Excerpt: ‘Index, A History of the’ by Dennis Duncan

cover imageHave you ever created your own index for a book you’re reading? This might mean jotting down a few terms using some blank space in the front or back of the book, along with the page numbers for where those topics can be found in the book. It’s informal and personal.

What you might not have stopped to think about is that people have been making indexes like these for centuries; you’re part of a long tradition.

While doing research in the Folger collection, Dennis Duncan encountered hundreds of these sorts of indexes created by early modern readers. In the below excerpt from his newly published book, Index, A History of the, Duncan describes the fascinating variety of reader indexes he discovered.

⇒ Related: Folger Institute Research Fellowships


In 2015, I spent the summer as a Visiting Fellow at the Folger Shakespeare Library in Washington, DC. I was working my way through their catalogue looking for early printed books with indexes on their flyleaves. How did early modern readers mark their books up to make to make them navigable for referencing? In the time I was there I saw hundreds upon hundreds of reader indexes, in satires and polemics, religious texts and profane ones, even poetry books and fiction. Some were long, detailed, fully alphabetical – written, presumably, on draft paper then copied neatly into the book they serviced; others were nothing more than a few scribbled lines, a brief list of keywords and page numbers. Sometimes the compiler had drawn a grid – a table, like we would today in Microsoft Word – to keep their entries evenly spaced; sometimes the gridlines were uninked, a blind scoring that would leave a ghostly impression several pages deep.

Blind impression for compiling an index
A blind impression, several leaves deep, for compiling an index in the back pages of Hierocles of Alexandria, Hierocles upon the golden verses of Pythagoras, teaching a vertuous and worthy life (1656). Folger Shakespeare Library.

For all their variety, however, every one of these tables was the archive of a reading, the record of a particular response to a particular book. From the most elaborate to the merest sketch, every one carried the mark of an indexer: of what they thought was important, the details they expected to return to, a map for a future visit. One of them, a six-line table in an early seventeenth-century tract against alcohol, runs simply: ‘Filthy talk, 2; Fornication, 4; Wrath, 8; Murther, 13; Swearing; Cursing’. A catalogue of ills, and yet it trails off, its last two entries missing their locators, nothing at all noted beyond the first quarter the book. As an index, it raises more questions than it answers. What was it for? How did the compiler expect to return to this text? Was it to sermonize some errant and bibulous family member, browbeating them with passages from Young? Or can we imagine our anonymous indexer taking a certain vicarious pleasure in these descriptions of sin, bookmarking their appearance for future, secret trysts with the text? Why does the list end so abruptly? Did the reader lose interest, putting the book aside once Young’s lurid opening had begun to drift into tedious biblical examples? As historians we are at a loss, unable to move beyond speculation. But the index still stands as an inerasable testament to one reader’s now-irretrievable intention.

incomplete handwritten index
An aborted attempt to list the highlights – or lowlights – of Thomas Young, Englands Bane, or the Description of Drunkennesse.

Excerpted from Index, A History of The. Copyright (c) 2021 by Dennis Duncan. Used with permission of the publisher, W. W. Norton & Company, Inc. All rights reserved.