History of Book Indexing

A survey of mankind’s efforts to record, organize, retrieve and index information.

 Language and Alphabets
 2000 BC to 100 AD
 100 to 400 AD
 400 to 1450 AD – The Middle Ages
 1450 to 1501 AD – Early Printed Book
 1501 AD to 1800 AD
 1800 to present
 Book Indexing Standards and Style Guides
 International Societies of Indexers

Language and Alphabets

The Semites (c 2000 BC) invented the alphabet. They lived in Egypt and were inspired by the Egyptian writing system.

The Semites (c 1,000 BC) also invented alphabetical writing by establishing a fixed order for letters ranging from A to T, which is found in all Semitic languages such as Phoenician, Syriac,  Hebrew, and Arabic. Alphabetical order, for ordering information, evolved once a fixed order for letters was established. [2, 13, 15] The Greeks borrowed from the Phoenician language and adapted it for their own use. The Phoenician alphabet had 22 letters, while the first Greek alphabet probably had 26 letters. [2]

The Etruscans (c 700 BC) copied the Greek letters, and were followed by the Italian peoples, including the Romans. [2]

As the Romans conquered the lands around them, their language and alphabet came to be widely used. After the collapse of the Roman Empire, the Roman letters were “fitted” into newer tongues, including Old English around AD 600. [2]

2000 BC to 100 AD

  • Preface: During this period, kings and various rulers sought to record historical events, trade transactions and administrative details on clay, bone, prepared skins, papyrus and parchment. These records were collected in libraries, and early efforts were made at tagging and cataloguing the records for retrieval.The first written catalogues of books were simply inventories and finding lists written on clay tablets, or sheets of parchment. Cataloguing developed with the expansion of libraries.
  • 2000 B.C. clay envelopes enclosed Mesopotamian cuneiform documents to help preserve. The clay envelopes had signature seals and abstracted information of the contents. [16]
  • 1800 B.C, catalogues were produced using clay tablets in Hattusas, in north central Turkey. Each entry gave the number of tablets making up the work; the title of the work; the first line, or a capsule description of the contents; and whether the tablet marks the end of the work or not. For its time, it was a fairly sophisticated method of finding information. [2]
  • 1150 BC, King Wen in China created a ‘book of wisdom’ known as I Ching using eight different three-line symbols called ‘trigrams’, which were then grouped together into a hexagram. An 8X8 matrix of double trigrams resulted in 64 possible hexagrams, which Wen arranged in a certain order. Instead of page references, the locators were hexagram numbers. Wen created a table of trigrams which Hans Wellisch called a post-coordinate index (similar to computer databases, and taxonomy-building). [6]
  • Amduat (Text of the Hidden Chamber Which is in the Underworld) is an important Egyptian funerary text written on the inside of the pharaoh’s tomb. The earliest version is dated to Tuthmosis III (1479–1425 BCE) an 18th-dynasty Pharaoh. The underworld is divided into twelve hours of the night, each representing different allies and enemies for the Pharaoh/sun god to encounter. The Amduat catalogues the names of these gods and monsters to the spirit of the dead Pharaoh, along with illustrations showing the topography of the underworld, and has been referred to as the first index. [2, 15]
  • In the 1st millennium BC, northwest Semitic scribes used the Abjad writing system, and invented alphabetical writing by establishing a fixed order for letters ranging from A to T, which is found in all Semitic languages such as Phoenician, Syriac, Hebrew, and Arabic. [13; 15]
  • By the 4th century BC, bookselling became a flourishing industry and libraries began to appear. [2]
  • Ashurbanipal (668–627 BC), Assyria’s last important ruler, created the first systematically collected library in the ancient Near East, which included the Epic of Gilgamesh. [2]
  • The Royal Library of Alexandria in Egypt, one of the largest and most significant libraries in the ancient world, was opened during the reign of Ptolemy I Soter (323-283 BC) to collect copies of every work of Greek literature. The Ptolemies, who reigned between 305–30 BC, spared no pains at acquiring everything in sight to make the collection as complete as possible. The library was part of the Museum of Alexandria, which functioned as a sort of research institute for a long list of classical thinkers such as Euclid and Archimedes. The Library is said to have had over 500,000 papyrus scrolls, plus 200,000 scrolls taken from the great Library of Pergamon by Mark Antony as a wedding gift to Cleopatra. The library was destroyed by fire c 270 AD [2, 5, 15]
  • Other important libraries in the ancient world include: the Palatine Library, Rome, Italy (c. 28 BC); the Library at the Sanctuary of Asclepius, Bergama, Turkey (c. AD 100); the Library of the Baths of Trajan, Rome, Italy (AD 104-109); the Library of Celsus at Ephesus, Turkey (A.D. 133); Library of the Baths of Caracalla, Rome, Italy (AD 217); and the Library of Timgad (Tamugadi), Timgad, Algeria (3rd century AD). The Roman writer Cassiodorus (485-585 AD) recorded how in AD 546 Totila, King of Ostrogoths, sacked the city of Rome and destroyed all the libraries. [5]
  • Zenodotus (c 284 BC), the first superintendent of the Royal Library of Alexander, organized the works alphabetically by the first letter of the name of the author; and library staff attached to the end of each scroll a small tag (an index) that gave the author, title, and subject of the work. Library users no longer had to unroll scrolls to search their contents, and the works could be easily re-shelved. [2, 13]
  • Callimachus (c. 305-240 B.C) was a scholar at the Royal Library of Alexandria. He produced a bibliographic survey of the contents of the Library. Pinakes wasone of the first known documents that listed, identified, and categorized a library’s  holdings. It is said to have filled 120 scrolls. [2, 13]
  • Quintus Valerius Soranus (c. 140–130 BC, – 82 BC) was a Latin poet, grammarian and tribune of the people. Pliny the Elder credits him with being first writer to provide a table of contents to help readers navigate a long work. [15]
  • Marcus Terentius Varro (116 BC–27 BC), an ancient Roman scholar and writer, wrote some alphabetic lists of authors and titles. He was a prolific writer and wrote more than 74 works, in 620 books, on various of topics, including Nine Books of Disciplines, and his compilation of the Varronian chronology. He used various categories of liberal arts to organize his Nine Books of Disciplines, and this became a model for later encyclopaedists such as Pliny the Elder. [15]
  • Gaius Plinius Secundus (AD 23–25, AD), better known as Pliny the Elder, was a Roman author, naturalist, and natural philosopher, who wrote an encyclopaedic work called Naturalis Historia, he compiled 20,000 facts from 2000 works by over 200 authors. This became a model for all other encyclopaedias. The first of the 37 books was a large table of contents listing various subjects discussed in the encyclopaedia. At the end of his preface Pliny the Elder indicates that Quintus Valerius Soranus was the first to use a table of contents. [15]
  • Valerius Maximus (14 AD–37 AD), a Latin writer and author of Nine Books of Memorable Deeds and Sayings. Each book was divided into sections, and each section had a title. Most of the tales are from Roman history, but each section has an appendix with extracts from the annals of other peoples, principally the Greeks. [15]

100 to 400 AD

  • Preface: Scholars and writers compiled encyclopaedias, dividing the works into sections with headings, summaries of contents, tables of contents, and symbols in the margins to help locate information quickly.
  • First century A.D. the word ‘index’ appeared in the Dazangjing Suihan Suoyin (Chinese Buddhist canon index). [8]
  • Sextus Julius Frontinus (c. 40–103 AD) was a Roman who wrote Stratagems, a collection of four book about military stratagems from Greek and Roman history. Each book is subdivided into chapters on specific areas of warfare. Each chapter has a heading and a brief extract taken from historical works illustrating a practical application of the topic. [15]
  • Claudius Ptolemy (c. AD 90 – c. AD 168), a Greco-Roman writer in Alexandria, was the author of several scientific treatises. Ptolemy in A.D 150 provided not only topographic lists, captions and maps to Geographia but also an index to the first world atlas Atlas of the World. [7]
  • Aulus Gellius (c. 125 – after 180 AD), a Latin author and grammarian, wrote Attic Nights, a compilation of notes on grammar, history, philosophy, antiquarianism and other subjects divided into twenty books. A title heading at the beginning of each chapter spelled out the subject so that readers were able to skim through the book to find a subject of interest. [15]
  • Sextus Pythagoreus (c. 200 A.D.) arranged in alphabetical order his Pythagorean sentences, which were a group of 123 maxims reflecting the thoughts of the Pythagorean school. [16]
  • By 200 AD, the Chinese were using woodblock printing, the earliest form of printing which was better suited to Chinese characters than moveable type. Blockbooks of China, antedate by several hundred years the Western printing of books using moveable type, which was discovered independently, without knowledge of the Oriental achievement. [9, page 232] [15]

400 to 1450 AD: Middle Ages

  • Preface: In Europe, scribes in monasteries produced copies of ancient texts by hand, while in South Korea, multiple copies of Tripitaka Koreana were printed using wooden blocks. A hand, or a pointing finger (index finger) was often used to denote an important passage that should be read or noted. In later years, access to book contents was enhanced by using symbols, alphabetical order, chapter numbers, table of contents, coloured paragraph-marks, running titles along the top of pages, multiple columns and folio numbers.
  • Cassiodorus (c. 485 – c. 585), a Roman statesman and writer living in the monastery at Vivarium, wrote Institutiones Divinarum et Saecularium Litterarum. He provided summaries (tituli) at the beginning of each book to help find information, and he developed an elaborate system of symbols to be used as biblical commentaries so that students could readily find information in a particular passage. [16]
  • 868 AD The Diamond Sutra, a Buddhist sutra written in Sanskrit language, was printed using wooden printing blocks during the Tang Dynasty in China.[5, 15]
  • Bì Sheng (990–1051 AD) invented the moveable type printing press between 1041 and 1048, during the Song Dynasty China. Western printing presses were introduce in China in the 16th century but were not widely used until the 19th century. [15]
  • Cardinal Deusdedit (died between 1097 and 1100), Cardinal-priest of St. Peter in Vincoli, a Roman Catholic Church in Rome, Italy. Deusdedit joined the Benedictine Order as a zealous promoter of ecclesiastical reforms and wrote a primitive subject index to his canonical collections of Christian laws. [4]
  • Sextus Pompelus Festus (2nd century AD), a Roman grammarian, wrote a 20 volume encyclopaedic work on Verrius Flaccus, called De verborum significatu,with the entries in alphabetical order. [15]
  • Valerius Harpocration (2nd century A.D.) a Greek grammarian of Alexandria, wrote the Lexicon of the Ten Orators which was more or less in alphabetic order, and he wrote a lexicon on Homer, alphabetized by all letters. [15]
  • 5th century. Theological sayings were arranged in alphabetical order by topic, using a semi-encyclopaedic approach. [6]
  • Suidas (10th century) wrote an encyclopaedic lexicon in Greek with 30,000 entries from ancient sources and from medieval Christian compilers. The lexicon is arranged in alphabetic order with phonetic variations. [15]
  • 1011, The Tripitaka Koreana, a complete corpus of Buddhist doctrinal texts, was compiled by the Goryeo ruling dynasty in a remote Buddhist monastery of Haeinsa in South Korea. Tripitaka Koreana was commissioned in AD 1011 and  took 86 years to complete. It consists of 81,258 wooden printing blocks, divided into 6,802 volumes, which were printed on paper, 440 years before Gutenberg. The 10,000 characters of the Chinese language made it difficult to use moveable type, but the wooden printing blocks worked well with Chinese [5]
  • By the high Middle Ages (1000–1347) one-volume portable Bibles became very common. For the first time, the components were put into a standard and logical order; divided into chapters and supplied with alphabetical indices of Hebrew names. Many of the innovations designed for friars by booksellers of Paris in the 1230’s are found in many traditional modern printed bibles today. [9, page 69]
  • By about 1150, scribes in monasteries in Europe were producing a relentless stream of books on theology, history, politics, geography, natural history, including ancient Greek works translated into Latin. The number of books in circulation in Europe had become too great for any person to manage, so new kinds of books were devised. Glossed texts with marginal quotations for quick reference, encyclopaedias, concordances, florilegia, digests, and indexes. Scribes devised various ways of looking things up such as alphabetical order, chapter numbers for the Bible and other texts, tables of contents, coloured paragraph-marks, running titles along the top of pages, and folio numbers. Books became
    resources to be consulted frequently at speed, rather than merely to be read at leisure. Books of literate administrators and lawyers were in two columns, with many graded coloured initials and margins packed with ‘forms of apparatus for rapid reference’. For the first time, books became resources to be consulted, frequently at speed, rather tan merely to be read at leisure.[9, page 64-65]
  • 13th century, the first Christian citation index ‘a concordance to the incidental passages in the writings of the fathers’ appeared. [4]
  • 1200 Manuscripts were usually in two columns, bristling with many graded coloured initials, margins were packed with forms of apparatus for rapid reference.This is in marked contrast to a typical book of 150 years earlier, with a single column of dense text, with few initials and scarcely any division between words, and almost not space between paragraphs. [9, page 65]
  • 1234 Korean Choe Yun-si invented metal moveable type for printing, over 200 years before Gutenberg. [5]
  • 1250 Professional scribes and illuminators were beginning to set up commercial and urban businesses independent of monasteries in Paris, Bologna, and Oxford. The style of medieval script and book illumination varied immensely throughout the 1,500 years of the Middle Ages. A book may be copied from one source, corrected, or corrupted against several others, wisely or carelessly, or copied from texts many centuries old, or both. The lines of textural descent are extremely complex. [9, page 65]
  • By the end of the reign of Edward I of England (1239 –1307) alphabetical indexes were written for parliamentary statutes and other law books. English Bibles of the 13th century had lists of Hebrew names that were alphabetically sorted to the third or fourth letter of each word. [2]
  • Robert Grosseteste (c. 1175 –1253), was an English statesman, theologian, and scientist. He was appointed Chancellor of the University of Oxford, and later Bishop of Lincoln. He was a prolific writer and needed to recall his reading at will, so he made subject indexes of works, and marked passages he had read with a set of symbols. [7]
  • Hugh of Saint-Cher (c. 1200 – 1263) a French Dominican friar, directed the compilation of the first concordance to the Bible from the text of the Latin Vulgate, with the help of 500 Dominican monks. Hugo divided the chapters into seven almost equal parts, indicated by the letters of the alphabet, a, b, c, etc. The concordance listed only nouns, adjectives and verbs. Entries indicated the book and chapter, but not the verse. [14]
  • Rufinus wrote De virtutibus herbarum in 1290, a herbal manuscript with an  alphabetical index of names of plants sorted by their first letter only. [11]
  • Thomas of Ireland (Thomas Hibernicus) (1295–1338) an Irish writer, compiled the Manipulus florum (‘A Handful of Flowers’). Some copies have headwords without locators, while other copies have a system of locators in the margin using single or double letters to mark each section, for cross-referencing between related entries. Many editions have a non-alphabetized, list of authors and works (a bibliography) at the end of the book. The marginal notes appear to cite various authors. [10]
  • Herbarium (late 13th or early 14th century), one of the earliest herbal manuscripts, contained figures of plants and an index to their names. [11]
  • Domenico Bandini of Arezzo (c. 1335 –1418), an Italian humanist, wrote an encyclopaedia Fons memorabilium universi (“Source of notable information about the universe”). The work is organized in 5 parts, each part divided into several books containing numerous cross-references. Each of the 34 books covers one circle of topics. Some books consist of several introductory and systematical chapters, followed by an alphabetically ordered list of articles. This method of organization had been developed by Vincent of Bauvais, a Dominican friar
    (c. 1190–1264?) in his Speculum Maius (The Great Mirror) a compendium of all of the knowledge of the Middle Ages. [15]
  • 14th century. With the rise of the university system in Europe and the expansion of scholarship, scholars indexed their books by hand using index terms and phrases were extracted from the text, along with cross-references. [6]

1450 to 1501 AD: Early Printed Book (Incunabula)

  • Preface: Before the printing press, scribes in medieval European monasteries copied books and document by hand, and by the 13th century, there were secular copy-shops. Copying by hand resulted in difference in pagination between copies of the same book, which limited widespread use of indexes.

Scholars compiled indexes for their own use, and scribes in monasteries added indexes to the texts that they were copying. The indexer, in those times, had tonot only to do the intellectual job, but also made his own indexing slips from scrap paper, then sorted the slips on boards, or in wooden boxes.[14]

With the invention of printing in Europe around 1450, it became possible to produce identical copies of books in large numbers. Some of the early printers wrote indexes for their books, but most employed scholars as editors, correctors, and compilers of indexes. The first printed indexes (incunabula indexes) were written for reference books for herbals.

The early printed book, Incunabula, was printed either from wooden printing blocks, or from metal moveable type, prior to the year 1501. Terms such as index, table and table of contents were used indiscriminately. Name and subject indexes  were usually after the table of contents, but around the middle of the 16th century, indexes appeared at the end of the book. [14]

Printers vied with each other to make their product more attractive to prospective buyers. Incunabula indexes became quite sophisticated: index locators referred to pages and paragraphs; entries were sorted alphabetically by up to 3 letters; and there were multi-lingual indexes, and multiple name and subject indexes. Indexes generally became more elaborate and voluminous by the end of the 15th century, a trend which continued well into the 16th Century” [13]

  • In 1468, Speculum vitae (Mirror of Life), a Middle English poem composed between 1350-1375, became the first dated index. The book had 300 large pages, preface,
    table of contents and a six and half page index with an average of 15 entries per page. It was alphabetized by the first syllable; each group of entries beginning with the same letter, were indicated by a large capital letter from A to V; each entry was proceeded by alternate red and blue paragraph marks. It became a best seller. The book went through several reprints; and other printers produced ten more Latin editions, all including the same index. [14]
  • In the1460s, St. Augustine’s De arte praedicandi (On the art of preaching) became the earliest printed index in Europe. There were two editions, dated 1466 and1468, both published by Fust and Peter Schoeffer (the printers of Gutenberg’s Bible) in Germany. [14]

In the preface, the editor extolled the virtues of Augustine’s work and then drew attention of prospective buyers to the index: “the index and figures of that book are indeed alone worth the whole price, because they make it much easier to use”. The book became a best seller.

The index locators referred to paragraphs, and were marked in the margin by letters of the alphabet. There were 80 paragraphs, and 230 entries (8 entries per page). Index entries were phrases, more or less verbatim from the text, and were alphabetized using either the first syllable, or sometimes two or three letters, but not the rest of the letters in the word. There were many cross-references and some index phrases were rotated to provide additional access to every listed concept. There was no Latin term for index at that time, although tabula was often
used during the 15th century. [14]

According to Hans H. Wellische “readers increasingly came to appreciate the value of indexes.” More finding aids were provided by printers who quickly realized what Peter Schoeffer had understood in 1470, that the provision of indexes helped to sell books. [12]

  • Prior to 1470, elaborate handwritten indexes were found in some incunabula. They were handwritten, compiled by the owners, used folio numbers as locators, and some contained thousands of index entries. Indexes to manuscripts could not refer to leaves of pages, but used other locator techniques. The texts of these theological, medical and philosophical treatises became somewhat standardized by division into chapters and paragraphs, which enabled more accurate index references to these divisions. [12]
  • In 1470, Marchesini’s Mammotrectus was published for clerks and parish priests whose knowledge of Latin was rudimentary. Peter Schoeffer added an eleven page index of difficult words in fine Gothic; and there were about 2,700 entries, with 250 entries in 3 columns per page. The book became a best-seller and was reprinted several times until 1500. [12]
  • In 1480, the Herbarium of Apuleius (Apuleius Platonicus) was edited and printed by Johannes Philippus de Lignamine. It contains a list of plant names and recipes from a 9th century manuscript in the monastery at Monte Cassino. The Latin plant names were roughly alphabetized, thus it was self-indexing. Alongside the Latin name was the Greek transliterated form, and the editor also added Italian, French Arabic and Slavic names (multi-lingual index). Each plant was illustrated by a hand-coloured woodcut. [11]
  • In 1484, Peter Schoffer (Gutenberg’s associate) published Herbarius that listed 150 plants roughly alphabetized by their Latin names, thus making the work self-indexing. Each Latin name was accompanied by the German equivalent. [12]
  • In 1485, Peter Schoffer republished Herbarius as an enlarged German version called Gart der Gesundtheit. Gart was the first incunabula on a scientific subject written in the vernacular, and the indexes were far in advance of those compiled during the following 50 years. The name index and subject index were in alphabetical order (by first letter only) and placed at the end of the text (instead of after the table of contents). The Latin names had the corresponding German name, making it the first herbal name index with bilingual terminology. [12]
  • In 1491, Jakob Meydenbach printed Hortus sanitatis (The Garden of Health) with more than 1,000 pictures, some full page illustrations of plants, animals, fishes,
    minerals and gemstones. Plant names were alphabetically sorted up to the third letter. There was a subject index of organs of the body and diseases, along with references to plants used for treatment. Most index entries had between 3 and 8 references, and several had more than 40 index references to chapters and paragraphs that were marked by capital letters in the margin of the text. [11]
  • Hartmann Schedel (1440–1514) wrote the Nuremberg Chronicle (1493), an illustrated world history following the story of human history as related in the
    Bible. The index entries were taken verbatim from the text, but were not always entered under the keyword, and alphabetized by the first letter. Index citations refer to leaf numbers, with no designation of recto or verso. [16]

1501 to 1800 AD

  • Preface: The Gutenberg press led to the first assembly-line mass production of books. A single Renaissance printing press could produce 3,600 pages per work day compared to 2,000 by woodblock printing, or a few pages by hand-copying. Presses were set up in more than 100 European towns between 1471 and 1480; in 90 more towns between 1781 and 1490; and 50 more towns between 1491 and 1500. By 1500, printing presses in Western Europe produced more than twenty million books. By the 16th century, between 50 and 200 million books
    were produced. [9, page 83] [15]
  • In 1516, the Italian physician Ermolao Bararo published the first annotated Latin translation of Discordides Material medica. The subject indexes to herbs and diseases were 58 pages, printed in 3 columns, 50 entries each, for over 9,000 items. All references were to pages (not chapters or paragraphs). [11]
  • In the 1520s, publishers placed an index announcement in a prominent position on the title page of herbal manuscripts, to bring attention to the index feature.
    Publishers found that a book with indexes sold better than one without such keys to its contents. [11, page 87]
  • In 1529, a second edition of Ermolao Bararo’s translation of Discordides’  Material medica provided an extensive index of plant names printed on 8 pages in two columns, sorted in strict alphabetical order on all letters in a Latin name. Each Latin name was followed by its Greek equivalent, with reference to a page number, The subject index, in three columns, attempted to list both Greek and Latin names of diseases and organs of the body in one alphabetical sequence. [11]
  • Jean Ruel’s herbal De Natura stirpium libri tres was first published in Paris in 1536, and then was reissued in Venice in 1538 in two volumes. The Index copiosissimus of Greek names was 102 pages long, in two columns of 45 lines, with an average of 50 items per page, for more than 50,000 entries for the whole book. The references were to pages. [11]
  • In 1540, Frankfurt printer Christian Egenolph printed Botanicon, had 3 separate indexes: Greek names; Latin and trade names; and the third index had German names. All references were to page numbers. [11]
  • In 1545, Italian physician Antonio Musa Brasavola printed a second edition of his compendium on medicinal herbs, Examen ominium simplicium medicamentorum. The Latin name index with Greek names in transliteration filled 50 pages. The index referred to both page numbers and line indicators on the page. [11]
  • In 1546, Hieronymus Bock reissued his Kreuter Buch with 477 hand-coloured woodcuts and three extensive indexes, in strict alphabetical order. The book was an immediate success and went through 7 editions. [11]
  • In 1552, Hieronymus Bock issued a Latin edition of De stirplum..libri tres with 5 separate name indexes for Greek, Latin, German, Arabic and Hebrew plant names occupying 48 pages, plus a 21-page subject index referring to organs, diseases and their treatment. References were all to page numbers. [11]
  • Prior to 1550, the art of indexing was not very well developed. The alphabetical arrangement of entries rarely if ever extended beyond the second letter of the first word, and catchwords taken from the text, or from marginal notes, were the main point of access. [11]
  • By 1550, the techniques of compiling name and subject indexes were well established. Herbalists were compiling multi-script, multi-lingual name and
    subject indexes.
  • In 1554, the first man to prepare a concordance to the Bible, was sentenced to be burned at the stake for heresy. [4]
  • In 1597, John Gerarde’s The herbal or general historie of plantes was published in England, and had 1 subject index and 5 separate name indexes. The name indexes were: an ‘Index latinus’; an index of apothecaries’ trade names, Arabic names and ‘barbaric’ names; a concordance to plant names; an index of English plant names; and a supplement. The subject index listed diseases alphabetically by catchword, along with an introductory phrase. [11]
  • The Index librorum Proibitorium (1559-1966) listed published works forbidden to Catholics. This index was intended, not to promote or reveal, but to conceal information from “good” Catholics who were not supposed to read the Index. In its final version, there were some 4,000 works dating from the late 16th century. Lamennais’ Paroles d’un croyant and Renan’s Vie de Jesus saw their sales boosted to over 160,000 copies in the first year after being added to the Index. [9]
  • Sir Thomas North (1535–1604) was an English justice of the peace and translator. His English translation of Plutarch’s Parallel Lives, included an index (1595). [15]
  • Christopher Marlowe (1564–1593), an English dramatist and poet, in 1593, referred to indexes in Hero and Leander.

Therefore, even as an index to a book
So to his mind was young Leander’s look.

  • William Shakespeare (1564–1616), an English poet and playwright made mention of indexes in his plays. [11]


And in such indexes, although small pricks To their subsequent volumes, there is seen The baby figure of the giant mass Of things to come at large. (Trolius and Cressida, I, iii, 343)

Ay me, what act, That roars so loud, and thunders in the index? (Hamlet, III, iv)

Lechery, by this hand; an index and obscure prologue to the history of lust and foul thoughts. (Othello, II, 1)

  • Thomas Fuller (1608 – 1661), an English churchman and historian commented in 1650 that an “Index is the bag and baggage of a book, of more use than honour,
    even such who seemingly slight it, secretly using it, it not for need, for speed of what they desire to find”. [2]
  • Henry Scobell (1610–1660), an English Parliamentary official, and editor of official publications, wrote Acts and Ordinances of Parliament of 1658. One of the sections is called “An Alphabetical Table of the most material contents of the whole book” which he referred to as “an index of the general titles comprised in the ensuing Table”. [15]
  • In 1691, Shmuel ben Alexander published his book Pri Megadim, which is an index to the legal book Hoshen u-mishpat. Judges used keywords to locate information. The page and column number were used as locators. [1]
  • 17th century: First scholarly journals were published, each with their own index. [6]
  • 18th century: Cumulative and collective indexes to periodicals appeared. [6]
  • In 1728, The Book of the Zohar was published with an alphabetical index. [1]
  • Alexander Cruden (1699–1770) was the author of an early concordance of the Bible called the Complete concordance to the Holy Scriptures (1737). He wrote three editions of the concordance, and it is probably the oldest concordance in print. [3]
  • Samuel Johnson (1709–1784), an English writer, spent 9 years writing A Dictionary of the English Language (1755), which included an index. The dictionary was massive with 42,773 entries, and 114,000 literary quotations. [15]
  • Carl Linnaeus (1707–1778), a Swedish botanist, physician and zoologist, laid the foundations for the biological naming scheme of binomial nomenclature, and is known as the ‘father of modern taxonomy’. He needed a system for organizing data that was expandable and able to be rearranged easily. He used cards, which became know as index cards, which were used to write indexes to his many publications. [15]

1800 to present

  • Preface: During this period, periodicals and bibliographic indexes of scientific journal articles were established. Index cards were used to catalogue the (“Universal Bibliographic Repertory”, and edge-notched cards were used to automate the indexing process. A computer compiled an author index in 1957, and indexing software was developed for professional indexers. Dr. Wheatley wrote ground breaking articles on indexing, and he founded the Indexing Society in 1878. International standards for indexes were established; the role of the
    professional indexer was enhanced; and Indexing Societies were established in nine countries internationally.
  • By the 19th century, the value of indexes was being commented upon by a number of eminent writers. Thomas Carlyle and Lord Campbell proposed that any author who published a book without an index should be deprived of the benefits of the Copyright Act. A certain John Baynes went even further and said “that a man who published a book without an index ought to be damned ten miles beyond Hell, where the Devil could not get for stinging nettles”. [2]
  • 1853, William Poole (1821–1894), an American bibliographer and librarian at YaleUniversity, developed and published a 154 page Index to Periodical Literature. [6]
  • Paul Otlet (1868 –1944), a Belgium author and lawyer, created the Universal Decimal Classification system, and was responsible for the widespread adoption of the index card in Europe. [15]
  • 1870 Muslim presses produced publications with table of contents, with page numbers, enabling the reader to make more systematic use of the book. [9, p. 547]
  • In 1879, Dr. Henry Benjamin Wheatley wrote a treatise on “What is an index?” He made the point that many books were and remained un-indexed, and as a result students and researchers often made their own indexes. He lamented that the profession of indexer had been allowed to fall into disrepute and that “some suppose that any ignorant hack can produce this indispensable portion of a book”. Wheatley remarked: “an ideal indexer needs many high qualifications; but unlike the poet, he is not born but made. He must be a good analyzer, and know how to reduce the author’s many words into a terse form. He must continually be thinking of the wants of the consulter of his index so as to place his references under the heading that the reader is most likely to seek”. [2]
  • 1879, Index Medicus was first published and today, and today is a comprehensive bibliographic index of scientific journal articles on medical science fields. [6, 15]
  • In 1895, Otlet and La Fontaine began cataloguing facts on index cards that became know as the “Repertoire Bibliographique Universel” (“Universal Bibliographic Repertory”) By the end of 1895, the index had grown to 400,000 entries; growing eventually to 15 million entries. He envisioned a copy of the RBU in every major city of the world and a fee-base service that responded to inquiries by sending copies of the relevant index cards to the requestor by mail. [15]
  • In 1895, Mary Petherbridge, indexer of the records of the East India Company, the Drapers’ Company, and The Ladies Field, set up The Secretarial Bureau of London. The bureau offered secretarial services plus indexing services for books, correspondence, newspapers, and records. [3]
  • 1901 Wilson’s Readers’ Guide to periodical literature was published, and today the Guide is an index to over 300 general-interest periodicals. [6, 15] China had more than 60 different filing (sorting) systems in use by the 1930s.Chinese characters can be sorted by rhyme, tone, radical parts, structure and the number of strokes in the character. The lack of a standardized sorting system for Chinese language limited the development of Chinese indexes. [8]
  • In 1925, Du Dingyous compiled the first Chinese back-of-the-book index for his book Guidelines for school education. [8]
  • In 1928, Wan Goding gave the first Chinese indexing course. [8]
  • In 1930, Quian Yaxin wrote the Chinese monograph Index and Indexing. [8]
  • In 1932, Hong Ye published a second Chinese monograph, Indexing Chinese Books in which he explored indexing procedures and a new Chinese character filing system. Hong Ye produced 50 indexes for multi-volume ancient texts, and directed the production of 64 book indexes to classical texts. [8]
  • Between 1935-1965 a Vedic Word Concordance of Vedic Sanskrit texts was published in a multi-volume concordance with 11,000 pages, published in 16 parts. [15]
  • 1940 Mortimer Taube developed edge-notched cards for indexing (coordinate indexing). The cards had rows of little holes around the edges, and the positions of the holes represented index terms. The appropriate subject hole was clipped for each indexing term. To search a file for articles or books by subject, the cards were held tightly and a spike put through the hole of the desired subject. The cards with the desired subject then dropped off the spike. The cards were then re-filed with the rest of the cards. [6]
  • The optical coincidence system used a card with 80 columns, with 10 positions in each column that allowed 800 positions to be punched out. To conduct a search on a subject, the cards were lined up tightly and held up to the light. Documents indexed under several terms would show up as spots of light. [6]
  • 1957 A computer was used to compile an author index. [6]
  • 1960 A computer produced a subject index to Historical Abstracts. [6]
  • 1960 The indexing thesaurus was developed for specific subject fields, consisting of a set of terms used for indexing and for searches. Terms were structured hierarchically, with ‘broader’ and ‘narrower’ cross-reference terms. [6]
  • 1961 A computer produced a ‘keyword in context’ (KWIC) index to Biological Abstracts. KWIC was a citation index of scholarly footnotes and bibliography, treated as index entries. The index was produced quickly, without human editing to correct or resolve errors or inconsistencies. [6]
  • 1963 Medical Subject Headings (MeSH) was published. MeSH is a on-line comprehensive controlled vocabulary for the purpose of indexing journal articles and books in the life sciences, and it also serves as a thesaurus to facilitate searching. [6]
  • 1966 Lockheed Missiles and Space Company designed an online information system of citations, abstracts and index terms that can be searched with a computer terminal. The system was commercially spun of as the DIALOG system that has hundreds of databases. [6]
  • 1982 Drusilla and Hilary Calvert wrote Micrex, a RAM-based program with 8kb of memory, for indexing. MACREX was then developed for professional indexers, based on a collection of macros, for the PC and Windows environment. [15]
  • 1986 Indexing Research released Cindex™ software for professional indexers. Cindex™ is available for Windows, and for Macintosh, enabling professional indexers to produce indexes in virtually any format with remarkable efficiency and speed. [15]
  • 1995, SKY Software was originally a DOS based designed for genealogists, but the product evolved into Windows-based computer software packages for professional indexers. [15]
  • 2011 The ASI Digital Trends Task Force (DTTF) was formed to address the evolution of book publishing from traditional print to eBook formats. DTTF engaged publishers, hardware manufacturers, and software developers to design and create “smart indexes” for the digital age.
  • 2012 ASI reported that IDPF approved the Indexes Charter Proposal to establish an Indexes Working Group consisting of 300+ publishers, organizations, software and device developers.

Book Indexing Standards and Style Guides

  • In 1906 the University of Chicago Press published Manual of Style. From its first 203 page edition, Chicago Manual of Style (CMS) evolved into a comprehensive reference style guide of 1,026 pages in its 16th edition. An entire chapter is devoted to indexing. The latest edition also covers electronic publications, web based content and e-books, electronic workflow and a primer on XML markup. [15]
  • 1958 National Federation of Abstracting and Information Services (NFAIS) proposed standards for abstracting and indexing organizations in the US and internationally. [6]
  • 1964 The British Standard on indexing (BS 3700) recommendation how to prepare indexes to books, periodicals and other documents. The British Standard  Recommendations for Preparing Indexes to Books, Periodicals, and Other Documentswas revised in 1976, and 1988. Much of the BS 3700: 1988 version has been  incorporated into the international standard ISO 999. [13, 15]
  • 1975 International Organization for Standardization (ISO) issued ISO 9999  Information and Documentation; Guidelines for the Content, Organization and Presentation of indexes was revised in 1996. Other ISO standards include: ISO999-199x and ISO 5127/1.
  • 1984 The British Standard on indexing (BS 6529) recommends how to examine documents, determine their subjects and select index terms.1984 The American National Standard (ANSI Z39.4) was established and is recognized in both the US and U.K.
  • 1985 The British Standard on indexing (BS 1749) recommends the alphabetical arrangement and the filing order of numerals and symbols.
  • 1990s National Information Standards Organization (NISO) set up a committee to revise the American standard, ANSI Z39-4-1984, but it did not garner enough votes to become a standard.
  • 2002, Oxford University Press released The Oxford Guide to Style. It is a revised and enlarged edition of Hart’s Rules. [15]

International Societies of Indexers

  • Preface: Despite the world-wide need for both indexes, and indexers to index, the main index practitioners have been in English-speaking countries. International Societies of indexers and their members have been instrumental in raising the quality of indexes, and the proficiency and recognition of indexers. [2, 13,17]
  • 1878 The Index Society (United Kingdom)
  • Formed March 26, 1878 at the first annual meeting of the Royal Asiatic Society in London. Henry Benjamin Wheatley (1838–1917) was the founder of the Index Society and author of seminal texts on indexing: “What is an index?”, published in 1879, and “How to make an index” published in 1902.
  • Several large projects were proposed including an index to the drawings in the manuscript department of the British Museum, and a General Index of Journals of Congress. Henry Benjamin Wheatley and the Indexing Society felt that indexes to subjects, and in particular, to periodicals and journals, was the way forward.
  • Due to financial problems, the Society folded in 1891 and amalgamated with the British Record Society’s index library. [2]
  • 1957 Society of Indexers (SI) (United Kingdom and the Republic of Ireland)
  • Formed by G. Norman Knight and approximately 60 other people as professional society promoting indexing, the quality of indexes, and the profession of indexing.
  • In 1958, the official journal The Indexer was published.
  • In 1976 the British Standard on Indexing (BS3700:1976) was published, and with subsequent revisions, continues to be used throughout the English-speaking world.
    • Goals/mission: To promote improved standards and techniques in all forms of indexing. To provide, promote and recognize facilities for training new indexers and further training at more advanced levels. To establish criteria for assessing the conformity of indexes to recognized standards; To conduct and promote research into indexing. To promote and advance good indexing. To enhance awareness and recognition of professional produced indexes and the role of indexers.
    • Membership: approx. 500
    • Awards: Wheatley Medal is given in recognition of quality and outstanding indexing.
  • 1968 American Society for Indexers (ASI)
    • First proposed by Theodore Hines, Robert Palmer and students of Columbia University Library School.
    • Goals/mission: To increase awareness of the value of high-quality indexes and indexing; to offer members access to educational resources that enable them to strengthen their indexing performance; to keep members up to date on advances in indexing technology and the role of indexing through conferences, workshops, and publications; to facilitate communication through meetings, directories, publications, and electronic communication – with each other and related professionals; to defend and safeguard the professional interests of indexers;
      to promoting index standards for indexers, editors, and abstractors; and to liaise with other professional organizations in information science
  •  ASI publishes Key Words
    • Membership: approx. 650 members
    • Awards: Hines Award; ASI/EIS Award; Website Indexing Award; Order of the Kohirabi; and the ASI/H.W. Wilson Company Award for Excellence in Indexing
  • 1972 Australia and New Zealand Society of Indexers (ANZSI)
    • Goals/mission: To promote standards and promote the quality of indexing in Australia and New Zealand; to promote training and continuing professional; development and interests in Australia and New Zealand.
    • Membership: approx. 250 members
  • 1977 Indexing Society of Canada/Societe canadiene d’indexation (ISC/SCI)
    • Goals/mission: To encourage the production and use of indexes and abstracts; to promote the recognition of indexers and abstractors; and provide communication among individual members across Canada.
    • Membership: approx. 130
    • Awards: Tamarack Award
  • 1977 Nihon Sakuinka Kyokai (Japan Indexers Association)
    • Goals/mission: To promote modern methods of bibliography and indexing in Japan; to promote indexing and provide annual workshops on topics in indexing and bibliographic methods
    • Publishes a quarterly journal Shoshi Sakuin Tembo (Journal of the Japan indexers Association)
    • Membership: 250+
  • 1991 China Society of Indexers (CSI)
    • Goals/mission: To promote index theory research, index compilation and publication. To train professional indexers.
    • Membership: approx. 1000
    • 1994 Association of South African Indexers and BibliographersGoals/mission: To serve and support the interests and activities of all indexers and bibliographers in South Africa.
    • Membership: approx. 200
  • 2004 Deutsches Netzwerk der Indexer (DNI)
    • Goals/mission: To promote the concept and professional status of indexing in the German-speaking world, and to make the occupational image of the indexer better known and more recognizable.
  • 2004 Netherlands Indexing Network (NIN)
    • Goals/mission: To advocate the interests of indexers by promoting awareness for indexing as a profession among the general public and publishers. To promote the quality of indexing in the Netherlands by offering workshops, conferences, mutual learning and mentoring.
    • Membership: approx. 20


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2. Beare, Geraldine. Past, present and future. The Indexer Vol. 25 No. 4, October 2007.

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4. Bell, Hazell K. Indexers and Indexes in Fact and Fiction. University of Toronto Press, 2001.

5. Campbell, James W. The Library: A World History. Thames & Hudson, 2013.

6. Cornog, Martha. A History of indexing technology. The Indexer Vol. 13 No. 3, April 1983.

7. Humphreys, Nancy K. The world’s oldest profession: indexing. The Indexer Vol. 29 No.4, December 2011.

8. Liqun Dai. Book Indexing in China. The Indexer Vol. 26 No. 1, March 2008.

9. Suarez, Michael, and H.R. Woudhuysen. The Book: A Global History. Oxford University Press, 2013.

10. Weinberg, Bella Hass. Book indexes in France: Medieval specimens and modern practices. The Indexer Vol. 22, No. 1, 2000.

11. Wellisch, Hans H. Early Multilingual and Multiscript Indexes in Herbals. The Indexer Vol. 11, No 2 October 1978.

12. Wellisch, Hans H. Incunabula Indexes. The Indexer Vol. 19 No. 1, April 1994.

13. Wellisch, Hans H. Indexing from A to Z. The H.W. Wilson Co., 1991.

14. Wellisch, Hans H. The oldest printed indexes. The Indexer Vol. 15, No. 2, October 1986.

15. Wikipedia. http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Main_Page

16. Witty, Francis J. The Beginnings of Indexing and Abstracting: Some Notes towards a History of Indexing and Abstracting in Antiquity and the Middle Ages. The Indexer, Vol. 8, No 4, October 1973.

17. Indexing Societies around the world: a brief survey. The Indexer, Vol. 29 No. 4, December 2011.