Index This

Index This

“The first thing to understand is that when you do a Google search, you aren’t actually searching the web. You’re searching Google’s index of the web.” 

This intriguing statement, made by Matt Cutts of Google, is on the first page of Dennis Duncan’s fascinating new book, Index, A History of the. The whimsical title serves as a preview of the book’s humorous tone and remarkably compelling subject. 

A fascinating book on indexes? Who knew? 

All these years, it turns out, we’ve been taking indexes for granted. For example, the modern index couldn’t exist without alphabetization, which developed rather recently in the scheme of things. But even after it developed, what should be alphabetized? Words? Subjects? Chronologies? And do you sequence by first letters only, or subsequent letters as well? These are only a few of the many questions that had to be dealt with before the index as we know it could take its place at the back of our books.

Other curious tidbits:   

Our index could not exist without page numbers. As a result, scrolls couldn’t and didn’t have indexes. 

An alphabetized list of important words in a book is a concordance, not an index.

In the early years, some novels had indexes.  

It took a while to determine the best length and level of detail for indexes. Because of this, there was a period when the index was nearly as long as the book itself, and some experts thought the index should be read before or even instead of the book. 

Electronic books don’t have traditional indexes, because they don’t have page numbers. Anyway, who needs an index when you can do a word search? 

Indexes, in fact, are giving way to the digital search. The more we read electronic text, the less we need the index. 

Which is a shame. As Duncan points out in his fine book, a really good index is a thing of beauty. Let’s hope it will be around for a long time.  

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If you enjoyed learning a bit about indexes, you could take the plunge and read Ross Gay’s new article, ”In Praise of Footnotes and Endnotes.”

Or not.


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