Sources as Windows to Narrative: Periodical Indexes – Harder to Access, Highly Insightful
05 September 2018 by Grayson Van Beuren

19th Century | 20th Century | History | Literature


Periodical indexes are not often considered valuable source material unto themselves. There is a tendency to see them simply as neutral orderings of objective reality. After all, how can a list of sources be anything more than a means to more (and better) sources? How can a list of sources contain an agenda or narrative?

Quite well, it would seem. As curated lists of source material, indexes are susceptible to internal biases and narratives as least as much as the editorial cartoons we examined in a previous blog post. Every index is a human creation, and as the products of people—people with unconscious biases and —indexes have a surprising tendency to overstep their perceived boundaries and interact with society in unexpected ways.

How can a list of sources contain an agenda or narrative? Quite well, it would seem.

We will explore these ways in today’s blog post. Yes, indexes do reflect reality. However, they also have the capacity to uncover hidden connections in that reality, and—sometimes—even have the power to change that reality. Let us examine three notable periodical indexes which interacted with their societies and constituent material in these three ways: William Frederick Poole’s Index to Periodical Literature (“index reflecting reality”), the Jones and Chipman Index to Periodical Literature (“index uncovering hidden reality”), and the Royal Society of London’s Catalogue of Scientific Papers (“index creating reality”).


Reflecting Reality: William Poole’s Index to Periodical Literature

Portrait of William Frederick PooleWilliam Frederick Poole’s Index to Periodical Literature was the first attempt to reflect a particular preexisting reality: the explosion of periodical literature during the nineteenth century. The Victorian era was the heyday of the periodical magazine, owing a perfect storm of growing literacy, a knowledge and culture-hungry middle class, and ever-cheaper publishing technologies. As stated by Walter Houghton in his 1959 article on the subject:

The age of periodicals was the age of a growing democracy, political and social, in which it was felt that a much larger reading public, still with little education and little political experience, simply had to be guided […] by the new ‘aristocracy of talent’ which edited and wrote the reviews. At the same time these middle-class readers, for their part, were only too eager to attain the culture—or the veneer of culture—that the periodicals could provide.1

The one thing lacking was a way of systematically accessing the ever-widening well of periodical content. Some magazines had indexed their own runs, but no comprehensive subject index of all periodical publications existed. This was the gap that Poole intended to fill—at least in limited fashion—when he presented his manuscript subject index of the holdings of Yale University’s Brothers Library in 1848. There being nothing else like it, the index was soon printed and five hundred copies distributed to various universities.2

Poole’s work, titled An Alphabetical Index to Subjects, treated in the Reviews and Other Periodicals, was so successful that it spawned an updated version (title shortened to An Index to Periodical Literature) in 1853, and a revision with supplements 1882. By the end of the nineteenth century Poole’s work had become the model for countless other indexes, creating an entire industry devoted to reflecting the realities of the periodical world.

The one thing lacking was a way of systematically accessing the ever-widening well of periodical content.

Despite its status, the Index was not an easy source to use for contemporaries. It was plagued by several odd organizational decisions. For example, it originally included no years for articles and provided non-inclusive page citations, created with the assumption that the user had access to the exact back-issue volumes Poole catalogued in the Brothers library.3 Furthermore, Poole used nonstandard subject headings, he was inconsistent when applying subjects to articles, and his entries often lack author citations.4

Some of these quirks make more sense within the historical context of the Index’s creation and give insight into the growing pains of a new genre of historical text. Poole had no real templates to follow at the outset, save for several specialized subject indexes that had been created for specific periodicals. However, their usefulness as guides diminished when applied to more than one periodical. Poole himself complained of this in his preface to the 1853 index:

The eight published Indexes of the Edinburgh and Quarterly […] cover a field of only one hundred and sixty volumes. An extended Index on this plan would form a library of itself; and such minuteness of reference is oftener a vexation than an aid to the general reader. My practice has been to ignore entirely all previous Indexes and Tables of Contents [...]5

Others quirks of design can be pinned to the realities of Poole’s time. The lack of authors’ names in the index falls into this category, stemming from a common tradition in Victorian periodical literature: anonymous or pseudonymous writing. Though it runs counter to our own perceptions of authorship, articles largely went unsigned for much of the nineteenth century for political and personal reasons.6 Thus Poole’s omission here reflected a reality of nineteenth century life.


Connecting Reality: Leonard Jones’s Index to Legal Periodical Literature

Gunstons Magazine coverSometimes periodical indexes open new avenues of research by connecting desperate fields, uncovering hidden narratives in the process. Such an uncovering occurred in the case of Leonard Jones’s Index to Legal Periodical Literature, an index that first appeared in 1888 and continued in six volumes covering the legal field until 1937.7

As suggested by its name, Jones initially created his index to catalogue articles strictly dealing with legal topics. He used Poole’s Index as a basis when creating the work, writing in the preface to the first volume in 1888 that he was “much indebted to Mr. Poole’s admirable Index.”8 And like Poole’s own project, the scope of Jones’s work was significant, laid out in the same preface:

One hundred and fifty-eight different law journals and reviews have been indexed; and also the articles relating to matters of law and legislation, and to biographies of judges and lawyers, in one hundred and thirteen of the principal American, British, and Colonial literary magazines and reviews. The number of volumes of law periodicals indexed is thirteen hundred and seventy-three; and the articles pertaining to law and legislation in upwards of forty-four hundred volumes of literary and historical periodicals, are also included.9

Despite the vast scope of the first volume, hidden connections between fields began to assert themselves during the compilation of the second volume, published in 1899. This volume included more than just articles on purely judicial matters; it included works on economics, sociology, and political science alongside those on jurisprudence.10 Jones explained the reasoning for including these seemingly disparate fields in his legal index in the preface to the second edition in 1899, quoting economist Arthur Hadley of Yale University:

‘The fundamental datum of modern economics is property right. This is also the datum and starting point of a large part of our legal reasoning. The method of the economist is a combination of the historical and the deductive. He studies the precedent by which property right has been established on the one hand, and deduces the consequences arising from such property rights on the other hand. This combination is also characteristic of the methods of the Judiciary; the chief difference between economists and court being that the economist considers how the individual judgement will act under the given conditions, while the court considers how the public judgement will act.’11

Thus Jones—recognizing the connections being made between the judiciary and fields like economics and sociology—crafted his index to reflect these hidden ties, inviting further exploration by readers and scholars.


Creating Reality: Catalogue of Scientific Papers

Coat of Arms of the Royal Society of LondonBeyond illuminating hidden threads, indexes sometimes even have the power to shape certain realities. This occurred in the scientific world after the publication of the Catalogue of Scientific Papers. Far from being neutral, the Catalogue became a tool of prestige and ultimately changed the way research was published in the second half of the nineteenth century.12

The Catalogue was an author/title index produced by the Royal Society from 1867 until 1925 that aimed to catalogue all scientific papers produced from 1800 to 1900. Given the project by the British Association in 1857, the Society initially embraced the massive project with zeal, cataloguing almost every pertinent item in their own library by 1864.13

The first volume of the first series appeared in 1867, covering authors’ names from “A” through “Clu” published from 1800 to 1863. Publication of volumes would continue for over a half century until 1925, eventually stretching to cover papers published from 1800 to 1900.14 However, what started as an attempt to make scientific papers more accessible ended up fundamentally changing the way scientific research was published and shifted the metrics by which individual scientists were judged.

Shorter papers were looked down upon […] One scientist even called them “broken pieces of fact.”

Prior to the publication of the Catalogue, the primary mode of scientific publishing was the monograph. Shorter papers were looked down upon as being incomplete and hard to use. One scientist even called them “broken pieces of fact, which every scientific worker throws out to the word, hoping that on them, some time or other, some truth may come to land.”15

After the Catalogue appeared, this notion changed. Papers quickly outpaced monographs as the primary vector for scientific research. This papers-as-superior attitude was even codified in certain organizations’ bylaws, as evidenced by science historian Alex Csiszar:

In natural-historical fields, such as zoology, the act of publishing a paper was proclaimed as essential to establishing the identity of a species. The ‘Law of Priority’, set out by a Zoological Committee of the British Association in 1842, formalized the idea that a name and description were valid only once they had been published, preferably in a periodical.16

Furthermore, after 1867 scientists were increasingly judged by their output of papers, greatly accelerating the onset of the age of citation. One’s stature as a person of science depended on having a robust list of articles in the Catalogue. As early as the 1870s, obituaries for prominent scientists were citing entries in the Catalogue as proof of a life well spent in the pursuit of science.

At this point, the Catalogue had become a means of “keeping score,” a metric still very much relevant today in the “publish or perish” climate of contemporary academia.17 For this reason, modern scholars can treat the Catalogue not only as an index of publications, but also as a primary source tracking contemporary attitudes toward particular scientists and fields.18

These three examples—Poole’s Index to Periodical Literature, Jones’s Index to Legal Periodicals, and the Catalogue of Scientific Literature—serve to illustrate three different ways indexes have interacted with society. However, it would be a mistake to assume that they only interacted in the manners delineated here. Poole’s Index, in presenting the benefits of cataloging periodicals, directly contributed to the creation of the other two indexes discussed here—a clear “change in reality.” The Royal Society’s Catalogue did reflect a preexisting reality in scientific publishing (albeit a limited one), as did Jones’s Index to Legal Periodicals in the judicial world.

Each index interacts with its respective surroundings in a multitude of messy and ill-defined ways, and these interactions can be visible to scholars looking in the right places with the right lens. This illustrates an additional, and final, point: periodical indexes can be valuable as source material in their own right, illuminating historical truths as effectively as their cited periodicals.


[1] Walter Houghton, “British Periodicals of the Victorian Age: Bibliographies and Indexes,” Library Trends 7, April 1959, 555.

[2] William Frederick Poole, “Preface,” Poole’s Index to Periodical Literature, Revised Edition, Vol. I.—Part I. A – J (Gloucester, Mass.: Peter Smith, 1963), iii.

[3] These issues have since been somewhat alleviated thanks to modern computing technology. In 1967, Vinton Dearing’s Transfer Vectors for Poole’s Index to Periodical Literature connected relevant dates to Poole’s citations, accomplished by way of computer analysis of the text. Vinton’s additions have been incorporated into Poole’s Index entries in 19th Century Masterfile, and are available to current users of the database. Current users can also read more about Poole’s Index in its resource description. Eugene P. Sheehy, Guide to Reference Books, 10th ed. (Chicago and London: American Library Association, 1986), 230.

[4] Houghton, 560.

[5] William Frederick Poole, “Preface,” An Index to Periodical Literature (New York, Charles B. Norton, 1853), vii.

[6] Houghton, 561 – 562.

[7] The index is often called “Jones and Chipman” after Frank E. Chipman, the editor who took over production after Jones’s death in 1909.

[8] Leonard A. Jones, “Preface,” An Index to Legal Periodical Literature (Boston: The Boston Book Company, 1888), v.

[9] Jones, “Preface,” 1888, vi.

[10] Leonard A. Jones, “Preface,” An Index to Legal Periodical Literature Vol. II., 1887-1899 (Boston: Boston Book Company, 1899), v.

[11] Ibid.

[12] The guise of neutrality is one that has clouded publications like the Catalogue for a long time. As stated by science historian Alex Csiszar in his 2017 article: “As an act of canon formation, the publication of the Catalogue of Scientific Papers is among the most significant moments in the history of scientific publishing. But because bibliographical tools tend to become part of the invisible infrastructure of research, the Catalogue’s significance has been overlooked.” Alex Csiszar, “How Lives Became Lists and Scientific Papers Became Data: Cataloguing Authorship during the Nineteenth Century,” British Journal for the History of Science 50, no. 1 (March 2017): 24 – 25.

[13] Csiszar, “Lives,” 32.

[15] Funnily enough, this scientist, a physiologist by the name of Michael Foster, became involved in the successor project to the CSP—the International Catalogue of Scientific Literature—in 1903. Csiszar, “Lives,” 23, 54 – 55.

[16] Csiszar, “Lives,” 26.

[17] Alex Csiszar, “The Catalogue that Made Metrics, and Changed Science,” Nature 551, no. 7679 (November 2017); Csiszar, “Lives,” 52.

[18] More on the Catalogue and the changes it wrought on the scientific world is forthcoming in future blog posts. –Ed.

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