In 1741, Isaac Watts (also, incidentally, the hymnist who wrote ‘Joy to the World’) published a work called The Improvement of the Mind. Naturally, much of what Watts has to say concerns how to get the most out of the books you read, and one piece of advice jumps out:
If a Book has no Index to it, or good Table of Contents, ’tis very useful to make one as you are reading it.
For the last few weeks I’ve been at the Folger Shakespeare Library in Washington DC, looking at examples of handwritten indexes: reader-created tables scribbled – or sometimes copied out in incredibly fine hand – on the flyleaves of sixteenth- and seventeenth-century books.
These indexes come in various shapes and sizes, which tell us a bit about how they were put together. The simplest way is just to jot down a phrase or a headword, along with its page locator, as you go through the book. What you’ll end up with is a list where the page numbers are sequential, like this this lovely, all-too-short table of the best bits in Thomas Young’s Englands Bane, or the Description of Drunkennesse (1634):
Here’s a more detailed table where the first page locators for each entry are in order, but subsequent references have also been added in, e.g. ‘de Pastore, 171, 184, 197’:
In the last example, the annotator has explicitly called his table an ‘Index’. But we might quibble that an index should have some other ordering to it besides the order in which entries appear in the text. Henry Wheatley, in How to Make an Index (1902), says what we’re all thinking: ‘the index to a book such as we all think of when we speak of an index should be alphabetical’. And indeed we find that plenty of DIY index-makers were applying alphabetical order to their indexes centuries before Wheatley.
What’s rather curious is how these readers made their tables alphabetical. The trouble is, if you’re reading a book and on page two you find a juicy reference to filthy language, you don’t know – at this point – where in your alphabetical index this entry will go. If you write it at the top of the page, where will all the As, Bs, Cs, Ds and Es go when you come across them?
So when you find a neat, alphabetical index like the next two, you have to assume that some of the work has been done offstage, with entries created on scrap paper, re-organised, and then copied back into the book.
But that seems rather a lot of work. More, perhaps, than Isaac Watts had in mind when he advised young readers to index their books. For an index to be useful, it doesn’t have to be neat, and in many old books we find that a different method – a one-step solution – has been applied. All you do is write out the letters of the alphabet, evenly-spaced and, say, three to a page. Then you populate it as you go along. And if that means some entries spill over to the top of the next page, or you get a big gap under the less-used letters, so be it.
Here are a couple which lay the initial letters out in a grid format. In the second case, it seems that the reader didn’t find much in the text that was worthy of note.
And here’s one where the initial letters are scrawled at the top of the page, and the entries read downwards in columns:
Update: This index, probably early eighteenth-century, and tipped-in to the front of Goodall’s history of the Royal College of Physicians, shows quite nicely how, if you write out your initial letters in advance, you may well overspill a bit. The B section ends with an arrow and some curly brackets pointing to a plot colonised from the Es. Even then, a note tells us that we can ‘See more Bs at ye end’, and sure enough Beven, Bowden and Booker are a couple of pages later, underneath the Y section (which is itself stuffed with overspill Ss).