Qwest merger: Is it the right number for telecom history buffs?

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Almost three months after CenturyTel announced a $22 billion deal to take over Qwest Communications, some of the most important questions about the historic merger remain unanswered -- like what happens to all those old phone books, weird equipment, archival collections and other cool bits of telephonic history hidden on the fifth floor of the old AT&T building at 14th and Champa Street.

The nonprofit Telecommunications History Group (THG) maintains one of the country's most extensive private collections of telecom memorabilia in space provided by Qwest there.

I made some use of the THG offerings -- which include more than 80,000 photographs, board meeting minutes and stock certificates and other vestiges from hundreds of long-vanished phone companies, and much more -- for "Waltz of the Cannibals," my story about the post-Nacchio turmoil in the industry, a few years ago. The materials are available to researchers by appointment only, but THG also conducts free tours of its museum and offers an online virtual museum for those curious about the Ma Bell of yore.

The collection has since moved from the basement of one Qwest building to more spacious digs a few blocks away. "We have wonderful quarters," says Jody Georgeson, THG's executive director and archivist. "Most people find us online, though. We get a lot of questions by e-mail."

Qwest provides the organization with space but no direct financial support; THG relies strongly on volunteers and citizen donations. Many of its most active members are former US West and Mountain Bell employees who've seen the telecom landscape change dramatically over years of mergers and shakeouts.

Whether the latest bit of industry consolidation will aid THG's efforts is unclear. While the companies focus on the details of the merger, Georgeson's phone isn't exactly ringing off the hook with offers from the new CenturyTel regime. But, she notes, the company appears to have a strong interest in preserving its own history, and the merger might lead to the acquisition of even more collections for THG.

"This space we're in now was originally equipment space," she says. "It's wonderful for archives. It's not perfect for offices. We're hopeful that nobody's going to want it."

THG has already announced plans for a co-sponsored exhibit at the Denver Public Library next summer, focusing on the evolution of telecommunications over the past 150 years. The final phase of the exhibit, devoted to current developments, will be titled, "What's Next?" -- a question the organization would like to be able to answer for itself, too.

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