As part of his dedicatory address at the Boston Medical Library in 1878, physician and poet, Oliver Wendell Holmes praised, in particular, the development of periodical indexes. “This idea has long been working in the minds of scholars, and all who have had occasion to follow out any special subject. I have a right to speak of it, for I long ago attempted to supply the want of indexes in some small measure for my own need. I had a very complete set of the ‘American Journal of the Medical Sciences’; an entire set of the ‘North American Review,’ and many volumes of the reprints of the three leading British quarterlies. Of what use were they to me without general indexes? I looked them all through carefully and made classified lists of all the articles I thought I should most care to read. But they soon outgrew my lists…. Nothing, therefore, could be more pleasing to me than to see the attention which has been given of late years to the great work of indexing.”
This notebook from Holmes’ early days of practice contains the classified lists he mentions, with references to articles of particular interest in the subjects of anatomy, pathology, surgery, midwifery, chemistry, and therapeutics. During the 19th century, as scientific knowledge increasingly came to be viewed as being lodged in periodicals rather than monographs, medical and scientific investigators built ever-more elaborate personal systems for keeping track of their specialized literary worlds. The massive index to zoological literature compiled by Holmes's contemporary (and later Harvard colleague) Louis Agassiz was eventually used as the basis for the Ray Society's published Bibliographia zoologiae et geologiae (4 volumes, 1848-54). This was followed by even more ambitious projects, such as the Royal Society of London's Catalogue of Scientific Papers (1867-), an attempt to list every scientific paper appearing in a periodical during the nineteenth century. Such utopian bibliographical projects reached their zenith at the turn of the twentieth century. "The whole problem, how best to grapple with the task of recording and indexing the ever-increasing mass of scientific literature," noted a review in Nature in 1896, had become "one of the burning questions of the time for all cultivators of science." Over the next decade, several international bodies would compete to index and classify the world's scientific literature.