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dave obee The end of the city directory in Canada

By Dave Obee
Edward Mallandaine has been resting in Victoria's Ross Bay Cemetery since 1905, but his legacy has carried on. Until this year, that is; a 141-year-old tradition is dying because of Canadaís new privacy legislation.

In 1860, at the age of 33, Mallandaine collected information from one end of Victoria to the other, and published his findings in a book that listed residents and businesses. It was the first publication of its kind - a city directory - in Western Canada.

Mallandaine produced a few more editions after that, but then devoted his energy to his thriving architectural practice. (He worked in Victoria, New Westminster, Portland and San Francisco. Among other things, he produced a proposal for B.C.ís Parliament Buildings. But thatís another topic.)

Other entrepreneurs took Mallandaineís idea and ran with it. Community directories flourished. By the early 20th century they were found thoughout Western Canada.

These annual books had many uses. If someone needed to find a person in B.C., one directory featured an alphabetical list of British Columbians. Looking for a farmer in Manitoba? A directory had an alphabetical list of farmers, including a reference to the quarter, section, township and range where they were located.

These directories were a great resource then, and continue to be one to this day. Historical and genealogical researchers use the old ones to develop a clearer picture of what life was like many decades ago.

The latest issues are handy if you want to find someone not listed in a telephone book, or to verify an address. Businesses use them to target sales efforts, to verify account information, and to track down hard-to-find people.

These city directories should not be confused with telephone directories. They offer much more information, including the names, occupations and spouses of individuals, as well as home ownership data, length of residency, and employer. For businesses, they list names of owners and officers, business classification and number of employees. The information is sorted in a variety of ways, including alphabetically, by street and by telephone number.

At one time, there were several Canadian publishers of directories, but all came to be owned by R.L. Polk of Michigan. Last year, Polk sold its directory businesses to Equifax, the Atlanta-based corporation best known for its work in consumer credit information.

And Equifax has decided the 140-year legacy of Edward Mallandaine has to end. The directories dated 2000-2001 will be the last ones it produces in Canada.

Why? Equifax says there were several reasons.

There is this little thing nowadays called the Internet. Much of the information found in a typical city directory can also be found on the World Wide Web. There are many alternative sources out there, and the information on the Web can be updated regularly. A printed directory is effectively out of date by the time it rolls off the press.

(Of course, a printed version would still be around in the next century, while a Web site could be gone tomorrow. Sorry about that, future historians.)

Another reason is the time it takes to collect the information. Developing a city directory is a labour-intensive exercise, and the return wasnít enough to justify the expense. In larger cities such as Vancouver and Calgary, directories were killed off in the í90s, although they continued to survive in smaller centres.

But the Internet and the high cost arenít the only reasons. While city directories are dead in Canada, they thrive in the United States. They are available for about 10,000 communities there, at last count.

So whatís different about Canada? Privacy concerns. Our new Personal Information Protection and Electronic Documents Act, which came into effect Jan. 1, places severe limits on any company that would try to gather the information needed for a directory.

Basically, the act says that Canadians have a right to know and should ask why a business or organization is collecting, using or disclosing their personal information, such as name, age, medical records, income, spending habits, DNA code, marital status, and the like. Businesses must obtain the individualís consent when they collect, use or disclose personal information.

Thatís reasonable. But when you consider the impact it would have on a company gathering data for a directory, you can see why Equifax had no choice but to end the business.

In the old days, a person gathering information for the directory could ask about the absent spouse, or even about the neighbours next door. Under the new legislation, the enumerator would need to get the consent of every person to be listed. That would not only make the data collection process far too long, it would result in a directory less valuable than the ones that came before. Many people, after all, would refuse to give consent, so would not be included.

Things have changed since Edward Mallandaine was alive. The city directory has become a casualty in the war between the publicís right to privacy and our desire for information. And thatís unfortunate.

Dave Obee is editorial page editor of the Times Colonist newspaper in Victoria, B.C. This column appeared in the Times Colonist and the Edmonton Journal.

Reprinted courtesy the Times Colonist


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