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Early Modern England: Introduction to Poole's Index


The first volume of Poole's Index was reviewed on publication in Chambers's Journal(March 1883). It was described as follows:

'a book which will henceforward be indispensable to every reference library, and save a world of trouble to editors and journalists in hunting up what has already been written on specific subjects…Such a work is a splendid testimony to the immense literary activity of the past eighty years, and affords a key to quite an encyclopaedia of knowledge.'

Chicago Literary Club

William Frederick Poole

William Frederick Poole was born on December 24, 1821, in
that part of old SalemMassachusetts, that is now the town of
Peabody. He received his secondary education in both public and
private schools and entered Yale in 1842, Because of financial con-
siderations that required him to leave college to teach for three
years, he did not graduate until 1849.

While at Yale, Poole published a periodical index for the library
of one of Yale's literary societies. This was the forerunner of Poole's
Index to Periodical Literature,
 which eventually became the index 
that all of us are familiar with today. In 1851 he became an assis-
tant in the library of the Boston Athenaeum and was later the li-
brarian of the Boston Mercantile Association. He returned to the
Boston Athenaeum in 1856, where he was head librarian for thir-
teen years, and made it into one of the largest libraries in the na-
tion. From 1871 to 1872, he was librarian of the public library of
Cincinnati, and there became a member of the Cincinnati Liter-
ary Club.

Poole came to Chicago on January 1, 1874, as the first librarian
of the city's new public library, which soon ranked as the largest
circulating library in the country. In 1887, he was invited to orga-
nize a new reference library provided for under the will of Walter

Newberry and held the position of librarian at the newly formed
Newberry Library until his death seven years later.

In all of his assignments, Poole was an innovator in library
methods and administration, and his many contributions in the
field were adopted in libraries throughout the country and abroad.
He was also a respected speaker and writer on American history, 
particularly the Colonial period and the history of the early West,
and in 1888 was elected president of the American Historical As-

Poole was a member of the Chicago Literary Club from 1874
until his death, in Evanston, on March 1, 1894. He served as pres-
ident of the Club in 1879-80 and presented ten papers. Accord-
ing to Frederick Gookin, Poole brought with him to Chicago the
constitution and by-laws of the Cincinnati Literary Club and may
justly be regarded as the "father" of our own organization.

Read before the Club:  May 10, 1999


Poole's Index to Periodical Literature is the first systematic article level index to the subject matter of 19th century periodicals.

Originally published in six volumes between 1882 and 1908, the Index began in 1848 as the project of Yale student, William Frederick Poole. Poole observed that libraries hold collections of periodicals which receive little use because their content is not known. Through the application of subject indexing, Poole was able to dramatically increase access to periodical literature, greatly facilitating the research process.

In 1876, Poole was approached by the American Library Association, and persuaded to produce a new edition of his index, with the assistance William Fletcher, Librarian of Amherst College, and the library community in North America and the UK.

When the final volume was released in 1908, the Index had covered 482,000 articles and 378,000 subjects in 12,241 volumes of 479 British and American periodicals for the years 1802-1906.


William Frederick Poole

William Frederick Poole was a scholar-librarian with the distinction of having served as president of both the American Library Association and the American Historical Association. Born in Salem, MA, Poole served as librarian of the literary society The Brothers of Unity while a student at Yale University. After examining the society’s large periodical collection he decided to index it, thus publishing An Alphabetical Index to Subjects Treated in the Reviews and Other Periodicals, to which No Indexes Have Been Published. The value and importance of his index was immediately recognized on both sides of the Atlantic and catapulted Poole to international acclaim.

Poole’s index could probably be best described as the “mother” of all periodical indexes as it led to the publication of similar indices in almost every imaginable field. In 1853, he published a second edition, and in 1882 a third. Supplements appeared into the 20th century, and in 1999, Poole’s Plus: The Digital Index of the Nineteenth Century was created as an online source that provides access to Poole’s index and “enlarges the scope of the original Poole’s by adding dozens of indices to periodicals, books, newspapers, and government documents.” A review in the New York Times called Poole’s original index a “really very important book, and we can only wonder how…we have managed to do without it. It is henceforth one of the most indispensables of student life, a contribution to literature which enforces its own value like, an almanac, a directory, or a concordance…Henceforward Mr. Poole’s name can never be pronounced without respect.”

In a career that was as stellar as it was stunning, Poole swiftly advanced through various posts, making significant contributions wherever he went. From 1851 to 1869 he held various library positions in Boston before coming to Cincinnati to head the public library where he remained until 1887 when he took on the task of organizing the Newberry Library in Chicago, where he remained until his death. What did results-oriented Poole accomplish in Cincinnati?

In 1870, a new building for the Public Library was dedicated with many innovations pioneered by Poole, including Sunday hours, a service that had been blocked in “Puritan” Boston; and an Art Department that most likely was the first subject department in an American public library.

Aside from these accomplishments, Poole was actively involved in the community as a member of the Cincinnati Literary Club where he delivered lectures on various topics. One was published as Anti-Slavery Opinions Before the Year 1800: Read Before the Cincinnati Literary Club, November 16, 1872.

Poole’s belief in the importance of libraries was well known and reflected in his writings. In an address on “The University and the University Curriculum” he said “the study of bibliography and of the scientific method of using books should have an assured place in the university curriculum,” and “that a wise and professional bibliographer should be a member of the faculty and have a part in training all the students.” He felt that the library should serve as the university’s classroom “and that all who go forth into the world as graduates should have such an intelligent and practical knowledge of books as will aid them in their studies through life, and the use of books be to them a perpetual delight and refreshment.”


Mr. Poole

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