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She's Got Your Number : As a Telephone Book Proofreader, Joanne Wallace Ensures Entries Are Letter-Perfect


Joanne Wallace is from Huntington Beach, but you wouldn't know it from listening to her.

She speaks a strange mix of straight lines, sac codes and out-of-files. NYPS, WIBLS and WIFFLS creep into everyday conversation.

This is the language of the telephone directory, and Wallace--after 23 years as a GTE proofreader--is fluent.

When you want your name in BIG LETTERS or bold letters, call Wallace. If you want it indented or just spelled rite, Wallace is your best bet.

"What we do is not something that can be trained for," boasts Wallace, who got the job after her husband spotted a newspaper ad. "You need to know how to file and spell, of course, but the job itself must be taught from the bottom up."

When Wallace started in the late 1960s, the art of proofreading was far less automated. "The orders from the phone company came printed on onionskin," she says. "We actually proofread using long galleys."

While computer printouts have replaced galleys and manuscripts, members of the Alpha White Pages department still visually check 51 phone books published each year. Their work is a lot like painting the Golden Gate Bridge: As soon as one book is done, it's time to start another.

Each of the 22 crew members is responsible for two or three directories. They also proof one another's work. Wallace characterizes the pressure as minimal--except during the summer when 15 phone books go to press at the same time.

On her desk this particular day are stacks of correspondence from business accounts for the Ventura directory. By the time the book goes to print, Wallace will have checked the correspondence against computer sheets and verified that the listings are correct.

In fact, before each directory is run, Wallace and her colleagues tackle the entire volume, letter by letter.

"First, we check captions and changes, then we scan the names," explains Wallace. "I always look above and below a caption to make sure there are no duplicate listings or phone numbers not lined up correctly."

Some letters, she says, are nothing but trouble. She points the finger at Dels, Dis and Mcs.

Rifling through a stack of listings with a plastic thimble, Wallace stops at the Ms.

"Here, the very first listing is wrong," she declares. "McCulloch should be with the McCs, not the Mcs."

Another potential trouble spot is page headings, something most of us take for granted when looking up a number. Enter proofreaders: "We look at page headings, like 'Cook and Coordinated,' to make sure the first listing on the page is for 'Cook' and the last listing on that page is for 'Coordinated,' " says Wallace.

In 1991, her group caught more than 2,000 mistakes out of 107,000 orders. And only a handful of customers filed complaints. "Nobody wants to put anything out with errors on it," she says.

Wallace's profession harks back to more than a century ago when a Kansas City undertaker, Almon B. Strowger, became convinced he was losing customers because of inefficient phone operators. He built the first automatic dialing machine, advertised as the "girl-less, cuss-less, out-of-order-less, wait-less telephone."

As automatic dialers caught on, so did the call for directories. In 1903, GTE published its first directory, a one-page book covering 169 listings in Long Beach. Last year's Long Beach directory contained 560 more pages and about 250,000 listings.

How does Wallace still do it after all these years?

"I take an interest in what I'm reading," she says.

And sometimes what she's reading is interesting.

"I was scanning pages one day (and) I discovered a store with maple furniture. So I jotted down the number and took my husband shopping."

Some of the more memorable names also sustain her: I. P. Daily or Cole Minor.

"There are some names that stick with you and some that I can't believe get in the directory," Wallace says with a laugh. "That was especially true when we did the Las Vegas book."

Among the piles of service orders, customer letters and computer updates crowding Wallace's desk are photos of her grandchildren, a box of microwave popcorn, a small Christmas teddy bear ornament and hand cream--a must-have on a job that can be tough on hands.

Remarkably, despite the thousands of pages of small print Wallace scans, she started wearing glasses just a few years ago and then only at work.

She admits that after a day on the phone surrounded by phone numbers and phone books, the last thing she wants to do when she gets home is make calls. (Calls to her children are the exception.)

Wallace arrives at her Los Alamitos office for 6:30 coffee, not so much because she loves mornings, but because she doesn't like to work late--especially Wednesdays. That's when the GTE bowling league takes over a local alley and the mild-mannered Wallace becomes the wild-mannered Wallace.

"I'm not very good, but I love it!" she says; her team is named Two Hens and a Rooster. Neither the rooster nor the other hen will allow Wallace to retire after eight years as the team president.

If you were a bowler, would you want to lose someone like Wallace, who collects score cards and reworks totals and handicaps on an adding machine and has a typewritten stats report on your desk the next morning?

And once in a while, Wallace even uncovers an error that changes the outcome of the game.

Bowling or phone directories, she applies the same motto: "Never assume that anything is OK. Read everything."

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