When you pick up a non-fiction book in search of enlightenment, it’s a fair bet you’ll head straight for the back pages to look up your quarry in the index. In a matter of moments you could be deep in the text of ‘quarries, minerals, extraction of’, make a few notes and be on your way. From ‘aubergines, corn-crusted fritters with tamarillo chutney’ to ’Manners, Society for the Reformation of’ – a factual book without an index is mostly a closed one.
When it comes to historical research, it would simply not be possible to access a fraction of the available material without indexes. Leaving aside the indexing of published books, there are literally miles of documents of every kind stacked on the shelves of archives around the world whose contents would be unknown and inaccessible if they were not catalogued. While it is possible to search computerised catalogues, or indeed books, for any text, only a tiny fraction are available in this format. For the rest we depend upon the provision of indexes to give us access to deeds, maps, photographs, letters, surveys and all manner of material on people and places, and to entice us to explore such topics as ‘Church, pulpit, goose in’, ‘Licences, for corn dealers (badgers)’, and ‘Superstitions, magpies’ when we are in need of diversion.
As well as cataloguing historical documents, there are numerous patient folk, many of them volunteers, who painstakingly create name and place indexes from parish records that enable so many family historians to find their ancestors’ hatches, matches and dispatches records with such ease. It’s not all straightforward of course. Any archive may have tens or even hundreds of indexes to individual sources: wills, estate records, maps, photographs, newspapers, magazines, and so on, each of which may need to be consulted. But without indexes – and the people who create them – those records that have contributed to countless histories would lie unread and unappreciated. To indexers everywhere, I salute you.