or, The Hitchhiker’s Guide to Fear and Loathing at a Public Library Reference Desk

Reference Question of the Week – 9/26/10

   October 2nd, 2010

Can-and-string telephoneEarlier this year we got rid of the pay phone in our lobby (too expensive), so we've become more permissive with letting people (especially kids) use the desk phones to make calls.

I always ask people beforehand if it's a local call, because historically, local calls are no problem, but long distance calls are limited.

This isn't really a reference question, but I get asked this all the time and I'm honestly curious about it - here's a typical exchange (keep in mind I work at the library in Chelmsford, MA, which is in area code 978):

Patron: Can I use the phone?
Me: Sure, is it a local call?
Patron: Uh, I just need to call my mom.
Me: Okay, what's the number? [I always dial for them, to make sure they get an outside line and don't dial 911 accidentally, which does happen with our phone system]
Patron: It's 603-423...

As I get older (and as kids get younger), I've been noticing that fewer and fewer kids have any idea what you're talking about when you say "local call."

When they say "603" (New Hampshire) or "617" (Boston), I will sometimes say something to the effect of, "hey, a different area code is not a local call," and the response from kids is invariably, "we live in Chelmsford, it's my mom's cell phone."

I don't have a cell phone, so I don't know if there is such a thing as local and long distance calls on them, or if everything is charged the same (or just depends on time of day). But wow, the whole local/long distance thing was a big part of my childhood, so it's kind of stunning to think of kids growing up with no concept of that. Depending on how often people move around, a kid's friends could all have cell phones with different area code numbers, and have no idea why*.

But then again, I guess people don't really dial numbers any more anyway - it's just scrolling through the contacts list and clicking a name. Which means the reasoning behind area codes is destined to become historical trivia like the interstate numbering system, or an anachronistic relic like the phrase, "don't touch that dial."


*Tangentially, an old rant of mine is how the FCC dropped the ball when they started issuing phone numbers for cell phones. Instead of issuing cell phone numbers with area code where the phone was registered, and thus running out of numbers and having to slice up area codes and develop new codes (giving rise to situations where the "area" codes make no geographic logic, like 440 in Ohio), they should have created new area codes just for mobile phones. Which would have also helped out with making sure cell phones were always on the Do Not Call List, as they could just forbid those area codes from being called.

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14 Responses to “Reference Question of the Week – 9/26/10”

  1. Winnie Says:

    While area codes are important, its the exchange that actually signals long distance here. For instance, the Lower Mainland has two area codes (604 and 788) while the entire rest of the province has one (250). Long distance charges are, therefore triggered by the exchange – 250.362 to 250.364 is not long distance but to 250.357 it is. One of the selling points of cells here use to be that the local charge area was bigger. My mum is long distance on the land line but not on my cell. And while people seem to think that cell phones are reeking havoc with the area code system, BC actually split from a single area code to two becuase of all the extra lines for fax machines, dial-up internet and multiple phones at home and in businesses. And kids seem to think rationally – how can my mum’s cell be long distance when she lives here?

  2. Ally Says:

    Yes, there is no such thing as “long distance” on a cell phone, at least within your calling plan (I think most of the companies no longer have a non-nationwide plan though – so any # in the US is not long distance)

    Adding to the phone number confusion are places that have had to go to 10 digit dialing – where you can call numbers you have to put area codes in for, that are not actually long distance even on a land line…

    So its no wonder the kids are confused…

    its just like so many kids know nothing about money because they only ever see their parents using plastic…

  3. Andromeda Says:

    There are some cell phone overlay area codes, actually. But the rules behind phone number assignment are complex and slow to change (a lot of it was stuff that was clever at the time but since unnecessary, but telecoms are not the most nimble companies on earth).

    That said: “Depending on how often people move around, a kid’s friends could all have cell phones with different area code numbers” — what is this “kid” idea? I’m 32 and my friends’ phones have many different area codes, since they pretty much all have cell phones (and often *only* cell phones), which they got in college or at some other before-they-moved-here stage of life.

  4. Janet Says:

    We had a phone for patrons installed at the circ desk. They only make local calls and they automatically disconnect after 90 seconds. Unfortunately, they do allow people to dial 911.

  5. Colleen Says:

    I also wanted to add, that because there is no “long distance” for cell phones and you can keep your number even if you change carriers, most people don’t change their numbers when they move. I’ve had my same number for nearly 10 years so I certainly didn’t want to change it when I moved out of state.

  6. Twitter Trackbacks for Swiss Army Librarian » Reference Question of the Week - 9/26/10 :: Brian Herzog [swissarmylibrarian.net] on Topsy.com Says:

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  7. Erin Says:

    interesting post. in my experience, people only say their area code if it is NOT a local call – cell phones don’t differ between local / long distance calls from what i can tell either.
    and hold up…did you say you don’t have a cell phone *gasp* j/k 🙂

  8. Brian Herzog Says:

    @Erin: yeah, no cell phone – I actually have quite a few tech-NO’s – including, recently, getting rid of my television. I like being an enigma.

  9. Robin Says:

    Here in New Zealand, all cellphone numbers are a separate area code – all begin with 02, landline codes are 03,04,06,07, 09!

  10. James Says:

    “…anachronistic relic like the phrase, ‘don’t touch that dial.'”

    Or for that matter, how many kids have any idea why they say they “dial” a phone number? It’s as anachronistic as saying I “roll down the window” in the car.

    My DSL connection requires a land line phone even though we never use it. Why not? Because anybody I would ever call is considered long distance. Cell or VOIP? Anything in the country is local. Land line phone service drives you to the competition. But then, phone company policies do tend toward the asinine.

  11. Brent Says:

    Another type of technology that is coming on strong is VoIP. Someone made the analogy to me not long ago that we used to get internet over the phone now we are using the phone over the internet. I have a satellite internet blog that keeps up with the latest technology and this is always a hot topic for us because satellite internet does not traditionally work well with VoIP. Just as you have mentioned about kids not knowing area codes, it may not be too far off that kids do not even use a normal phone. Anyway, I would love for you to check out my blog at mybluedish(dotcom)/blog.

  12. Erin Says:

    @Brian good for you! i’m considering downgrading my cable / discontinuing it. the prices are outrageous. and i do try to not get on the computer once i am home from work for the day. or in the morning before work. gets time consuming and i need to give my eyes a break ya know. kudos!

  13. Brian Herzog Says:

    @Brent: we’re actually doing some VoIP at the library, between Town buildings, and may do more in the future. But at home I have a landline, which I like because it still works when the power is out.

    @Erin: my problem is that now that I watch shows online, I’m almost always on the laptop at home – between emailing people, web design stuff, blogging, etc., and now adding movies and television on top of that. Maybe I need to install some of that kid-proof timer software at home, to motivate me to get off the couch and do other things.

  14. Erin Says:

    @Brian haha yeah i can imagine your laptop is working overtime. a kid-proof timer would do the trick. limit yourself and rest your eyes. good luck!