Indexes – Vital Information Tools (honestly)

Now bear with me… this may seem like a boring subject, but I hope to dispel that a bit.

No Mr Man… indexes are NOT boring

Indexes are important data retrieval devices.

Ok… devices may be too strong a word, but despite what you may think, full text search is nowhere near as good as a proper, old-fashioned index.

I know, I know… indexes are hardly sexy, but they do play a very important role and can mean the difference between having a useful book or having a book which will eventually be used as a doorstop.

First of all, let me put a few things straight – you may have noticed by now if you have read any of my other posts… I’m a bit of a straight talker:

1. An index is not created by a computer (ok, they can be, but computerised indexes are really just automated word picker-outers).

2. A proper index is not just a string of page numbers after a word that has been taken straight from the book (it’s much more complicated than that).

3. A real index has multiple entry points for a subject if it’s needed (if someone is likely to look for a specific subject they should be able to find it quickly and efficiently).

4. An index should not have a huge load of numbers after a heading… its aim is to help readers quickly find what they want, trawling through twenty-odd page numbers is hardly going to be quick.

5. Real, trained professionals create indexes, it is an art and a science rolled into one.

If I had a pound for every time someone said “Oh, I thought computers did that” or “A computer can do that, why bother spending money on an indexer” I’d be moderately wealthy by now.

Now, I don’t index that often these days, partly because I edit more but partly because the industry seems to be dying. It’s a shame because the fewer indexes there are in non-fiction books, the less useful those books become.

index photo by Ben Weiner, Flikr
index photo by Ben Weiner, Flikr

So, to show just how much of an art and a science index creation is, here is a potted job sheet for an indexer.

1. Read the book through completely if you have the time.

2. Read the book through again, dissecting it bit by bit, analysing the text as you go.

3. Note down concepts, subjects, interlinking concepts, hierarchies and other useful information that comes to you from the text.

4. Do not index “passing mentions”, which is information that adds nothing to the main subject of the text (e.g. if someone walks past the Ritz on their way to work, you wouldn’t include the Ritz in the index for that page, unless it is mentioned more than in passing).

5. Find a way to distinguish separate areas from the main body of the text… you may be indexing photographs, illustration, maps, diagrams, footnotes, endnotes, appendices etc.

6. Break down entries into sub-entries once the subject string becomes too long to be useful (usually around when 6–8 page numbers appear after the subject entry).

7. Once the book has been read through and index entries listed, arrange the subject headings into alphabetical order (again not so simple, there are a number of ways to arrange an index).

8. Edit the index to create see and see also headings (although this is often done at the indexing stage it happens during editing too when all the subjects start to link together).

9. Make a final pass though the index to make sure that everything fits as it should, is useful for the level of reader and allows easy access to the information contained within the book.

To add to this, an indexer should be trained in indexing. I was a librarian with an honours degree in librarianship and information technology, but I still had to retrain as an indexer, despite it being part of my university course for four years.

An indexer should be knowledgeable with the subject matter being indexed, we all have our specialities and as a result know what our readers will be looking for in an index. An understanding of the terminology and nuances of the subject is essential.

An indexer also has to invest in some expensive equipment – long gone are the days of indexing with a stack of index cards!

Books are indexed once they have been typeset, therefore the proofs will look as they should when the book is printed. This allows the indexer to be confident that page numbers will not change (that is something of a nightmare for an indexer), but it also means that unfortunately, indexers are often one of the last people to work on a book – and this can mean very tight deadlines. If you have to approach an indexer be aware that we have to read and dissect the book… this is not a quick process, and there’s lots of brainwork involved. But give enough time to an indexer and you will have something of beauty and infinite usefulness gracing the back of your book.

So there you have it an index is not only useful and still relevant, but it is created by a seasoned professional, with knowledge, skill, and not a small amount of flair.

You may not have to pay a computer programme to create an index which just picks out words, but it really is true in this case, you get what you pay for.

(You can find out more information by going to  -> About Indexing  -> FAQ page)

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