status and nature of the modern telephone directory.


In the present day, the telephone directory does not play the same role in society as it used to do. In the face of the growing trend to obtain all sorts of information including telephone numbers, email, social media, and other addresses from Internet and mobile search, the future of directories has been seriously questioned (Gettler 2011).

Nonetheless, the telephone book remains widely distributed and valued. In Australia, Telstra via its Sensis subsidiary still has an obligation under its licence condition to print and distribute a copy of the White Pages telephone directory to each household. (The Yellow Pages is deemed a commercial product, so not subject to the same distribution.) In capital cities, the White Pages comprises two volumes. The business and government information volume is delivered by default, as more than 80 percent of searches in White Pages are for this information.

Since 2010, distribution was altered in Melbourne and Sydney—with household customers needing to “opt in,” to order their copy of the second volume with residential subscriber information. Judged successful, this trial will be extended to Brisbane and Perth next. In regional markets, there remain more than 50 different telephone directories for specific areas, which are “co-bound,” combining one half yellow pages content and one half white pages content. With environmental sustainability a high priority, Sensis receives strong encouragement from its customers to minimize or end its printed directories. However, many other customers, especially in rural and regional areas, still very much value the telephone book (information supplied by Damian Glass, Corporate Affairs, Sensis).

While Telstra is still under an obligation to maintain the Integrated Public Number Database (IPND), the future of this database and its policy framework is the subject of a Federal government review, initiated in 2011 and yet to report at the time of writing. The review notes the “basic functionality of the IPND and the provision of the IPND itself has changed very little since 1998, despite there being great advances in database and telecommunications technology” (DBCDE 18). The review also notes that the importance of the telephone service number as an “identifier” is diminishing, and so canvasses the inclusion of the now significant addresses and other identifying information of email accounts, instant messaging, and social media, Internet protocol (IP) addresses, and locational information (DBCDE). The impetus for reform of the IPND and telephone directories generally has grown, with the shift from the public-switched telecommunications network to the new National Broadband Network, where voice telephony will be reconstructed in wholly data network architecture.

This policy reconsideration of the role of directories and the databases that now underlie them takes place in the midst of a deep transformation of how lists are created, what kind of media objects they create or entail, and how users interact with them. Telecommunications carriers are keeping a precarious grip on the heritage of the telephone directory, continuing to harvest the inheritance it bestows, and seeking to cover the return on investment necessary to renovate it for today. So, if telephone directories can be considered as list media, their fate is subject to creative destruction, like much else of media in everyday life and culture now.


My thanks to two anonymous reviewers of this paper for helpful comments. Also to Damian Glass, Sensis, for his assistance.


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Author Biography

Gerard Michael Goggin, University of Sydney

Gerard Goggin is Professor and Chair of the Department of Media and Communications, the University of Sydney. His books include the Routledge Companion to Mobile Media (2014; with Larissa Hjorth), Disability and the Media (2013; with Katie Ellis), New Technologies and the Media (2012), Global Mobile Media (2011), and Cell Phone Culture (2006).