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Historical Spotlight: Print Indexes

Searchable, online databases are relatively recent technology. How did researchers find periodical articles on specific topics before the advent of databases?


cover of Readers' Guide to Periodical Literature

The most effective method was to use an index to periodical literature, known as a periodical index or print index.

Print indexes, which are still published and used today, give listings of articles that have appeared in many different periodicals. They do not contain the full-text of the articles but rather provide article citations (author, title of article, magazine or journal title, volume, publication date, and pages). With a complete citation, you have enough information to locate your article. 

You can think of electronic databases as digital versions of indexes. 


Note: Print indexes can be useful when doing historical research or detailed research at a university. However, you will not need to use print indexes at CCC. 

Readers' Guide to Periodical Literature

cover of Readers' Guide to Periodical Literature


One of the most often used periodical indexes was the Readers' Guide to Periodical Literature. It indexes articles from nearly 200 general interest magazines, providing listings of article citations organized by subject headings. 

The CCC Library has Readers' Guide back to 1929 in the Reference Stacks if you're interested in looking at one. 

Below is an excerpt from the Readers' Guide. You can see that the subject headings are arranged alphabetically with citations to relevant articles listed directly under the subject headings.

Readers' Guide excerpt: 

a page from the Readers' Guide to Periodical Literature


Finding Articles using a Print Index

Once you had the citation for an article you were interested in reading, you would use the library catalog to verify whether your library carried a print version of the periodical in which your article was published and then locate it on the shelf by its call number. 

Many libraries used to have extensive print periodical holdings both in bound form and on microfilm. As you can imagine, this would require a lot of shelving and library space. Online databases save libraries from the trouble and cost of maintaining large print periodical collections. 

Chapter 4 — Page 11