Allow me this Luddite moment, or why old reference books should be treasured

Kirsten Smith My Blog 2 Comments

The Internet is awesome. Don’t get me wrong. I love it. I love the convenience of data and research at my finger tips, the immediacy of finding information right away instead of having to wait for the book to come from offsite storage or the fax to arrive from an obscure interest group. But, there are times when you just cannot beat an old fashioned reference book.

Part of the collection at the Library of Parliament, Ottawa. Source: Library of Parliament.

Part of the collection at the Library of Parliament, Ottawa.
Source: Library of Parliament.

Case in point. Old government directories. Yes, both the titles I’m going to write about have current online equivalents that are darn helpful but they both have one common flaw – they cannot tell you who Jane Doe worked with at the Department of Silly Walks five years ago nor can they tell you what Jane’s specific job title was during that horrible expenses scandal at the department back in ’03.

Who cares? Researchers care. Journalists care. Scholars care. Librarians care.

If I’m backgrounding a person, I want to know where they worked and what their job was. It helps develop a better picture of their work life but it also gives you names of people who might talk to you about Jane Doe to help round out that profile of the person. (“Loved him, best boss ever!” “I heard she slept her way to that ADM job”)

Maybe, perhaps, their entire work history is included in their LinkedIn profile (if they have one) or on their personal blog or website but maybe, just maybe, they decided against reminding the world that they worked closely with that guy implicated in that procurement scandal or supervised that woman who was arrested for child neglect.

This is GEDS, the Government Electronic Directory Services. When searching for a federal government employee right now, GEDS is great. GEDS is national, not just Ottawa centric. GEDS gives you powerful search options, names, parts of names and departments. GEDS lets you browse to see who is working where.  What GEDS does not do is give you any history. GEDS, like so much on the internet, is all about the here and now.

Screen grab of the GEDS main page. Source: Government of Canada

Screen grab of the GEDS main page.
Source: Government of Canada

A few weeks ago I was helping a reporter piece together the career of a diplomat. This person did not have a LinkedIn profile or Twitter account and the department was slow to respond to requests for their C.V.  Heck the diplomat was not even in GEDS because they are currently posted overseas.

Enter the Government of Canada Telephone Directory for Ottawa-Gatineau.

Issues of the Government of Canada Telephone Director Ottawa-Gatineau on the shelves at the Library of Parliament.

Issues of the Government of Canada Telephone Director Ottawa-Gatineau on the shelves at the Library of Parliament.

Just like GEDS you can quickly do a name search in the index. Just like GEDS you can browse by department but unlike GEDS I did this for the years 2000 to 2008 when the title ceased publication and morphed online as GEDS.

I found our diplomat in a few former positions. I photographed pages and found the name of his former supervisors and colleagues.  I can cross reference names in GEDS now to find out if any of her (Not an editing error. I’m deliberately messing around with the pronoun of the diplomat) colleagues are still in government so the reporter can ask them for interviews.

Details of a page in the Government telephone book, circa 2005ish.

Details of a page in the Government telephone book, circa 2005ish.

Fun fact: In 2005 the federal government stopped including page numbers in the name index of the govt phone book. That seemingly minor tweak to the index adds eons of time to your research because now you have to scan the listings for an entire department to find the object of your research. Before that you went directly the page where they were listed. A cynic (not moi) might suggest the change was made to make the books harder to use. I’m sure the government had a higher purpose in mind.

Fun fact #2: I went to the GEDs FAQ page to see if they told users how to find historic contact information. They did not, but they did provide this.

Just a theory of mine.

Just a theory of mine.

Another great reference book for tracking the career of a diplomat is ‘Canadian Representatives Abroad’. It’s a directory that lists staff at each embassy and consulate. Again I was able to find some earlier foreign postings for the diplomat and who they were posted with.  Since the last volume in this series is over ten years old, it is not as helpful as a tool for tracing the career of a current diplomat (unless they are getting old or they started very young).

Canadian Representatives Abroad. Some of the volumes in the series available at the Library of Parliament.

Canadian Representatives Abroad. Some of the volumes in the series available at the Library of Parliament.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

In my former job, I had a collection of Reps Aboard ((and the domestic companion ‘Diplomats in Canada’) from the 1950s until the early 2000s when they stopped publishing in print. There is an online version of ‘Reps Abroad’ but it does not provide historic information. The pages of some embassy websites list previous ambassadors but if you’re trying to find the fellow on the trade desk in Washington in 2004, good luck.

Remember this creep?

Russell Williams leaving court.  Source: Ottawa Citizen, October 2010.

Russell Williams leaving court.
Source: Ottawa Citizen, October 2010.

Russell Williams, the Air Force colonel/sexual fetish killer, was a case study on the importance of old directories. The day the charges were announced I grabbed his biography from the DND website (before it was deleted) and ran down Wellington Street (In Ottawa, in February. I’m a trooper but I digress) to the Library and Archives of Canada to scour old directories to compile his timeline and find former neighbours.  All types of resources from school yearbooks, to city phone books and city directories helped the media piece together the strands of his story and present a more complete picture of a notorious serial sexual predator. This Globe and Mail piece is particularly good demonstrating the need to save or digitize old print directories.

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  1. Pingback: Allow me this Luddite moment, or why old reference books should be treasured | welcometomylayoff

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