A History of Index Creation

Hi, everyone! For this column I would like to talk a little about the history of the index. I don’t think this is something I learned about in indexing school, so writing this will be a history lesson for all of us!

Even before books were invented, the Greeks and Romans were already hard at work discovering different ways of organizing information. One of the first forms of written material they used was the papyrus scroll, but it was not very efficient when it came to information retrieval.

Imagine picking a word at random and then trying to find that word in a Torah, or even a microfilm machine which does the “rolling” automatically. Still kind of like picking a needle out of a haystack, right? And even if they had included some form of an index (kind of hard with no page numbers though!), who would have wanted to unroll it to the end to get to the index and then back again to find the place they were looking for?

So, eventually there was enough written material out there to necessitate the invention of some kind of retrieval system. The first use of the word “index” referred to the little slip attached to the scroll which contained the title and author of the work, but that was about it. The next system used that was called an “index” is what we now know as a table of contents, still used today but not to be confused with what we now call an index! The first table of contents appeared around two millennia ago and was pretty much simply a list of what subjects or chapters each work contained and the names of their authors, and sometimes included an abstract. It is estimated to be a few centuries later when the Greeks invented alphabetization.

Concordances appeared around the 5th century, but indexes as we know them today were only sporadically used starting in the 13th century and were not widely used until after the invention of Gutenberg’s printing press in the 15th century and the invention of page numbers in 1470, when all copies of a book would come out with exactly the same information on each page of every copy. By the 16th century, indexes had advanced from poorly arranged listings to analytical and comprehensive keys of information whch referred to page numbers. The first index entries were only alphabetized by the first letter of each word, then by the first syllable, but by the 18th century, it was the rule that each word in an index be alphabetized in its entirety.

Some of the first “modern” indexes, interestingly enough, came from Jewish books, such as Shmuel ben Alexander’s index of the legal book Hoshen Mishpat dating all the way back to 1691, with the following explanation given as his reason for indexing it: “Guidelines are necessary for the understanding of the Bible...I have made it my task to make notes for myself...and these keywords simplify locating the point for which the judges are searching...in which chapter and which verse.”

Indexing as a profession began to be recognized in the 18th century; before this time indexes were usually compiled by the book’s author. Samuel Ayscough was the first person to be known as an “index-maker” with indexes dating back to 1782. The first indexing society was the Index Society of London, which was formed in 1877, followed by the foundation of the Society of Indexers in 1957, the American Society of Indexers in 1968, the Australian and New Zealand Society of Indexers in 1976 and the Indexing Society of Canada in 1977. It was around the end of the 19th century when indexers began writing about their work.

Unfortunately, it seems that the struggle for indexing to be recognized fully as a profession may not be over quite yet. Dorothy Thomas said it best in her presentation “Book Indexing Principles and Standards” at the 1988 ASI convention: “There will always be a demand by authors, and some publishers, for professional indexers to write so-called hand-made indexes. They may be produced on a computer, but they are not automatic indexes. No author writes to have his book diminished by inadequate indexing...authors are anxious for the best index to reflect their massive writing effort. The fate of a book may affect their entire career and economic future of an author. It is no wonder that authors fight with editors over indexing; sometimes they fight with indexers. Like it or not, however, authors are beginning to take over indexing themselves, and more indexes will be author-written and author-edited in the future. Authors will not buy indexing software. Their word processing programs, such as WordPerfect, XYWrite, and Multimate, have indexing features. Some authors will write tolerable indexes; others will destroy their own work.”

Next time, I’m going to continue the discussion on the history of the index by talking about indexing technologies and methods through the years. Later!

Shoshana Hurwitz
Hurwitz Indexing


The American Society of Indexers website (www.asindexing.com)

American Society of Indexers, and Bella Hass Weinberg. 1989. Indexing: the state of our knowledge and the state of our ignorance : proceedings of the 20th Annual Meeting of the American Society of Indexers, New York City, May 13, 1988. Medford, NJ: Learned Information, Inc.

Bell, Hazel K. 2001. Indexers and indexes in fact & fiction. Toronto: University of Toronto Press.

Knight, G. Norman. 1979. Indexing, the art of: a guide to the indexing of books and periodicals. London: Allen & Unwin.

Wellisch, Hans H. 1980. Indexing and abstracting: an international bibliography. Santa Barbara, Calif: ABC-Clio.

Wellisch, Hans H. 1991. Indexing from A to Z. Bronx, N.Y.: H.W. Wilson.

[Parts of this column will also be published in the 50th anniversary issue of the International Journal of Indexing The Indexer in September 2008. (www.theindexer.org) The Indexer covers topics on just about all things related to indexing—much of the information in this column originally came from its articles (which has all been reproduced here with the kind permission of the Editor), and is a great addition to the subscription list of anyone in the publishing field!]