Since 2019, Sutro staff and volunteers have been working on making the Sutro Library’s telephone directories on microfiche (aka phone fiche) more accessible remotely and have created a new database fulfilling that goal! But before I give you a tour of this new database and how you might search it, I wanted to go over a brief history of telephone directories and how they may be useful for your genealogical research.

Similar to city directories, phone directories can be used to identify where an ancestor was at a certain time, which is especially useful when tracking movement in between the census years (i.e. every 10 years). Earlier phone books didn’t always look like how they do now. The first one was published in 1878 on a piece of cardboard and listed 50 people in New Haven, Connecticut.[i] Today, telephone directories still endure and many of us receive the yellow pages on our doorsteps every year.

First telephone directory published in 1878, courtesy of University of Connecticut Archives & Special Collections

Early telephone directories like the one above were meant to share telephone subscribers’ names not phone numbers, and they included instructions on how to use a phone, e.g. which end of the phone to talk into. Since then, listings evolved into book form and usually include the number, address, and head of household’s name. 

While we do have some phone books scattered throughout the open and closed stacks including ones that were repurposed into scrapbooks, the bulk of our directories are on microfiche, and they cover more recent years from 1970s – 2000s. This phone fiche collection was only available on-site and not searchable via our catalog so researchers could only find out what we had by physically browsing the microfiche drawers…until now!

For the past two years, Sutro staff and volunteers have been working on making this accessible remotely by inputting the phone fiche titles into a database. The first batch of states have been finished and ready for users to search. Geographic regions include: Alabama, Alaska, Arizona, Arkansas, California, Colorado, Connecticut, Delaware, District of Columbia, and Florida. Other states may be listed in the database when they share borders with these first 10, but their holdings are not yet complete. We hope to have the next batch of 10 states available soon so make sure to check back often if you don’t yet see your area of interest. For the states we do have completely recorded, the database includes information on the title of the directory (often the city or county is represented here), year of publication, type (yellow or white pages), and some entries include a notes field detailing communities that are included in that directory. The database can be found in multiple places on the website: 1) directly via this link: https://www.library.ca.gov/sutro/genealogy/phone-fiche/; 2) via the Sutro Library’s genealogy webpage under the Online Resources tile; or 3) in the listing of all of the California State Library’s online resources under the “T” section.

To search this database, you can do so in a few ways: by keyword in the search box on the right (we recommend searching the city of interest); or by the filters on the left-hand side which include state, type (white or yellow pages), and date. Or you can search by the filters first and then do a keyword search to narrow those results. Unfortunately, you cannot do vice versa, that is, a keyword search and then apply filters to those results. What happens when you do is that keyword search will be cleared so you will only see results related to your filtered search. Please note that this database is for searching which directories are in the Sutro Library’s holdings and is NOT a database for searching for specific names found in those directories. 

Screenshot of the database with the filters and keyword search functions in red boxes. To search by state, select state of interest from drop down. To search by yellow or white pages, select from drop down under the Type filter. You can also type in a date or stick to keyword search (upper-right box).

Once you identify the directory you need, write down the title and year and schedule an on-site visit in our reading room. If you are unable to visit, and need a quick look-up, feel free to contact us through our Ask A Librarian messaging system and provide the directory title, year, type (white or yellow pages), and the name of the person of interest.

Now that you’ve been given a brief history and tour of this new database, it’s time to “let your fingers do the walking!”[ii]

Special thank you to all of those who dialed in on this project: our volunteers, Ryan and Kristine; Sutro staff member, Kim; and staff members of the California State Library IT Department, Jay and Jacky.

For further reading on using telephone directories for genealogical research, check out: https://blog.genealogybank.com/genealogy-101-using-telephone-books-for-genealogy.html

Today’s post was written by Genealogy & Local History Librarian, Dvorah Lewis.


Sutro Library Telephone Directories highlighted in photos above:

Pioneer Obituaries from the San Francisco Chronicle, 1911-1928; The Loss of the Steamer “Central America”…; Copy of the First Telephone Directory Issued in San Francisco, 1878. San Francisco: N.p., 1952. Print. Location: Sutro Library Reading Room F869.S3 D25

List of Subscribers. San Francisco: Pacific Bell Telephone Co., 1818. Print. Location: Sutro Library Vault MISC 000614*

San Francisco Temporary Telephone Directory. San Francisco, California: Pacific States Telephone and Telegraph Co., 1906. Print. Location: Sutro Library Vault MISC 000976*

*These materials require at least a 72-hour advance notice prior to your visit.

[i] https://www.smithsonianmag.com/smart-news/first-telephone-book-had-fifty-listings-and-no-numbers-180962173/

[ii] Some readers may recall this slogan used in a campaign by the Yellow Pages in the 1970s!

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