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The first known "finding list" was compiled by Callimachus, a Greek poet and scholar of the third century B.C., to provide a guide to the contents of the Alexandrian Library. Primitive alphabetical indexes began to appear in the 16th century A.D. In 1614, the bishop of Petina, Antonio Zara, included an index in his Anatomia ingeniorum etscientiarum (Anatomy of Talents and Sciences), and in 1677, Johann Jacob Hoffman added an index to his Lexicon Universale. These early indexes were difficult to use because entries under each letter of the alphabet were not arranged alphabetically. Every term beginning with a "B" would appear somewhere under that letter, but subjects beginning "Ba" did not necessarily precede those beginning "Be."

In the 18th century, alphabetic indexing improved, as demonstrated in Denis Diderot's Encyclopedie, which is alphabetized consistently throughout. In the 19th century, indexers attempted to compile indexes that covered entire fields of knowledge. The Reader's Guide to Periodic Literature, published by H.W. Wilson Company of New York, is one of the best-known examples of an index that includes references to many publications.

The 20th century revolutionized the fields of indexing and information retrieval by introducing computer technology. Many software programs are now designed to assist in the preparation of indexes. Some programs, in fact, have largely automated the mechanical aspects of indexing.