From the James D. Anderson and José Pérez-Carballo “Information Retrieval Design”:

History of indexing, cataloging, librarianship, IR databases

Ever since humankind learned how to record messages on portable long-lasting media — clay tablets, papyrus, much later paper and more recently various electronic media — we have devised ways to describe and organize these messages so that they could be found, used and enjoyed later on. This ancient practice has evolved over the millennia into the ancient and honorable profession of librarianship and related specializations such as cataloging and indexing. In the twentieth century, this basic human need to analyze and organize messages for later retrieval has become the main preoccupation of information science, under the rubric of “information retrieval.”

Role of information retrieval in support of civilization

It can certainly be said that civilization is based on the cumulated knowledge that current and former generations have developed, organized, and stored for use by current and future generations. We are long past the time when any educated person could learn and know all of the world’s knowledge — if there ever was such a time. Thus, the knowledge base or foundation of civilization must be organized, described, and made accessible through libraries and other systems of information retrieval. It is no exaggeration to say that the preservation and advancement of civilization is absolutely dependent on effective information retrieval.

Origin of “database” as term

The term “database” emerged in the early 1960s among workers involved with military information systems. The term referred to collections of data available to users of computer systems (Oxford English dictionary 1989). The idea implied is that these collections were bases (plural of basis) of data on which decisions might be made — on which decisions could be based. As databases developed since then, they were organized so that data could be accessed in a wide variety of ways.


Readers interested in the history of indexing and information retrieval databases may want to consult the following book and articles:

Katz, Bill. Cuneiform to computers: a history of reference sources. Lanham, MD: Scarecrow Press; 1998. xvi, 417 p. (History of the book series; no. 4). ISBN: 0-8108-3290-9.

Metcalfe, John Wallace. Information retrieval, British & American, 1876-1976. Metuchen, N.J.: Scarecrow Press; 1976. v, 243 p. ISBN: 0-8108-0875-7.

Taylor, Arlene G. “Development of the organization of recorded information in western civilization.” In: The organization of information. Englewood, CO: Libraries Unlimited; 1999: 37-55. xx, 280 p. ISBN 1-56308-498-9.

Wellisch, Hans H. “Early multilingual and multiscript indexes in herbals.” The indexer. 11: 81-102; 1978 Oct.

Wellisch, Hans H. “How to make an index, 16th century style: Conrad Gessner on indexes and catalogs.” International classification. 8: 10-15; 1981.

Wellisch, Hans H. “The oldest printed indexes.” The indexer. 15: 73-82; 1986 Oct.

For more historical references, see:

Wellisch, Hans H. Indexing and abstracting: an international bibliography. Santa Barbara, CA: ABC-Clio, c1980. xxi, 308 p. ISBN 0-87436-300-4.

Wellisch, Hans H. Indexing and abstracting, 1977-1981: an international bibliography. Santa Barbara, CA: ABC-Clio Information Services, 1984. xix, 276 p. ISBN 0-87436-398-5.



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