Creating a Plain Text Contact List

by: Scott Nesbitt | 04 May 2022

Recently, one website I’ve come to enjoy reading is Analog Office. I know … Analog is so far removed from plain text. But that doesn’t mean I can’t enjoy going (or just reading about going) old school every so often.

In one post, Anna Havron (the person behind that site) discusses keeping a canonical home address book using pen and a notebook. That got me thinking about doing the something similar, but with plain text.

Why would I opt for plain text rather than going analog? As much as I enjoy using a notebook and a pen, my handwriting it bad. Really bad. So bad that I can barely read it sometimes. Also, plain text gives me a bit more flexibility Regardless, both approaches have their merits and their drawbacks. But since the name of this site is The Plain Text Project, I’m going to stay in my wheelhouse.

Why Do This?

When you can, for example, export your email address book in plain text formats like vcard?

You might not want to save every contact you have, just the most important ones. Friends, family, colleagues you want to keep in touch with. And while you can open and view a vcard file in a text editor, the information isn’t exactly easy to read or scan, as you can gather from the sample below:

FN;PREF=1:Haruko Nakayama

Creating a plain text contact list ensures that humans can easily read the contents of the file, without all the vcard cruft. And that the list is easy to share or print out when or if necessary.

Getting Going

Before you create the list, think about the information that you want include in it. At very least, that information should be each entry’s:

Here’s an example of the basic structure of that information:

Name: [person's name]
   - Street address
   - Apartment/unit number (if applicable)
   - Town/City, State/Province/Prefecture, Postal/Zip Code
   - Country
   - personal:
   - secondary:
   - work:
   - mobile:
   - home:
   - work: 
Additional Information:
   - birthday: 
   - spouse's/partner's name: 
   - anything else: 

And here’s an example of an entry containing (admittedly fake) contact information:

Name: Lily Munster
   - 1313 Mockingbird Lane
   - Unit 631
   - Sometown, NSW 12345
   - Australia
   - personal:
   - work:
     > prefers using personal email address
   - mobile: +61 02-123-4567
   - home: +61 02-890-1234
     > Call home first
Additional Information:
   - birthday: 01/01/1989
   - Don't talk about pineapple on pizza!

In the example above, you might notice that I added notes below two of the indented items, denoted by a >. That’s not necessary, but it can be useful to (as I did in the example above) to specify a person’s preferred method of contact.

This is a format that works for me. If it doesn’t work for you, feel free to chop and change it to your liking. I’ve created a template (under a CC0 license) with which you can do just that.

One File or Multiple Files?

That’s a question that crops up a lot in these parts, isn’t it?

Having a single file means you don’t need to jump around to find what you’re looking for. And it’s easier to keep track of the file. Using multiple files, on the other hand enables you to focus on one group of people per file, and can make your contact lists easier to scan.

If you decide to use one file, break it down into sections based on the type of contact — for example, Family, Friends, Colleagues. Start the heading for each section with a hashtag, and separate the sections using three dashes (---). Here’s an example:

# Family

[add entries here]

## Friends

[add entries here]

## Colleagues

[add entries here]

I’ve created a second template, based on the example above (but with the actual structure), that you can use or modify as you need.

Whether use single or multiple files, name them in a way that makes sense to you. And if using multiple, think about how you plan to store those file and put them in a folder with a sensible name.

Final Thoughts

Keeping a plain text contact list is a simple way to create a backup of information about your important connections. This type of file is definitely not a replacement for what you maintain in your email account, but it is something that you can refer to when offline or to ensure that you’re keeping up with the people you want and need to keep up with.