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  • Writer's pictureLand Insight

Part 2 - Historical Commercial, Trade & Business Directories

Updated: Mar 16, 2023

Accuracy and Reliability of Historical Commercial Directories

Commercial directories contain a wealth of information pertaining to potential contaminated sites. Not only do they contain the name of businesses and their locations, but many listed the products they produced and added advertisements about their processes and products available.

One would expect the companies compiling these directories over the years to produce better coverage given their resources, however the compilations varied greatly. The most reliable method seemed to be a process where every business/householder was approached by an agent. Some publishers delivered circulars or only took details from subscribers. Some of the earliest directories relied on the lists already published by other parties, even when they were clearly out of date, and continued to publish old listings in revised editions (Gould, 2009).

We have seen errors in the historic pink and yellow pages directories, mainly in terms of suburb locations.

A comprehensive study was conducted by Doyle in 1977, where they interviewed UBD personnel and reviewed UBD publication data. It was disclosed that, for the 1973–1974 edition, the data collected was obtained over the period August 1972 to January 1973 and tabulated for publication from January to July 1973. Similar ‘time lags’ almost certainly existed in the case of all past UBDs. It was noted by Doyle (1977) that there were major recording inconsistencies, with considerable doubt on around 12 or so categories, with only two, motor oil and spirit depots, and motor tyre dealers and retreaders, being finally regarded as clear cases of haphazard recording in the UBDs.

It was further noted that the UBD directories were revised annually, and while ‘every care’ was taken to obtain accurate data, this could only be done within certain limits. Doyle (1977) stated that ‘UBD personnel visited 25 of the 144 urban centres in 1972, and for the remaining 119 urban centres, a standard ‘UBD Compilation and Statistics’ return form was mailed to ‘responsible’ people, who were invited to supply the information required.

It was further noted that some omissions occurred or intermittently recorded, and some businesses were found to be present in the 1973–1974 directory which had ceased to exist in 1965 and 1969. It was also found that in some cases this was up to 18–20 year omissions. It was concluded that this invalidated the hypothesis that UBDs were accurate historical sources of geography data.

There are no specific studies verifying the accuracy of the Telecom/Telstra publications in Australia, however, given their widespread uptake in Australia and household use (everyone had a white, pink/yellow pages), advertising revenue became the main driver of listings in these commercial directories.

To find out more about our historical land use data, you can get in contact with us at

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