1902 Encyclopedia > Index, Indexes

Index, Indexes




INDEX is a word that may be understood either specially as a table of references to a book or, more generally, as an indicator of the position of required information on any given subject.

According to classical usage, the Latin word index denoted a discoverer, discloser, or informer; a catalogue or list; an inscription; the title of a book; and the fore or index-finger. Cicero also used the word to express the table of contents to a book, and explained his meaning by the Greek form syllabus. Shakespeare uses the word with the general meaning of a table of contents or preface -- thus Nestor says (Troilus and Cressida, i. 3):

"And in such indexes, although small pricks
To their subsequent volumes, there is seen
The bay figure of the giant mass."

Table was the usual English word, and index was not thoroughly naturalized until the beginning of the 17th century, and even then it was usual to explain it as "index or table." By the present English usage, according to which the word table is reserved for the summary of the contents as they occur in a book, and the word index for the arranged analysis of the contents, we obtain an advantage not enjoyed in other languages; for the French table is used for both kinds, as is indice in Italian and Spanish.

There is a group of words each of which has its distinct meaning but finds its respective place under the general heading of index work; these are calendar, catalogue, digest, inventory, register, summary, syllabus, and table. The value of indexes was recognized in the earliest times, and many old books have full and admirably constructed ones.

A good index has sometimes kept a dull book alive by reason of the value or amusing character of its contents. Mr Carlyle refers to Prynne’s Histrio-Mastix as "a book still extant, but never more to be read by mortal;" but the index must have given amusement to many from the curious character of its entries, and Attorney-General Noy particularly alluded to it in his speech at Prynne’s trial.

Indexes have sometimes been used as vehicles of satire, and the witty Dr William King was the first to use them as a weapon of attack. His earliest essay in this field was the index added to the second edition of the Hon. Charles Boyle’s attack upon Bentley’s Dissertation on the Epistles of Phalaris, 1698.





To serve its purpose well, an index must be compiled with care, the references being placed under the heading that the reader is most likely to seek.

An index should be one and indivisible, and not broken up into several alphabets; thus every work, whether in one or more volumes, ought to have its complete index. This important rule has been often neglected in English books, and is almost universally rejected in foreign ones, to the great inconvenience of readers.

The mode of arrangement calls for special attention; this may be either chronological, alphabetical, or according to classes, but great confusion will be caused by uniting the three systems. The alphabetical arrangement is so simple, convenient, and easily understood that it has naturally superseded the other forms, save in some exceptional cases.

Much of the value of an index depends upon the mode in which it is printed, and every endeavor should be made to set it out with clearness. In old indexes the indexed word was not brought to the front, but was left in its place in the sentences, so that the alphabetical order was not made perceptible to the eye.

There are few points in which the printer is more likely to go wrong than in the use of marks of repetition, and many otherwise good indexes are full of the most perplexing cases of misapplication in this respect. The oft-quoted instance --

Mill on Liberty
- on the Floss

-- actually occurred in a catalogue. There appears now to be a revived interest in indexes, and as books daily increase the need of some satisfactory digest of information becomes more keenly felt.

In 1877 the Index Society was formed with the object of making and printing indexes of books unprovided with them, of compiling and printing indexes of particular subjects, and of gradually preparing a universal index for reference. In order to obtain uniformity in the compilation of indexes a series of rules for indexing have been drawn up by the society. Several publications have already been issued to the subscribers.

The following is a list of some of the most important indexes, both of words and of subjects.

The chief indexes of words are dictionaries, but these are a special class by themselves.

Next come concordances: the first one to the Bible was compiled by Hugo of St Cher in 1247, the first English concordance to the New Testament was published in 1536, and to the whole Bible in 1550, compiled by John Marbeck. Other Biblical concordances are those of R. F. Hervey, 1579; C. Cotton 1622 (frequently reprinted); J. Downame, 1632; R. Wickens, 1655; S. Newman, 1650, 3rd ed. 1682; A. Cruden, 1737 (this superseded all works of the same character); and R. Young, 1880.





The following concordances may also be mentioned: - to the Psalter, 1834; to the Prayer Book, 1851; to the iliad, by G.L. Prendergast, 1875, to Shakespeare, by S. Ayscough (1790), by F. Twiss (1805), by Mrs. Cowden Clarke (1845), by J. O. Halliwell (Handbook Index, 1866), and by A. Schmidt (1874), and to Shakeseare’s Poems, by Mrs H.H. Furness, 1874; to Milton’s Paradise Lost (1741), and to his Poetical Works, by H. J. Todd (1809), by G. L. Prendergast (1857), and by C. D. Cleveland (1867); to Pope’s Works, by E. Abbott, 1875; to Tennyson’s Works, by D.B. Brightwell, 1869, and another published by Strahan, 1870; to In Memoriam (1862); to Keble’s Christian Year, 1871; and to Watt’s Psalms, by D. Guy, 1774.

A large number of historical works have been supplied with indexes in separate volumes. Among the more important indexes of prose writers are those of the works of Samuel Richardson (1755), Joanna Southcott (n.d., and 1815), John Strype (1828), and T. Carlyle (1874); The Wellington Despatches (1839); Wesley’s Journals (1872).

A large number of series of publications of societies and of periodical have been supplied with general indexes.

The Indexes to the Statutes and to the Journals of the Houses of Parliament are perhaps the most elaborate works of the kind ever published. In 1778 a sum of £12,900 was voted for indexes to the Journals of the House Commons. Few parliamentary papers are issued without a satisfactory index being added.

Most of the indexes mentioned above refer to particular books, but in 1848 Mr W.F. Poole published in New York an index to subjects treated in reviews and other periodicals; a second edition was published in 1853 as An Index to Periodical Literature. A greatly enlarged edition is now in preparation with the co-operation of English and American librarians.

A larger work of a similar character for scientific literature, but arranged under author’s names instead of subjects has been compiled by the Royal Society and is entitled Catalogue of Scientific Papers (1800-73), 8 vols. 4to, 1867-1879). (H. B. W.)



The above article was written by Henry Bringhurst Wilson, formerly of the British Library.




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