Sunday, 30 July 2017

#25 Book indexes, exhibition of

It’s hard enough to display books interestingly, but book indexes? This I have got to see, I thought, so I travelled up to Oxford last month and picked my way through the city’s shops, tour parties and bicycles to the Bodleian Library, where there turns out to be… one display case.

Still, it covers a lot of ground. How do we, and did we, marshal all the information and guidance we come across and try to make it available for future use? First are early Bible concordances (from 1230 onwards) – alphabetical lists of key words together with the passages they come from. These were the models for all subsequent alphabetical indexes, we are told. The curators have grouped three of them with a ‘Goldilocks’ motif – one too small (the size of a smartphone), one too big and unwieldy, and one just the right size.

Then there is a charming list of individual squiggles put together by early medieval theologian Robert Grosseteste, each of which he assigned to one of 440 topics such as ‘Imagination’ and ‘Existence of God’, then used in the margins of books when the writers mentioned these things. 

Next are the first known page numbers, in a book printed in Cologne in 1490, followed by playful indexes by Lewis Carroll and Virginia Woolf. Lastly we have artist Tom Phillips’s concordance to The Human Document by W H Mallock, a 19th-century book which he picked up at random in a bookshop in 1966 and vowed to use as the basis for a long-term artwork. Since then he has brought out six editions of the book, calling it Humument, most pages worked over by him artistically at least twice. Here is one of the pages, the text now illegible under Phillips’s ink except for a few words picked out in white bubbles to make a nonsense sentence. Phillips’s concordance to the novel is a brown pocketbook with tiny lists of handwritten words.

The display is thus book-ended with two concordances, the first a necessary accompaniment to a central text of the time, the last a private aid for an idiosyncratic artwork. But I would have liked to see a bang up-to-date index showing the current state of the art.

But is the search box putting indexes out of business? ‘Ctrl +F is not the same as a good subject index,’ claims the display text. Is this true? Well, a good index is not an automatically compiled list of words but the work of someone trained in choosing and ordering the most important names and topics, and thus should have some intellectual credibility. An index also offers chance discoveries – you may find things by accident when browsing through it, not so likely when starting off with your own search terms. An index is also I suppose a production in itself, like a noun-heavy summary of the book with wonky syntax and a non-chronological order. And (this clinches the deal for me) they work on paper.

A search box, by contrast, is not a work but a tool, albeit a very powerful one.

Nevertheless, indexes will have to argue much harder for themselves in the age of the e-book. This display, by showing that they have functioned for hundreds of years as ways of mapping reading and thought, is part of that argument.

The Book Index was at the Bodleian Library, Oxford from 28 May - 9 July 2017.