This is not the first book on indexes I’ve read! Hazel K. Bell’s “Indexes and Indexers in Fact and Fiction” was a compilation of bits of indexes* and portrayals of indexers that I read back in 2007 (the review is thus one of my short ones). I’ve also read books on the bits and bobs of books, including one called “Invisible Forms” by Kevin Jackson which I can only assume I read around 2002 but mysteriously appears neither in this blog nor my index to my pre-blog journals, which included a section on indexes. But to my knowledge, this is the first book soley on the history of indexes.

Excitingly, I “won” this on NetGalley from one of their emails where the first 100 to click the link are accepted for the book automatically.

*Duncan goes into the matter of the plural and settles on indexes rather than indices.

Dennis Duncan – “Index, a History of the: A Bookish Adventure”

(6 July 2021 – NetGalley)

The professional indexer, learned, vigilant, goes before us, levelling mountains and beating paths so that we, time-poor students at the fingerpost, can arrive swiftly but unruffled at the passage – the quotation, the datum, the knowledge – we need.

This is a very thorough book – not overly academic or obfuscating but just thorough (at 350 pages including I believe (see later) two indexes, it’s not massive), taking us from the very earliest manuscripts up to the indexing of the Internet. As is said in the reviews, it’s affectionate and Duncan is obviously very engaged with his topic.

So we move from the start of indexing, which came with the start of the use of codexes (book-shaped objects) rather than scrolls and then move on to the necessary question of locators, i.e. the points to which an index refers the reader: not always page numbers and certainly not at first, but Bible chapters (then verses; I didn’t know they evolved separately) then page numbers and now locator tags in ebooks and hashtags in social media. Early readers of both manuscript and printed books might have been encouraged to write in their own indexes and indeed page numbers. We get quite a lot on the difference between concordances (lists of the appearances of particular words in a work) and indexes (subject lists), both organised alphabetically (so we get a bit on the alphabet, too; indexes weren’t always organised thus) and the interesting fact that these both appeared at roughly the same time.

One point that comes through almost immediately is the idea of moral panics over the format in which information is presented being nothing new: while people shout now about everyone only looking things up on Wikipedia, as soon as reproducible indexes appeared, there was a lot of talk about people only reading the indexes and not the book properly.

There’s quite a lot in the book about funny bits in indexes, some very funny indeed, and the way they can be used to either propagate beef with another writer or thinker or undermine the actual text. I will say that there was a long and involved chapter here on some 18th century culture wars which I did skim slightly, as I’ve never been a fan of the satirical writers of that era generally, and there is a lot of detail; however, it’s well-researched and well-done and that’s just a personal preference.

The introduction of automation to indexes is fascinating, from machine-readable cards to the first indexing software. Discussions of complete automation comes up against the same thing that discussions of voice-to-text software do – it’s all very well for the basics but you really do need human intervention still (I recently ‘edited’ an AI transcription of a focus group and it took exactly as long as if I’d typed it all out myself), which is good news for the dedicated indexers I know. He finishes the book, after a note of praise to the “invisible readers” mostly women now apparently, who do the indexing, with a pair of indexes, one machine-generated, one human-generated. However, in my advance readers’ copy …


Indexes : necessarily produced late in production cycle, 235; initial absence of, in books where the omission is striking, 199; author humbly seeks early readers’ indulgence for current lack of, 281.

A necessary book, filling a gap admirably; there won’t be a need for another book on this topic for the foreseeable future.

Thank you, Allen Lane, for making this book available on NetGalley in return for an honest review. “Index, a History of the” was published on 2 September.