Index, A History of the: A Bookish Adventure from Medieval Manuscripts to the Digital Age

by Dennis Duncan, W. W. Norton & Company, 2022, 352 pp.
Hardcover, $30.00, ISBN: 978-1-324-00254-3 

Trusted Eye: Post-World War II Adventures of a Fearless Art Advocate by Claudia Fontaine ChidesterMore often than not, today’s book indexes are afterthoughts. Typeset at the last second lest the pagination shift, squeezed into narrow columns, and tucked into the back of the book, the index is an unassuming, if obligatory, part of your average non-fiction text. Taken for granted as long as it does its job, the index tends to draw attention only where it fails, missing or mislabeled entries sending readers on a wild goose chase through the pages.

While the index is certainly a crucial piece of information technology, it is more than a mere tool; it is a site of comedy and controversy, of poetry and wit. Or so Dennis Duncan, a lecturer in English at University College London, argues in Index, A History of the: A Bookish Adventure from Medieval Manuscripts to the Digital Age. No stranger to the “books about books” genre, Duncan co-edited the 2019 collection Book Parts, which broke down the modern book from its dust jacket to its end leaves. Duncan’s own chapter on indexes served as fertile ground for this full-length study. Focusing on Western European manuscript and print traditions, Duncan unravels the evolution of the index, ultimately situating it as a literary form in its own right. 

Our adventure begins with the Western index’s first precondition—the acceptance of alphabetical order as a navigation system. Taking us to the Library of Alexandra, Duncan explores its library catalog as an early index, arranged alphabetically by author name. Reference tablets would have likely acted as shelfmarks, indicating the contents of scroll cases and presaging the mapping function of later indexes: “something here locates something there” (33). As long as the scroll reigned supreme, though, the index as we know it today would have been little help. Constituting what Duncan deems a “truly random-access technology,” the index demands “a form of the book that can be opened with as much ease in the middle, or at the end, as at the beginning” (7). 

By the late medieval period, the index’s basic preconditions were finally met: by breaking the book into pages, the codex let readers access any section in seconds. As the establishment of universities and the rise of mendicant orders put increasing pressure on the book as a tool, two forms of the index emerged simultaneously to speed up biblical analysis. In thirteenth-century Oxford, Robert Grosseteste introduced a subject index with encyclopedic ambitions, tracking topics across the Bible and other relevant texts. Meanwhile in Paris, Hugh of Saint-Cher, along with the Dominican friars under his direction, performed their own literary labor, producing a comprehensive Bible concordance with every instance of a given word. For Duncan, Grosseteste and Hugh’s efforts configured the parameters that continue to shape indexing today—“word versus concept; concordance versus subject index; specific versus universal” (51). 

Aided by the emergence of page numbers and the advent of print, the index spread far and wide. Largely genre agnostic, it was found as frequently in storybooks as in heady works of history and medicine. Typically situated at the front of the book, it offered an entry-point or guide, enabling a newly efficient approach to reading while drawing the ire of critics, who warned that the new technology would encourage cursory engagement with texts.

Fears that the index would take priority ironically vested it with even more power. If readers did consult index first and text second, then the indexer was a powerful person indeed. Duncan proposes that by the early eighteenth century, “the rogue index—the index weaponized against its primary text—had become a fashion” (140). In England, political debates took the index as their stage. When Whig advocate John Oldmixon was hired to index Laurence Echard’s Tory-friendly History of England, he seized the opportunity. Echard’s text recounts the rightful execution of a Mr. Richard Nelthorp for high treason, but the index tells another story: “Nelthorp, Richard, a Lawyer hang’d without a Tryal in King James’s Time” (166). While the “rogue index” gained traction, other indexes gave space for authors to advance their own arguments. In Boyle against Bentley—Charles Boyle and William King’s take-down of royal librarian Dr. Richard Bentley—the critique extends into the index, where Bentley can be located by “His egregious dulness” or “His Pedantry” (148). 

Although Duncan’s tale centers on the emergence of the index in the West, the index was by no means a European invention, nor was the polemical index a uniquely European phenomenon. Acknowledgement of global indexing practices would have been welcome in Duncan’s text to avoid flattening the index’s long, rich history in other contexts. Readers might, for instance, look to Uluğ Kuzuoğlu’s recent study of Chinese graphical indexing practices in Literary Information in China: A History.1  Going back to 100CE, Kuzuoğlu traces how Chinese graphical indexes have long presented particular cosmological visions and ideologies, acting as political tools rather than neutral finding aids, much like Duncan’s modern English examples. 

Index, A History of the is strongest as a literary history, marching us through not only the indexical tussles of eighteenth-century England but also the peculiar fiction indexes of Lewis Carroll, Henry Mackenzie, and Samuel Richardson in a quest to understand the index’s current role as an appendage to non-fiction texts. Ultimately, though, Duncan also recounts a broader history of information technology by connecting the index first to the late-nineteenth-century dream of a “universal index” across libraries and fields, and then to the twentieth-century rise of computing. Computers initially provided a helping hand—a way to automate sorting and output based on existing index terms—but soon, they would take over the analytical tasks of indexing, generating headwords and references themselves.

Today, indexing remains at the heart of all information technology, but the human-made book index—that product of deep reading and creative labor—is an increasingly rare breed. In an ode to this fading art, Duncan offers us not one but two indexes to his text: first, a painful excerpt of an AI-generated index, unedited and riddled with redundant headwords, and second, a complete index compiled by Paula Clarke Bain, a self-proclaimed “professional indexer and human being.” Bain revels in the index as a literary form, filling her entries with circular jokes and personal plugs (“Bain, Paula Clarke [PCB] / non-robotic, superior index 309–40” [315]). At moments, the index plays with the very conventions of alphabetical order and alternate references to take us on a ride through the pages. If we look up “comic indexes,” for instance, we find, “comic indexes [keep going] see funny indexes” / “funny indexes [getting closer] see humour” / “humour [nearly there] see index wit,” and at long last, “index wit” takes us to relevant entries. 

Bain’s imaginative entries act as an epilogue to Duncan’s argument, squarely positioning indexing as a creative act, but the profusion of bookish jokes can read as affected, a constant stream of see-what-I-did-there nudges. As his title suggests, Duncan is fond of this brand of literary humor. On one page, he even swaps out the standard running head with the note, “RUNNING HEADS CAN SAY MORE THAN JUST THE CHAPTER TITLE” (56). These little witticisms may feel rather precious, but they do contribute to Index, A History of the’s light, playful tone. Duncan’s romp through indexes past and present will likely appeal to readers of Leah Price, Anthony Grafton, and others taking on the history of the book from a contemporary lens. Together, he and Bain dare us to call the index a boring piece of back matter again. 

Uluğ Kuzuoğlu, “Indexing Systems,” in Literary Information in China: A History, eds. Jack W. Chen et al. (New York: Columbia University Press, 2021), 25–35. 

Katy Nelson, Bard Graduate Center