Duncan, Dennis: In a new book, the author delves into the history of the index

Host Scott Tong speaks with Denis Duncan, author of “Index, a History of the: A Bookish Adventure from Medieval Manuscripts to the Digital Age.” The new book explores the development of these things at the end of a book that many of us turn to for reference.

Extract from book: ‘Index, a history of the’

By Dennis Duncan


“For my part, I venerate the inventor of the indexes. . . this unknown worker in literature who was the first to open the nerves and arteries of a book.

Isaac D’Israeli, Literary Mixes

“Index, a history of: A bookish adventure from medieval manuscripts to the digital age.” (Courtesy of WW Norton & Company, Inc.)

It’s hard to imagine working with books – writing an essay, a lecture, a report, a sermon – without the ability to find what you’re looking for, quickly and easily: without, that is, the convenience with a good index. This convenience, of course, is not limited to people who write for a living. It spills over into other disciplines, into everyday life, and some of the first indexes appear in legal texts, medical texts, cookbooks. The humble book spine index is one of those inventions that are so successful, so integrated into our daily practices, that they can often become invisible. But, like any technique, the index has its history, which for almost 800 years has been intimately linked to a particular form of the book – the codex: the sheaf of pages, folded and bound at the spine. Today, however, it has entered the digital age as a key technology that underpins our online reading. The very first web page, after all, was a subject index. When it comes to the search engine, the port of embarkation for much of our internet browsing, Google engineer Matt Cutts explains that “the first thing to understand is that when you do a Google Search, you don’t ‘re not searching the web. You are searching Google’s Web Index.’2 Today, the index organizes our lives, and this book will trace its curious path from the monasteries and universities of 13th-century Europe to the headquarters of Silicon Valley glass and steel. on the twenty-first.

An index story is really a story about time and knowledge and the relationship between the two. This is the story of our growing need for quick access to information, and a parallel need for the content of books to be divisible, discrete and extractable units of knowledge. It is the science of information, and the index is a fundamental element of the architecture of this discipline. But the evolution of the index also offers us a history of reading in microcosm. It is linked to the rise of universities and the arrival of the printing press, to the philology of the Enlightenment and to punch card computing, to the emergence of the page number and the hashtag. It is more than just a data structure. Even today, faced with the incursions of Artificial Intelligence, the book index remains above all the work of indexers in the flesh, professionals whose job is to mediate between the author and the audience. A product of human labor, the indexes produced human consequences, saving heretics from the stake and preventing politicians from attaining high office. They also, understandably, attracted people with a particular interest in books, and our list of literary indexers will include Lewis Carroll, Virginia Woolf, Alexander Pope and Vladimir Nabokov. Historically, index compiling has not been the most prestigious or the most lucrative of professions. One might think of Thomas Macaulay’s lament that Samuel Johnson, the most eminent writer of his day, nevertheless spent his days surrounded by “starving pamphleteers and indexmakers.” in this company of indexers, he would also be surrounded by the most eminent writers of other eras, and that, though unrecognized, the technology they tinkered with would be at the heart of the reading experience at the dawn of the next millennium. .

Excerpt from Index, A History of the: A Bookish Adventure from Medieval Manuscripts to the Digital Age. Copyright (c) 2022 by Dennis Duncan. Used with permission from the publisher, WW Norton & Company, Inc. All rights reserved.

Alycia R. Lindley