What Scholarly Indexing Is All About

by Nancy Humphreys on October 19, 2015

The heart of indexing is the desire to connect ideas and knowledge with the author’s readers who want to know about those things. 

However, that doesn’t mean that the author of the book in question is writing just for those who can read. Imagine a scholarly book written for those who could not read as well as those who could read. And furthermore that scholarly book contained not one but three types of indexes!

I published “The World’s Oldest Profession: Indexing?” in the Society of Indexer’s journal, The Indexer in 2011, because I believe that the earliest extant indexes can be found in the I Ching, written in China at the beginning of the second millenium BC.

The I Ching was constructed using six-line geometric symbols called hexagrams. Anyone could understand and remember a verbal explanation of the hexagram meanings even if they did not read Chinese. On the other hand, the author affixed each of these 64 symbols with a Chinese character as a description for those who could read.

The first classified index

The Table of Contents for the I Ching consisted of the 64 Chinese characters that described the nature of each hexagram. Each hexagram reflected on some attribute of both human nature and of human society.

For example, the book opens with “Creative Power (the creative)” followed by “Natural Response (the receptive)”. These are followed by “Difficult Beginnings” and “Youthful Inexperience”. Near to the end we are provided with “Insight (inner truth)” and “Conscientiousnes (preponderance of the small)” [names taken from The I Ching Workbook].

Each translator of the I Ching used their own words for the hexagram names, but it’s clear that these names represent separate categories or “classes” pertaining to some part of human existence.

The structure of the I Ching, the 64 hexagram figures listed in its table of contents, is a classified index. This is a type of index we all know from using the old telephone company books called Yellow Pages. We now see classified categories often used on web sites selling products or servicess, e.g. autos, sewing machines, plumbers services, etc.

In the United States classified indexes have been defined by the court system.

According to Nancy Mulvany, former President of the American Society of Indexers, in the latter part of the 20th Century, a copyright case in a US court found that telephone company books called White Pages cannot be called “indexes.” They are merely alphabetical lists of factual (non-copyrightable) data, e.g., personal names, telephone numbers, and addresses of individuals.

But the Court added that the Yellow Pages were indexes. Yellow Pages could be copyrighted because they provided subjective information as well as factual information about local businesses.  

In the case of the I Ching, the categories were extremely subjective, and yet they are all quite distinguishable from one another.

The I Ching was clearly intended to be part of the genre known in Medieval times in both Europe and the Middle East as “mirrors for princes”. These ‘self-help’ books aimed to ‘groom’ princes for leadership in both Christian and Muslim countries.

Chinese  legend has it that the “prince’ in the case of the I Ching was the Duke of Chou, son of the author of the I Ching. 

The legendary author of the I Ching was given the title, “King” Wen, by his son after the Duke overthrew the Chou people’s oppressors and set up the Chou Dynasty in China—using his father’s book.

The first alphabetical index—with subheadings

Because Chinese, like (ASL) American Sign Language for the deaf, is not an alphabetical language it may not have occurred to users of translations of the I Ching, that its Table of Contents, the 64 translations of the descriptive Chinese characters for the 64 hexagrams, could easily have been rearranged to form a back-of-the-book index in an alphabetical language such as English.

The locators for the hexagrams would have been the number attached to each hexagram. Further, a brief summary of each of the six lines, added later by the Duke of Chou for each hexagram symbol, could have served as subheadings in an index.

Click here to see an Alphabetical Index to the I Ching.

In this way, the 64 I Ching descriptive categories, along with the the six brief summaries for each hexagram, and the numerical locators, formed a complete modern index that stands alone as a work unto itself.

But wait! There is even more. There is yet another index for the original I Ching!

The first faceted index

At some point in time, an 8 x 8 grid diagram came to be used to identify all 64 symbols in modern I Ching commentaries.


This diagram is a kind of index which Professor Hans Wellisch defined as a faceted index in his Glossary of Terminology in Abstracting, Classification, Indexing, and Thesaurus Construction.

Wellisch defines faceted indexing as: “The assignment of indexing terms to facets [of a subject class, e.g. literary genres or periods of time] and the ordering of terms within headings in accordance with a certain citation order of facets”.

This table for the I Ching uses the same citation (i.e, classified) order for eight trigrams on its left side and across the top.

To use this table, the reader employs “post-coordinate,” i.e., “manual,” indexing by drawing a line across a row and down a column to locate the number of a specific 6-line hexagram where the two trigrams intersect.

Trigrams on the left side form the bottom part of the I Ching hexagram while trigrams along the top form the top half of the six-line hexagram.

This faceted index for the 64 hexagrams enabled non-literate persons who understood the meanings of each of the eight trigrams as well as literate users of the I Ching to quickly identify a specific hexagram within the I Ching.

Next time: I Ching: Implications for Indexing


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