The Organized President


What reader has not been infuriated at having to look up something in a book with no index? Serious books written in this century usually are indexed. But in the eighteenth and early nineteenth centuries this was not the case, and one reader of the time was so annoyed by the lack of indexes in his books that he supplied a number of them himself.

Exactly how many books Thomas Jefferson indexed is unknown because a fire on Christmas Eve 1851 destroyed two-thirds of the library he had sold to the government to form the nucleus of the Library of Congress. Of the surviving books, three have short indexes written by Jefferson. Two are copied onto blank end pages; one is on a separate sheet bound into the book.

Much more interesting, however, is an extensive index of two thousand items and five hundred additional page references found among Jefferson’s unpublished papers. The index is a historical novelty, for it is certainly the only thing of its kind written by a President of the United States. But it is something more. Thomas Jefferson’s index provides us with a small, special insight into one of the most complex personalities America has ever produced.

The work Jefferson indexed was Benjamin Smith Barton’s Elements of Botany , published in Philadelphia in 1803. Jefferson acquired his copy in 1808, during his second term as President. Barton’s book, the first work of elementary botany written by an American, was one Jefferson would have turned to often, for not only was he chauvinistic about American science, but he was also an enthusiastic amateur gardener and horticulturist. Morever, Barton had honored Jefferson by naming a native woodland herb after him, Jeffersonia diphylla .

Jefferson once described botany as one of the most valuable of all sciences because its subjects furnished “the principal subsistence of life to man and beast, delicious varieties for our tables, refreshments from our orchards, the adornments of our flower-borders, shade and perfume of our groves, materials for our buildings, or medicaments for our bodies.” He had thirty-six volumes on botany in his library, none with an index.

Before the computer made indexing as simple as typing, there was one standard way to produce an index. You placed a large stack of paper slips before you and proceeded to page through the book, copying on each slip of paper the subject or name to be indexed together with its page number. When the last page was finished, the slips were placed in alphabetical order, multiple entries were arranged numerically by page number, and the whole business was copied slip by slip into a finished index.

In an earlier age, when paper was both expensive and scarce, this was a wasteful method. Jefferson, who often recycled scraps of paper for notes and memos, was not one to be wasteful, so he devised his own method for creating an index, one that eliminated slips of paper entirely. His indexing system used only four letter-size pieces of paper for work sheets.

He began his index by drawing four columns on both sides of a sheet of paper. He then started through the book, copying each word to be indexed with its page number. He wrote roughly eighty items in a column, and a total of twenty-five columns. When he came to a word already indexed, he located it on the work sheet and added the new page number to it. This meant that in order to avoid repeating an item, he would have had to memorize the two thousand subjects that ultimately appeared in the index. Not even a Thomas Jefferson was able to do this; there were repetitions of subjects on the work sheets.

When he had indexed the book and its thirty illustrations on the work sheets, he proceeded to the second stage. He drew four columns on both sides of four new sheets of paper and, starting with the letter A on the first column, went through his original list, copying each item beginning with A in the order it occurred, and then checking it with a mark. Then to B , and on through the alphabet. It is difficult to estimate the time the two stages took, but both work sheets and alphabetized index were written carefully with a quill pen, in Jefferson’s minute but extremely legible hand.

The weakness of this index was that it was alphabetized only by initial letter. To find the word algae , Jefferson had first to check through eightyseven other items under A . A completely alphabetized index would have taken more time to compile than could ever be recovered in using it.

Nevertheless, Jefferson tried it; he began a third stage, a completely alphabetized index of the botanical text. This one was written with only three columns to a page, to allow plenty of space for page references.