If you are involved in philatelic literature at all, you have probably heard of William Ricketts. This great bibliographer compiled one of the most comprehensive indices of philatelic literature in his lifetime. Although Ricketts died in 1956, many philatelists still refer to the Ricketts Index for their research purposes.
Before computers, the printed word is what many philatelists used to learn about stamps. Books, manuscripts, magazines and other philatelic works were the body of knowledge. However, no one was able to purchase or subscribe to every philatelic vessel. Enter the bibliographer whose work was to assemble a listing of all of this information. If you wanted to find out information about, say, the Saint Louis Bear postmaster provisional stamps, you went to the index and there was a listing of what was written about that issue. You could go to, say, the American Philatelic Research Library, and request to see those publications.
Ricketts was considered one of the best bibliographers. But even Ricketts could make a mistake or overlook something. An index is only as good as the person compiling it.
There are rules for putting together an index. But like most things in life, not everything is black and white. For example, if someone wrote an article in 1933 about how scarce stamps were increasing dramatically in price and they mention the Saint Louis Bear postmaster provisional stamps as one small example to support their claim, would that brief mention end up in the index? I doubt it since the main subject of the piece was the value of scarce stamps and not the Saint Louis Bear stamps in particular. Maybe that tidbit of information is something important to you as a researcher. But unless you scoured every written word in every philatelic publication, you may never know about this tiny mention in some obscure article from 1933.
Enter the age of the computer where all of this information can be stored electronically. There is one thing that a computer can do at lightning speed which humans are incapable of doing: plowing through data at immeasurable speeds to find something.
I am a member of the United States Stamp Society (now the USSS, formerly the Bureau Issues Association). The society has electronic PDF copies of all of their back journals on their website. You can download them for free.
I can search through these documents for “Saint Louis” and hopefully find everything there is about the Saint Louis Bear provisional stamps. Notice that I did not search for “Saint Louis Bear postmaster provisional”. Some authors may refer to these stamps as the “Saint Louis postmaster provisional stamps”. Other authors could just use “Saint Louis postmaster provisional,” and so forth. The more specific you make your search, the greater the chance that you miss something if an author didn’t use the same term you did.
Sorry for the digression there with the search, but you see my point. Within seconds, the computer can scan all of these documents for that term and show me a list of documents that contain that term. I will have to wade through the excess material about some stamp show in Saint Louis. But in time, I can find even the most obscure references to the Saint Louis Bear postmaster provisional stamps.
Therefore, are indices being replaced by computers? Sort of.
In the philatelic world, there are ongoing efforts on many fronts to digitize much of our philatelic literature. Some societies have been busy digitizing back issues of their journals. Libraries such as the APRL are busy digitizing some of the really rare items that cannot easily be loaned out to researchers because these publications are too old and frail.
For now, indices are still going to serve a purpose. Someday, simple indices may even be able to be generated by a computer. For example, point a computer at the back issues of the US Specialist (publication of the USSS), and it may be able to generate an index based on the title of the article and author.
However, as more of our philatelic publications are digitized, I think an index is going to be less useful. Will it go the way of the dodo bird? Maybe not entirely. We will see what time holds.