Index, A History of the: A bookish adventure

Dennis Duncan (Allen Lane, 2021), 352pp, £20.00
ISBN 978 0 241 37423 8

Reviewed by Sara Donaldson

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When I was invited to review Index, A History of the: A bookish adventure, written by Dennis Duncan, I was excited. I know some people will find this a little strange, perhaps not those in our profession though. You see, as well as being an editor I’m also a sometime indexer. Way back in the mists of time, as a librarianship student, along with my classmates I was told ‘Never become an indexer, they’re confined to the basement, and never see the light of day. It’s a thankless job’. I became an academic librarian heading a large cataloguing team instead. But when circumstances changed and I left to move north, I gave in and retrained as an indexer with the Society of Indexers, before settling more firmly into the realm of editing. What my lecturers never told me was that the indexing we completed at university was the tip of the iceberg – indexing is an art, and a very difficult one at that. Like editors, indexers are mostly invisible, and this book finally lifts the veil that has been thrown over this often-forgotten profession. Ironically, as I settled down to read, an indexing job for an important (to me at least) art history book appeared in my inbox and took up all my waking hours. When I finally did read Duncan’s history, the indexing life was again fresh in my mind.

This is a mesmerising book. Duncan takes us from the age of the curated concordance through to subject indexes, and into the age of the #hashtag, with ease. His narrative style is often humorous, but still shows the depth of study that has gone into his writing. It’s not a huge academic tome, but instead will appeal to both the general reader interested in learning more about this hidden profession and to those of us with a more professional understanding of the skill required. I still can’t help but feel that if an index was called a sillyboi (you will need to delve into the book to understand this reference) those of us who are indexers would be sillybois, and we would perhaps have attracted a whole different viewpoint on the profession (good or bad, you decide!).

There are some fascinating snippets of history to be read here. Duncan explains how the index got its name, what it means to index, and how early indexes aren’t perhaps what you’d expect. Cicero and Pliny make a delightful early appearance, as does the Library of Alexandria, before we head into the Middle Ages and a man with a big head and big ambitions for a tabula. But where would indexes be without the humble page number? Have you ever thought about how they were first introduced? It’s something that never crossed my mind, but Dennis obviously realised it should be included in this ground-breaking book, and a whole chapter is dedicated to it.

But we aren’t just treated to a chronological history of the index as a finding tool. We see how it can be used as a tool for good or evil – how reputations hang in the balance and can be made or broken by an index. We are guided through what makes a good index, and a bad one, and how the index itself can become an art form. We sit on the sidelines and watch as one indexing society is created, dies, and another rises in its place to become the Society of Indexers. We peer through the window as Virginia Woolf, surrounded by ‘little squares of paper’, creates her indexes and despite the ‘drudgery’ introduces the word ‘and’, linking subheadings for the first time.

Dennis Duncan has deep-dived into the word of the index and the indexer, and managed to dodge what we were all perhaps afraid of. There was the potential here for a dry history, as dusty as the basements where indexers were said to dwell. Personally I’ve never met an indexer in a basement, but they are still rarely considered – they’re often the last in line in the publishing process, yet are the first to really dissect the text. Where editors and proofreaders actually read the book, the indexer reads, dissects, understands, translates, and creates a pathway through the text to guide the reader to the information contained therein, even if they don’t want, or have time, to read the whole book. Indexers read the books so you don’t have to.

Paula Clarke Bain should also be acknowledged for her excellent index to a book on indexing. She has injected just enough humour to complement the tone of Duncan’s book, and has created an index that is as beautiful as it is useful – with not a long string of useless, time-consuming, locators in sight. For contrast, part of a computer-generated index has been included (read it and weep).

This book should be on the reading list of every one of the (few) library schools that are left, and in the break room of every publishing house too. In fact, it should be in the home or office of anyone who has ever used an index. Dennis Duncan pays homage to the indexers of the past but also allows the indexers of the future to survive, no longer hidden away in the imaginary dusty basements they’ve been consigned to for so long.

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