Online LLE Reviewer: Notes on History and Development of Indexing and Abstracting

Online Librarian Licensure examination reviewer on history on indexing and abstracting

I am sharing some of my class notes and reviewers to help test-takers of the Librarians Licensure Examination in the Philippines. This page includes the history and development of indexing and abstracting, important people, and notable indexes and abstract collections in history.

History of Indexing

Historical outline: development of Indexes and Indexing

  • The first evidence of the systematic gathering and organizing of written records occurred in Sumer around 3,000 BC. Egyptian and Sumerian writings were done on clay tablets and papyrus.
  • First systematic organization of written records occurred in Sumer around 3, 000 B.C.
  • Around 2, 000 B.C. in China and India, record keeping became part of the society.
  • Early civilizations proposed schemes of knowledge classification and document arrangement (e.g. Greeks used some sort of alphabetic order).
  • In 900 A.D., an encyclopedia was arranged in alphabetical order.
  • During the 15th century, books were published with blank pages and quite wide margins.
  • The 17th century brought a new type of information tool, the periodical.
  • During the 19th century also, Paul Otlet and Henry La Fontaine founded the International Institute of Bibliography to improve indexing approaches to scholarly literature. This led to modern keyword and free- text indexing.
  • In 1900, H.W. Wilson first published Reader’s Guide to Periodical Literature.
  • In the 1950s, W.F. Poole published an index that covered numerous issues of many periodicals.
  • By the 1950s, computers penetrated the indexing arena and efforts to evaluate indexing begun.

About the Amduat

The Amduat (16th-11th BC) an ancient Egyptian text may contain the first index we know about. The Amduat is a text that recorded the journey of Ra (Egyptian Sun god) through the underworld. The text is divided into 12 Hours (representing night hours). In each section, there is an introduction and three pictures. There are notes on names represented of gods and monsters the god encountered. The word ‘Amduat’ can be translated to "That Which Is In the Afterworld", also translated as "Text of the Hidden Chamber Which is in the Underworld" and "Book of What is in the Underworld"

“It tells the story of Ra, the Egyptian sun god who travels through the underworld, from the time when the sun sets in the west and rises again in the east. It is said that the dead Pharaoh is taking this same journey, ultimately to become one with Ra and live forever.

The underworld is divided into twelve hours of the night, each representing different allies and enemies for the Pharaoh/sun god to encounter. The Amduat names all of these gods and monsters. The main purpose of the Amduat is to give the names of these gods and monsters to the spirit of the dead Pharaoh, so he can call upon them for help or use their name to defeat them.” (Amduat, 2020)

1800 BC – Catalogs preceded indexes. Catalogs were made for clay tablet records. Entries contained number of tablets, titles, and content.

Codex – Indexes becoming more developed

Natural History by Pliny the Elder – encyclopedia published in 77-79 AD that claimed to cover “everything in the ancient world.” It contained a table of content, index, and bibliography.

Johann Tritheim – credited for creating a bibliography in chronological order with alphabetical author index

Alphabetic order came later – in history, information was classified by groups, number, time, and even size and color. Alphabetic order was likely devised by Greeks at the Alexandrian library to help them organize Greek literary works. Only during the 13th century was the alphabetic order becoming common, usually for Bibles and law books.

Early indexes were limited to personal names or where certain words were in a text. They function more like concordances than modern subject indexes.


Rise of universities and debate was a teaching tool. Theology, law, and natural sciences use debate as a teaching technique and this relied on citing experts in the field. This led to production of alphabetical indexes. Chapter headings and content lists were already in books. With the rise of printing and book production also came the demand for detailed book indexes.

Illuminated manuscripts. There was a ‘pointing finger’ leading the reader to important parts of the text.

Books had blank pages at the beginning or end of the book where readers could write notes and topics of importance. Example, lawyers listed alphabetical lists of laws and priests write scripture references.


Conrad Gesner – Swiss scientist and bibliographer published an author bibliography and subject index in 1542

Indexing devices in printed books appeared like list of first words and gathering of words at the back of the book.

16th Century – better quality of book indexes

17th Century – Journals appeared as a new information tool. Indexes to journals became needed. At first, there were indexes to journal titles only. Mid 19th century, this was not enough for scholars who needed more detailed information across literature.

History of Abstracting

Along with scholarly journals came the rise of Abstract Journals. Abstracting began with writings outside clay tablets. Summaries were placed at the beginning of records for easier searching. Greek abstracts included a portion of literary criticism after a summary. These abstracts summarized, clarified, evaluated the item.

Journal de Scavans – first published abstract Journal in 1665. Each page was devoted to one item (example, a book) with bibliographic details. It focused on journals and helped scholars be updated with the latest trends.

With the growth of science also came the growth of scientific literature. Scientists began creating handbooks, encyclopedias, indexing, abstracting, and reviewing tools. Long documents or writing were condensed to abstracts.

Monatsextracte (1703) – German abstract journal started published in Leipzig. This type of publication began in Germany and France. This served as a means of intellectual exchange among Europeans.

W.F. Poole (1850s) – Published an index that cut across many journals, and this was the beginning of the concept of a single publication indexing issues of many periodicals.

Paul Otlet and Henri La Fontaine founded the International Institute of Bibliography to improve indexing in Literature. Title word indexing was used (precursor to modern keyword and free text indecing). Book indexing continued to improve and was considered essential for research by scholars.


1950s – Computers used to contain information explosion, used in indexing and abstracting At this time, first computer retrieval systems were introduced

Hans Peter Luhn of International Business Machines introduced a mechanized form of derived title word indexing where terms were shown in context to prevent ambiguity

1960s – More experimental work on online information retrieval systems with fast developments

1970-1980s – Online access to indexing and abstracting

Chemical Abstract Services were given grants for projects on the processing and searching of chemical information

National Library of Medicine (US) implemented a computerized Index Medicus 1980s to 1990s – CD-ROM and Internet focus, less on printed indexes



Arts and Humanities Citation Index. Thomson Reuters Index on social science, science, and research – now Web of Science

Chemical Abstracts – published by the American Chemic Society and is the world’s leading source in chemical information. 

Cruden’s Concordance – first published as A Complete Concordance to the Holy Scriptures in 1737 by Alexander Cruden, available through various publishers

Index Medicus (1960) by the National Library of Medicine. Began when the Library of the Surgeon-General’s Office Library (renamed the NLM) began the systematic indexing of medical literature. The library began two indexes in the 1870s: Index Medicus and the Index Catalogue of the library.

The creation of the Index Medicus was led by John Shaw Billings, MD in the 1880s. It included a subject/author guide to the medical literature first published in 1879. The Index continued through the development of MEDLINE and other databases and indexes.

Micropaedia to the 15th edition of the Encyclopedia Brittanica, an index to classify the contents under topic and not alphabetical order. It provided a guide to the encyclopedia and a tool for the systematic study of a topic and related aspects of interest

Poole’s Index to Periodical Literature – First systematic article level index for 19th century periodicals. 1st edition was published in 6 vols. In 1882-1908. The index began in 1848 as a project of Yale student William Poole.

New York Times Index began in 1851 – served as a role model for newspaper Index

Shepard’s Citations – a citation index shows who cited the paper at a later point in time. This index gives accounts of legal decisions and later citations.


Amduat. (2020 July 19). Retrieved from

Cleveland, D.B. & Cleveland, A.B. (2013). Introduction to Indexing and Abstracting. 4th ed. Sta. Barbara, California: Libraries Unlimited.

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