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Shelter Island, we’ve got your number

Shelter Island is a place of many mysteries, and one of the most impenetrable is the phone book.

Who produces it and how? Why in the information age is a printed document full of phone numbers, street addresses and Post Office boxes still considered a valuable record, in spite of being updated just once a year?

Shelter Island is one of few places that still has a phone book, and it seems to get more popular every year. A new one was published last week, and many will make sure not to leave their Post Office without it.

Most of us will look first at the cover photo — always a breathtaking shot of Island beauty, this year’s cover is a stunning image by Adam Bundy.

But is it ever used for looking up phone numbers?

The answer is yes, maybe, and who cares? The phone book is so much more than alphabetical order and sequential pagination (although those features never get old.) That’s because the names, addresses and Post Office boxes in the Island’s phone book are not the automated output of a database.

The information is provided by residents to the Reporter, and is a product of the community.

Community News Editor Susan Carey Dempsey, who is in charge of this production of the hive-mind, said the residential listings are carried over from year to year and people call, mail or email her with changes.

“Who knows how far back it goes?” she said.

The phone book’s role as a receptacle of Island memory is something the publisher recognizes and respects. “We don’t take anybody out unless the family specifically requests it,” Ms. Dempsey said. “Some families like to keep names in the book even after a loved one has passed on. It’s very moving when I get messages from people who ask about deleting a loved one’s name.”

The book also documents the here and now, such as the passing of a home from one generation to the next.

Some would say that efforts to keep abreast of the changes misses the point of the Shelter Island phone book, which ceased being a reliable listing of who is alive on Shelter Island years ago, but still accurately represents who lives on in our hearts.

Want to send a sympathy card to someone you haven’t seen in a while?  Their P.O. box is in the phone book. Wondering just how many households named Clark we have? Most of them are listed. Has a brain cramp robbed you of the first name of your neighbor’s wife? She’s probably right there next to him in the phone book.

To be listed in the Shelter Island phone book, you have to live here, which makes it a kind of social register whether you like it or not.