6.0678 Old R: History of Indexing (1/103)

Thu, 15 Apr 1993 15:03:20 EDT

Humanist Discussion Group, Vol. 6, No. 0678. Thursday, 15 Apr 1993.

Date: Tue, 13 Apr 93 21:25:10 EDT
From: gfgf@math.ias.edu (Gary Forsythe)
Subject: history of indexing

I remember that some time this past summer
or fall some subscriber to Humanist
put out a request for information relevant to
the history of the use of indices, tables of
contents, etc.
I wanted to send in a response, but it somehow slipped my mind.
While I was reading today, I came across an item which
triggered my memory on this subject.
I have therefore decided to send in this message
in hope that the person interested
in the history of indexing may receive it and
find it of some use.

The papyrus scroll used by the ancient Greeks and Romans
was not the most efficient way of storing information in a
written form and of retrieving it.
Yet, as Greek and Roman scholars began to write large
works that were compilations of data of various sorts,
they found it useful to devise various means of organizing the material
to make locating certain passages easier for the reader.

Here are a few examples of what they did.

Pliny the Elder (died 79 A.D.) wrote a massive work called
the Natural History in 37 books.
It was a kind of encyclopedia that comprised information on a
wide range of subjects.
In order to make it a bit more user friendly, the entire
first book of the work is nothing more than a gigantic
table of contents in which he lists, book by book, the
various subjects discussed.
He even appended to each list of items for each book his
list of Greek and Roman authors used
in compiling the information for that book.
He indicates in the very end of his preface to the entire work
that this practice was first employed in Latin
literature by Valerius Soranus, who lived during the last
part of the second century B.C. and the first part of the
first century B.C.
Pliny's statement that Soranus was the first in Latin
literature to do this indicates that
it must have already been practiced by Greek writers.

One method of information organization which we take for
granted nowadays, namely alphabetization, was probably
first devised by Greek scholars of the
third century B.C. at the library of Alexandria
in Egypt in order to help them organize the growing
numbers of Greek literary works.
If I recall correctly, the subject of alphabetization and its
use in classical antiquity was treated years ago in
a little monograph by Lloyd Daly.

There are a few other ancient works which employed arranging material
under headings in order to make the writing more user friendly
and easier to consult.

Valerius Maximus wrote a collection of memorable deeds and
sayings ca.30 A.D.
The work is divided into nine books, and each book
is subdivided into chapters,
and each chapter has its own heading,
and all entries within that chapter contain anecdotes
taken from ancient literature and history which
illustrate that theme.

Marcus Julius Frontinus, a Roman senator of the late first century A.D. and
early second century A.D., wrote a book of military
strategems in four books.
Each book concerns itself with a specific area of warfare.
Each book is then subdivided into chapters that each
address one specific aspect of the book's major theme.
Each chapter has a heading to clue the reader,
and the chapter itself consists of brief extracts taken from
historical works that illustrate the practicial
application of the topic.

Finally, Aulus Gellius wrote a work entitled *The Attic Nights*
ca.160 A.D. in 20 books.
The work is a crazy quilt assortment of items on Greek and Roman history,
philosophy, grammar, rhetoric, and antiquarian material in general.
Since the work was composed with no real order but as the
various topics occurred to the author,
Each chapter of every book concerns an isolated subject,
and this subject is clearly spelled out in a title heading that stands at the
beginning of the
A reader could therefore skim through a book and locate
the subject by glancing over the
titles of the chapters.

Finally, one bit of bibliography.
A brief but good discussion of the
problems of ancient scholarship posed by the use of the papyrus
scroll can be found on pp.101-116 of
*Varro the Scholar*,
by Jens Erik Skydsgaard,
published in 1968 in the series
Analecta Romana Instituti Danici

Gary Forsythe
Institute for Advanced Study