The March 18 print issue of the book reviews from the Israeli paper Ha’aretz, includes a few columns on the value, insights and lessons to be gleaned from what we tend to think of as ephemeral publications.
Ariana Melamed writes about telephone directories. In the young state of Israel (est. 1948) the wait for a telephone was 10-15 years and the directories of the first decade read like the social registry of Israeli society. It included the old guard and the names listed were those of judges, members of Knesset, physicians and others of the well-connected elite. Up until the mid 1960’s it served as a who’s who of Israeli society and could be used to track social mobility, gentrification and changes in family structure.
Yuval Albashan writes about public records, specifically foreclosure cases. He deconstructs the tedious legalize of these documents down to their essence: Mr. S and his family were evicted from their house for a debt of about $2100, which includes fines and eviction charges. Everything is by the book, all the paperwork accurate, everything follows the letter of the law. The legal fees to the state for this eviction are close to $7000. You do the math.
Udi Orman begins by reminiscing on Ernest Hemingway who (allegedly?) wrote a six-word story on a napkin in the Algonquin hotel (For sale: baby shoes, never worn) and then goes on to write in praise of notes in the pre-twitter age. The kind we used to leave parents (dad, wake me up at 5:30, I need to study for a math test) or roommates (I paid the phone bill, you owe me half). Some notes were more elaborate, like the micro writing on the crib sheets for the world history exam.
The strongest social statement is made by Vered Lee who describes the business cards to be found all over Tel-Aviv advertising the services of call-girls, massage parlors and similar businesses. She quotes Henri Bergson (who quote Un modéré par habitude, un libéral par instinct is part of my signature file) who said that chaos is order we can’t see. Lee sees in these business cards proof to the silent institutionalizing of these services and protests the sharp contrast between illusion and reality. The prevailing color is pink, the images fairy-tale like, the language suggestive, and the solicitation indirect. And what is missing? No word on abuse, violence, depression, stigma, addiction, fatigue, malaise, and shorter than average life expectancy. Small pink business cards scattered all over the sidewalks, concealing the lives of the women who are really the ones out on the street.
As someone who teaches reference, I am well aware of the value of these publications, especially for future research. We regularly receive requests for high school yearbooks, business and telephone directories, old newspaper ads and more. We librarians struggle to capture, preserve, digitize and make these drafts of history available to future generations.