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In Praise of Search Tools

“Get lost in a good book,” my bookmark enjoins me, meanwhile helping me keep my place. Good books are supposed to make readers forget themselves and their surroundings. But an alternate set of expectations about knowledge and memory makes readers—in their working life, at least—want a book’s records, facts, texts, and even individual words to be locatable and retrievable.

Over the centuries, bookmakers, printers, furniture-makers, and, recently, database designers and software engineers have devised finding aids, search tools, and sorting and storage systems that cater to that desire. To explore the technologies they have invented can teach us much about the ideas of information, efficiency, and speedy searching that define modern reading practices, as new books by Dennis Duncan and Craig Robertson demonstrate.

The humble-though-preachy bookmark that helps me find my place has arrived in my hand bearing a long history. Manuscript books in the European middle ages, for instance, were often equipped with strips of parchment, strings, or ribbons attached to their spines or end bands and with stitched-in tabs (ancestors of the tabs in binders and on file folders) that marked the divisions among the several texts they contained.1 These aids to navigating text and mechanisms for parceling it out gained in value as reading became increasingly decoupled from contemplative experience (on which monastic life was supposed to center), and became instead something that one did on the clock—as a means to an end, rather than an end in itself.

As Dennis Duncan explains early in his sweeping history of the index, Index, A History of the, the book had “to shape up if it was to meet the needs” of readers like the time-pressured clerics who staffed medieval universities. Their sermonizing, public disputations, and pedagogy required them to have relevant texts at their fingertips.

The book had to be remodeled to offer up its contents efficiently: to accommodate, for a start, the medieval academics who now needed to make “targeted sorties into the source material” and who therefore required the finding aids—biblical concordances, crib-sheets on theological topics—that Duncan identifies as 13th-century equivalents to the “search engine.” By the 16th century, European books as a matter of course boasted sequentially ordered numbers on their pages. This numbering was intended not so much to streamline the reading experience as to facilitate the quick, targeted recall of the volumes’ contents after that experience had concluded. With these locators in place, and with the uniformity that was a feature of the printed book making the page number a “universal referencing unit” that remained the same across multiple copies, the index became possible.

This new entry (or reentry) point into the book was deployed when linear, page-by-page reading would be slow, inconvenient, or surplus to requirements. The index’s incursion into printed books after the 16th century depended on an additional factor: the naturalization of alphabetical order, or, more precisely, the naturalization of the idea that it was legitimate, and not too flagrant a violation of logic or the sequence of the author’s thought, to rejig and resort a text by alphabetizing its key words.

Read entire article at Public Books