The Value of an Alphabetical Index

by Nancy Humphreys on September 27, 2011

The first alphabetical index for a print book

The first known alphabetical index for a print book was created for the 1467 edition of St. Augustine’s, The Art of Preaching, published by Peter Schöffer and Joahn Fust, colleagues of Johannes Gutenberg, the inventor of the printing press.

Hans Wellisch, well-known British indexer, discussed this book in depth in his article, “The oldest alphabetical index,” in The Indexer (The British Society of Indexers), October 1996 issue.

Here’s how Wellisch describes it, “the index entries were given as phrases, beginning with catchwords taken more or less verbatim from the text…” In addition, only the first syllable or even just the first two or three letters of the catchwords were alphabetical. (page 77)

Later on in regard to a an index in a book published around this same time, Wellisch says, “most entries begin with a keyword from the text, followed by an elaboration indicating the context (a method, it should be remembered, followed almost unchanged in subsequent centuries and down to our own time.)” (page 81)

This kind of indexing is called a KWOC index, a keyword-out-of-context index. KWOC indexes, popular until the later part of the 20th century, list keywords on the left side of the page – each keyword is then followed by text it refers to in the document. I created one of these indexes myself for a library where I worked.

The thing about KWOC indexes is that the same keyword is repeated on the left side over and over on the page. It really isn’t what we now think of as an alphabetical index. In a KWOC index, the reader has s to wade through all of the identical keywords and read the “elaboration” following each instance of them get to the particular aspect of that key word they are interested in. And no, the beginning words of the elaborations that followed the keywords were not in alphabetical order in these 15th century indexes.

What makes a modern index modern

Whoever invented the notion of “subheadings,” i.e., the “elaborations” on a main heading that are indented underneath it with the first word of each one alphabetized was a true genius!

Alphabetical subheadings are what distinguish the modern index from its crude predecessors. Alphabetical subheadings are a gift from heaven. Even in “run-on” indexes (a kind of index format you usually find in scholarly books) where subheadings form a paragraph following the main heading with semicolons separating each subheading from the others, alphabetized subheadings make scanning an index and finding what you want so much quicker and easier!

The value of an index

Before the age of personal computers, fully-alphabetized indexes were tedious to create. The indexer had to use 5 x 7 index cards and a “shoebox” to organize the index. Sorting the cards by hand took hours. Nevertheless, the value of fully alphabetical indexes was recognized even back then. Publishers regularly hired indexers to create indexes.

In fact, the value of the partially alphabetical index was recognized back in 1467. The publisher of St. Augustine’s book (of which only a few initial copies were printed!) said “On Christian instruction, with a noteworthy table [the index], very useful for preachers.” (page 80)

Surely the fact that the first advertisement for a print book with an index contained such a reference to the index shows the value of using your index in your book-marketing materials!

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{ 2 comments… read them below or add one }

Maureen MacGlashan September 28, 2011 at 7:09 am

It’s good see someone promoting the value of the index but, writing as the editor of ‘The Indexer’ I wish to point out some errors in Nancy’s article on ‘The value of the alphabetical index’ and to challenge her basic assumption.
a) Hans Wellisch (1920-2004) is, of course, the well-known US (not British) indexer
b)’The Indexer’ ( is the international journal of indexing published by the British Society of Indexers on behalf of indexing societies (Australia and New Zealand, Canada, China, Germany, Netherlands, Southern Africa, UK, US) signed up to the International Agreement governing relations between the societies
c) Nancy gives too much prominence to KWOC indexing. This and its predecessor KWIC indexing as far as I can tell were tools for use essentially for serials/bibliography indexing and more used in the library context than by the back of the book indexer. They were an early attempt to harness the power of the computer to cataloguing and bibliographic indexing for which the library and information world has now developed far more sophisticated methods. But they are still sometimes used. For an interesting example of a KWIC index see A freeware KWIC-generation programme is still available.
d) The challenge? Well, yes, the alphabet is a hugely important tool for increasing index accessibility, but it brings many problems of its own, above all as the ever-increasing use of natural word order searches makes a tyranny of ‘alphabetical order’. The challenge for indexers is how, in a future where digital publishing will reign supreme and where indexers will have increasingly to cope with multiple languages and multiple transliteration systems, to match our love affair with alphabetical order according to our own national practice with the real needs of users from many backgrounds.

Nancy Humphreys October 1, 2011 at 5:37 am

Thank you Mareen, I’m most happy to learn that Hans Wellisch was a Yank like me! I very much miss his great articles in The Indexer. In regard to your point d, I couldn’t agree more. I believe that faceted indexing is one way into the future, along with a type of group process I call “latticed” indexing. Both use three dimensions instead of two. Nancy

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