RICHMOND, Va. – What’s black and white and read all over? Not the white pages, which is why regulators have begun giving telecommunications companies the go-ahead to stop mass-printing residential phone books, a musty fixture of Americans’ kitchen counters, refrigerator tops and junk drawers.

In the past month alone, New York, Florida and Pennsylvania approved Verizon Communications Inc.’s request to quit distributing residential white pages. Residents in Virginia have until Nov. 19 to provide comments on a similar request pending with state regulators.

Telephone companies argue that most consumers now check the Internet rather than flip through pages when they want to reach out and touch someone.

“Anybody who doesn’t have access to some kind of online way to look things up now is probably too old to be able to read the print in the white pages anyway,” joked Robert Thompson, a pop culture professor at Syracuse University.

Phone companies note that eliminating residential white pages would reduce environmental impact by using less paper and ink. It also can’t hurt their bottom lines to cut out the cost of a service that rarely gets used and generates little beyond nostalgia.

The first telephone directory was issued in February 1878 — a single page that covered 50 customers in New Haven, Conn. That sheet grew into a book that became virtually a household appliance, listing numbers for neighbors, friends and colleagues, not to mention countless potential victims of prank calls.

Fewer people rely on paper directories for a variety of reasons: more people rely solely on cell phones, whose numbers typically aren’t included in the listings; more listings are available online; and mobile phones and caller ID systems on land lines can store a large number of frequently called numbers.

A survey conducted for SuperMedia Inc. by Gallup shows that from 2005 to 2008, the percentage of households relying on standalone residential white pages fell from 25 percent to 11 percent. Dallas-based SuperMedia, which publishes Verizon’s telephone directories, has instead focused on its yellow pages and paid advertising listings, and their online equivalents.

Unlike the residential white pages, the business directories printed on yellow pages are doing fine, at least according to the Yellow Pages Association. The industry trade group claims more than half the people in the U.S. still let their fingers do the walking every month, and that 550 million residential and business directories are still printed every year.

Although New York and other cities still have standalone white pages, many of the thousands of phone directories across the country include residential white pages, yellow business listings and blue government pages. Where they no longer have to print the white pages, publishers will simply slim down their combined books.

If the white pages are nearing their end, then Emily Goodmann hopes the directories would be archived for historical, genealogical or sociological purposes.

“The telephone directory stands as the original sort of information network that not only worked as kind of a social network in a sense, but it served as one of the first information resources,” said Goodmann, a doctoral student at Northwestern University who is writing her dissertation on the history of phone books as information technology. “It’s sort of heartbreaking even though these books are essentially made to be destroyed.”