- From Flock Beds to Professionalism: A History of Index-Makers
Hazel K. Bell begins her "brief lives" of the many and varied practitioners of the especially anonymous profession of indexing by relating Alexander Pope's account of the notorious Edmund Curll. The animosity between the two men was such that when Pope was moved to write that "you may also speak to the gentleman, who lies by him in the flock bed, my index maker," his readers could be certain that the great poet was being far from flattering, both to his bookselling nemesis and to his editorial help (vii). Nor were such disparaging remarks limited to Pope. Oliver Goldsmith had this to say about the republic of letters, which, to his mind, was divided into three classes: "One writer, for instance, excels at a plan, or a title-page, another works away at the body of the book, and a third is a dab at an index" (4). If they only knew the storied history of the indexing profession, these men of letters well might have had very different opinions on the matter.
And what a history it turns out to be. The first known indexer is Ptolemy, who produced an index to his first world atlas ca. A.D. 150 (3-4). Indeed, in the short introduction to the book Bell has much to say about the history of the index, including a fascinating recounting of the methodology behind John Locke's commonplace book index, which she describes as one more plan along the long "royal road to making a good index" (5-7, 9). The constant seems to be the unremitting labor-intensive process that is index making and the personalities of those who compile indexes. Lindsay Verrier, an indexer working in Fiji, provides one "delightful record," describing the myriad difficulties besetting indexers in tropical climes: "Our main enemies are hurricanes, housegirls and cocktail parties" (11).
This volume is filled with such delightful records—sixty-five, in fact. Each of these chronologically ordered "lone workers" is discussed in fewer than five pages. Perhaps [End Page 374] the most striking title of one of these sketches is "Big is beautiful!" referring to the indexing by Geraldine Beare of a complete set of Strand Magazine in four months. The eventual product was an index that came in at a rather sizeable 859 pages (201). In fact, the titles of these profiles are as peculiar and as varied as the compilers themselves and range from the puckish, to the reverential, to the plaintive.
Although each entry is painstakingly compiled, this book can be dipped into with something approaching ludic delight. Perhaps the most surprising entries are personages not commonly associated with the practice. Samuel Pepys, for example, was thought of so highly as an indexer by "the father of indexing," Henry Wheatley, that the latter was partly responsible for the placing of a monument to him in the Church of Saint Olave, Hart Street, and he founded the Pepys Club in 1903 (36). Another indexer of note was Friedrich Wilhelm Nietzsche, who prepared indexes for a preeminent German journal of classical philology when he was a student (75). Then there is Lewis Carroll, whose lifelong interest in indexing began with amusing entries from the Rectory Magazine, first produced when he was thirteen years old (his highly alliterative entries include "Rubbish, Reasonings on [Ed.] I" and "Twaddle on Telescopes [Ed.] 85"), and continued with the compiling of a letter register that reached twenty-four volumes and had a last entry number of 98721 (61-62).
It is clear, however, that Bell's real sympathies are with those indexers operating from the flock beds, as it were, and much of the book is constructed to give these more anonymous practitioners equal voice. In this task she succeeds tremendously well, as one cannot help but want to read more about Percy Fitzgerald, "indexer with arrogance," and Frederick A. Pottle, "the wittiest indexer," to name but two...