Thomas Norton remembers the bad old days when his company, Fidelifacts/Metropolitan New York, used to spend at least $2,500 each year -- and yards of shelf space -- on phone directories from all over the country. Fidelifacts needed the directories because the 25-employee company specializes in background investigations of prospective employees, a task that requires checking many references. Today New York City-based Fidelifacts tracks down elusive references using Select Phone, one of a number of inexpensive CD-ROMs that offer national phone and address listings. Norton says that even though some entries are outdated, the CD-ROM listings are a big time-saver for Fidelifacts employees.

Small-company owners find many applications for CD-ROMs like Select Phone. Many of the directories let users compile customized mailing lists of likely prospects, selected by standard industrial classification code or zip code. Larry Wisch of Larry Wisch Associates, in San Francisco, uses a more expensive CD-ROM, D&B MarketPlace, to track down highly specialized business professionals nationwide for focus groups. D&B MarketPlace is based on Dun & Bradstreet data and provides more extensive company information, such as company size and contact names.

Which CD-ROM is best? The debate on the subject gets heated: recently, the moderator of the CD-ROM forum on the CompuServe on-line service had to ask representatives of two competing CD-ROM-directory companies to refrain from ad hominem attacks as they fiercely debated the merits -- and particularly the accuracy -- of one another's products. What's clear is that none of the CD-ROM-directory products -- based as they are on either phone directories or databases such as Dun & Bradstreet's -- can contain up-to-the-minute information.

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Directories on CD-ROM
American Business Information (ABI; 800-336-8349), in Omaha, compiles its own business database from directories and verifies information by phone. Like other ABI disks, the 11 Million Businesses Phone Book restricts the number of names a user can look up. ($29.)

Digital Directory Assistance (800-284-8353), in Bethesda, Md., offers such CD-ROMs as PhoneDisc Powerfinder, a five-CD set with business and residential listings. Unlimited usage. ($249.)

MarketPlace Information (800-999-9497), in Waltham, Mass., sells D&B MarketPlace, based on Dun & Bradstreet's databases. Buyers receive a device like a postage meter and credit for 3,000 names and addresses. For more names, users pay more. ($599.)

Pro CD (800-99C-DROM), in Danvers, Mass., produces CD-ROMs based on phone directories. The flagship product, Select Phone, is a five-CD set with residential and business listings. Unlimited usage. ($169.)