Lexicon Valley

When Did Books Get Page Numbers—and Are They Even Useful Anymore?

Blank pages and page numbers may be artifacts of printed books. 

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Open any Western book, and one of the first right-hand pages will contain the title and author, along with the name of the publisher and maybe place and year of publication.

It didn’t use to be that way.

If you look at manuscripts before the days of printing, such niceties as title and author were nowhere in sight. (The issue of a publisher was obviously moot.) Producing parchment was labor-intensive work, and you didn’t waste those precious sheets. The text began on the first page, always on the right-hand side. If you wanted to know what the book was about, you needed to start reading.

The coming of printing (and increased use of paper, which was less costly than animal skin) brought a new idea. Since that first page tended to get dirty, printers introduced an extra sheet in front to keep the initial page of text clean. But why waste paper? By the late 1470s, printers had begun putting handy information like title, author, and publisher on the new recto piece. (The back—or verso—of the new page would come to be used as well.) By the end of the 15th century, almost all printed books had title pages.

A table of contents is another tool for orienting in a text. The earliest tables appear to date back to Pliny the Elder, whose hefty Naturalis Historia (Natural History) appeared shortly before he died in 79.* Pliny’s table contained short descriptions of the subjects to be discussed in each of the 37 “books” (meaning “sections”) that followed, a custom that persisted for Western tables of contents up through the 19th century. A favorite example of mine appears in Richard Mulcaster’s The First Part of the Elementarie Vvhich Entreateth Chefelie of the Right Writing of Our English Tung—in other words, a grammar of English—published in London in 1582. Chapter titles include (this time with modern English spelling) “That this five branched Elementarie is warranted by general authority of all the greatest writers and the best commonweals” and “That this Elementarie seasons the young minds with the very best and sweetest liquor.”

What about indexes, which are usually a speedier way of finding what you are looking for? They didn’t appear in a form we would recognize until after the development of printing. One reason is that before the shift from scrolls to codexes, the continuous nature of the book offered few anchor points to reference.

Next, you needed an organizational tool for ordering an index. Alphabetization seems to have been invented in the third century B.C., probably in Alexandria by Callimachus to catalog the Great Library (estimated to contain more than a half-million rolls). However, the technique didn’t make its way to Western Europe for many centuries. As late as 1604, Robert Cawdrey felt the need to counsel readers of his Table Alphabeticall, the first English dictionary, that

to profit by this Table … then thou must learne the Alphabet, to wit, the order of the letters as they stand, … as (b) neere the beginning, (n) about the middest, and (t) toward the end.

But the third reason was a general lack of page numbers: Even if you had an alphabetical index, what would the index refer you to?

Numbering pages started out not as a tool for readers but a guide for those who physically produced books. In Latin manuscripts copied in the British Isles as far back as the eighth or ninth century, numbering was sometimes used to ensure that individual sheets of parchment were collated in the correct order. In some cases, numbers appeared on both the recto and verso pages, but other times, only one side of the page bore a number. Use of numbering was sparse. It’s been estimated that around 1450—just before the birth of printing in the West—less than 10 percent of manuscript books contained pagination.

Fifty years later, the proportion of now-printed works with pagination was much higher. Part of the change reflected the new role of page numbers. Rather than strictly being tools for compiling leaves in the proper order, by the 1510s scholars were starting to refer to page numbers of printed volumes in their own writing.

Since the early 16th century, readers have relied on page numbers to find their way in books. But with the rise of digital technology, the lure of random access could end up undermining pagination.

A decade ago, I began noticing a change in my students’ attitude toward page numbers: Most students were no longer inserting them into written assignments, no matter how explicit my requests or how much I threatened. Yes, I knew that page numbers are not inserted by default in Microsoft Word. Yet my students were otherwise quite savvy regarding Word’s functionality. What was going on?

Here’s what I’ve deduced. Given students’ wealth of experience reading on screen, page numbers for documents created on a computer (in this case, their written assignments for me) seem irrelevant to them. When readers access newspapers online, there are no page numbers, and more people read newspapers online than on newsprint—especially in this age group. Documents native to the Web are overwhelmingly unpaginated, and the page numbers on e-books bear no relationship to their print counterparts. Since the assignments in question were created on computers—and sometimes submitted electronically—surely (so the logic apparently goes) if I, the reader, want to locate a word or passage in students’ texts, I should use the find function, not revert to the apparently antiquated convention of pagination.

With the emergence of print technology in the mid-15th century, the way people read began to change. Just so, with find now available for navigating online reading, the notion of reading is potentially being redefined from a linear activity (continuous) to a random-access process (what I call reading on the prowl).

Finally, a confession. In my own professional writing, I repeatedly face the dilemma of whether to expend the effort needed to track down original page numbers for the natively print newspaper and magazine articles I have accessed online (most websites don’t indicate pagination) or to say the heck with it. I generally take the latter tack. My justification: In the age of the Internet, bibliographic conventions have changed.

Adapted from Words Onscreen: The Fate of Reading in a Digital World by Naomi S. Baron with permission of Oxford University Press. Copyright © 2015 Naomi S. Baron. 

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*Correction, Feb 11, 2015: This post originally misstated when Pliny the Elder died. It was in 79, not 77.