The Original Search Engine

March 7, 2022 | 1 book mentioned 6 min read

In Index, A History of the: A Bookish Adventure from Medieval Manuscripts to the Digital Age, University College London lecturer in English Dennis Duncan dives deeply into a humble feature of modern books. The index’s existence is both taken for granted and the essential precursor to the ubiquitous search engines that govern life today.

His dogged research traces how the index developed over centuries, following the necessary prerequisite of the innovation of page numbers, and evolved from the simple listing of names in biblical concordances into the much more subjective subject index that eventually produced the search terms we now type into Google.

Lenny Picker: How did this book originate?

Dennis Duncan: I did a Ph.D. on a group called the Oulipo, a French avant-garde collective from the second half of the 20th century. A few years ago, I’m still thinking about the Oulipo, and it struck me that several of their novels have indexes. And I thought I might do an academic article on that—what is it about the way that this group of mathematicians and writers think about narrative that means that very often they play with having indexes for their novels? As I started to plan this, I thought, I just need to look up some things about the history of the index, when did novels stop having indexes, and so on. And as I asked around, I’d say, “Well, where’s the standard history of the index?” None of my colleagues knew. And it became apparent that there wasn’t one, that nobody had written it before. I was still quite fresh from my Ph.D, still had this sort of slightly utopian idea that all the great reference books had already been written, you just have to ask which one to use. So there was a gap there, and I thought, right, well, we need that.  That coincided with this sense, yes, something is changing about the way that we search, whether it’s searching books in class on a Kindle, or whether it’s searching for information on Google.

LP: How did the final book differ from that starting point?

DD: Well, it was going to be an academic book. I got a grant to spend three years in Oxford, and then a year in Cambridge, and all the time, I thought, this would be a very niche book, I didn’t think anyone would be interested. And I thought it would come out with a university press. And I thought that it would be very dry. This will be a very bibliographic history of the index, for a very small coterie of academic nerds. And I published a little bit of it in the Times Literary Supplement. And it went online on a Wednesday afternoon. And that afternoon, my inbox pinged and it was a publisher saying, I liked your thing about indexes, is it from a book? And about 20 minutes later, another publisher pinged. So suddenly, I realized that people were interested in this, and my niche dry academic idea for the book might might need to change a bit, and might there might be a way of making this interesting for a wider audience? So I took the same research essentially, and kind of rewrote it to just to make this more accessible, highlight some of the personalities, people like Robert Grosseteste [a 13th-century poet, statesman, mathematician, and religious reformer], or William Poole, in America in the 19th century [who produced An Alphabetical Index to Subjects Treated in the Reviews and Other Periodicals]. There are a few moments in this book where I introduce myself, here’s what my research looked like, here I was sitting in a library looking at a manuscript. I wouldn’t put that in an academic book, because you assume that your colleagues all know what that looks like. But it’s interesting for other people who don’t work in this field, what’s it look like to sit in a library with a map, people bring you a manuscript, you hand it back to them at the end. What does it look like to suddenly have an experience of, Oh, my God, this manuscript is making me cry. It’s the same research, but there’s just a little bit more, of showing my work, what it’s like to be a historian, and allowing some of the characters to have a bit more space.

LP: What was the hardest part of writing it?

DD: Losing bits. If you meet an indexer, now, nine times out of 10, they’re a woman. If we were 150 years ago, and you met a professional indexer, they would almost certainly be a man. And that switch happens instantly in 1894, when a woman called Nancy Bailey opens an indexing agency in London, and starts training women. Women were excluded from most areas of employment. And she says, “Okay, well, we have a new thing called the secretarial agency, maybe we could do the same for indexes, women could be allowed to become indexers,” and she trains women indexers. As other people, then, open their own indexing agencies, it’s always advertised as these are jobs for women. So in the middle of the 1890s, suddenly, it switches. And I wrote a chapter on that, that I think is important, I think it tells a story that’s relevant, but it didn’t fit in the narrative. I have a sort of movement from the 19th century to the digital era. And Nancy Bailey sat between those as sort of an interruption to the narrative. And my editor said, and I agreed with her, “I’m afraid Nancy’s got to go, this is great, this is important, but it also smashes up the natural arc of the story you’re telling.” So that was the hardest thing for me, the sort of kill your darlings.

LP: From all the things that you researched, what led you to say, “Wow, I didn’t expect that”?

DD: I think the book has been presented as having a hook, which is that the index is something that we use every day, the Internet, Google. This is why this book is relevant—because this is the age of search; Google is an index. I didn’t know that when I started writing. When I started the book, I thought it was going to be just a history of book indexes. And it was at some point further on, when I already knew I was going to write a history of book indexes that I came across a Google engineer saying, “You know what, Google is actually an index.” Oh, my God, I’ve got to use that. Suddenly, suddenly, this is much more relevant than the sort of dusty book on medieval indexes that I’d envisioned, because it really gives the book currency, it gives it a hook. Why should we be interested in this? And I go, well, because Google, but I didn’t know that I was going to say that until at some point in the research, I thought We live in the age of search, how did we get here? So that’s what I say now. But that wasn’t what it was going to be.

LP: Apart from discussing indexes, you go into how reading has evolved, and the notion that you can’t say that there’s one proper way to read something. Can you talk about balancing the notion that people have always been worried that a certain technological development is going to change reading for the worse, with feeling that there is some basis for alarm about the impact of search engines?

DD: That’s a really good question. Balance is the right answer. I feel that people have always worried about reading. At the same time, I do worry that I look at my mobile phone too much, and I have the same anxieties as everyone. But I did, from quite an early point in writing, want to engage with that Nicholas Carr idea of “is Google making us stupid?” and with the guilt that we feel about reading or whether we are reading properly. Well, historically, that’s a mistake. I talk about this in the opening chapter of the book that reading is an umbrella term for a whole collection of different activities, that the attention that you bring to reading an email, or tweet, or a map, or a street sign, or restaurant menu, or a newspaper, or a novel, or a book like mine, are all very different, they all take up different kinds of economies of attention. And to say, nobody reads properly anymore, is a mistake, all of these different modes of reading evolved at different times in response to different problems, different technological ecosystems, different economies of leisure. People didn’t do very much reading at all in the 17th century, or the only people who did were the people who were moneyed enough to have leisure. So reading  is not a stable thing. Reading is a whole variety of different things.  At the same time you speak of balance. That isn’t to say that I don’t worry myself about how I found over the pandemic, like a lot of people, that I find it harder. I still need to read a lot for work, because because it’s my job. But I need to go through the gears; I feel like a sort of pianist who hasn’t practiced their scales for a few months. And I’ve become good at grazing, grazing tweets, good at grazing news articles, but getting back at the start of term into being able to read a Ph.D. chapter or a novel, or things like that has taken some practice. So I have the same anxieties.

, who has not (yet) ever checked a book's index for his name, has written for Publishers Weekly, the Forward, the Baker Street Miscellanea, and Sherlock Holmes Mystery Magazine.