Indexing – Plan to Do-It-Yourself?

If you are not an indexer, I beg you – don’t try to index your own book – even if you do have a PhD!

Yes, you know your subject better than anyone else. After all you’ve written a book about it. Yes, you are just as intelligent as any indexer. But do you know how to index a book?

“But why not?” you ask.

“Because indexing is an art”.

The importance of failure

Even with training, rarely does an indexer create a good index on their first try.

For example, my first index was for independent study in library school. I created an index for the first years of the Mother Earth Newsa popular new magazine that encouraged the back-to-the land movement. And no, i hadn’t studied indexing. Library schools in the United Stares didn’t teach indexing back then.

My advisor finally admitted he knew nothing about indexing either. He felt my project was OK, but he couldn’t tell me why. Still, I was positive my index was good. I offered it to the magazine for free. They said, “No thanks”.

I’m glad it was rejected. After library school, I took a year long correspondence course in indexing from the British Society of Indexing, the only organization that offered a course in indexing at that time. Still, I graduated with a B, and had no clear idea how to pick out subjects, especially as the exercises used British English and referred to British royal family history. Both threw me for a loop.

How do you know what to index?

Before actually doing an index for money, I joined the American Society of Indexers. I religiously read every issue of its magazine, KeyWords as well as the British Society’s journal, The IndexerI read every single book written in the English language relating to indexing – even rare ones I had to get on loan. Beginning with the ASI chapter in St. Paul Minnesota and ending with the Bay Area, California chapter, I frequently attended workshops and continuing education programs on indexing.

After decades of working as a reference librarian taking questions from patrons and as a back-of-the book-indexer, I can now quickly spot the discussions in a book that are and are not needed in the index.

But could I tell you how I do that? Not really. Here’s what I can tell you. (1) An important part of indexing is knowing what not to index, (2) what to index in a book title depends on the particular book and the goal(s) of its author. Furthermore, it isn’t just picking out a topic that matters, it’s also how you word it.

What is a correct “form of entry”?

Suppose your book discusses the “French Revolution”. Which of the following would you use as an index heading?

  • Revolution: France, 1789
  • French Revolution
  • France: revolution (1789 −1799)

[Note: the colon signifies that all text following it is a subheading]

Each one of these forms of entry is correct  or may be incorrect – depending on the particular book title you are indexing.

Is there a “framework” for an index?

Having training and/or experience in thesaurus use, creation, and/or indexing theory really helps with with “framing” an index. Like housebuilding, creating an index means setting up an intelligent system of thinking. This often includes useful See and See also cross-references.

Framing an index also includes design. There are national and international standards for ways to format and lay out indexes in print books to ensure the indexes are easy to use. Digital book index standards are currently in the process of being created.

Why can’t I just use Microsoft WORD?

Sure, you can use WORD to create an index, but you will spend hours going back and forth between the index and the text trying to edit that index.

Indexers, those intrepid enough to learn how, typically use WORD only for last-minute projects where (1) book pages are sent in batches, (2) the book must be published immediately, and (3) the text of the book contains all or most of the words that should appear in the index.

The American National Standards Institute’s “Basic Criteria for Indexes” (ANSI Z39.4 -1984) defines an index that uses only terms in the book as a “derivative index”. You don’t often see such books. Using WORD to index a book containing discussions of ideas and/or concepts or a lot of proper names is a nightmare. Indexers use special indexing software instead. It’s much faster.

Trust me on this – you don’t want to do your own index! Not yet convinced? Here is how one very smart person put this:

All in all, I’d say you did a heckofajob.  You gave me a better index than I could possibly have made, and you did it in under the year-and-a-half it would have taken me.  Thanks again.  Your check is in the mail. Robert G. Chester

  1. Janice Rayment says:

    I have created a couple of indexes recently where I was commissioned by the author directly rather than the publisher. It can be very rewarding and enjoyable.

    Not only does a professional indexer (usually) know more about indexing than the author they will probably be a lot quicker than the author. Time that the author would have spent writing the index can be far better used, perhaps writing their next paper or book!

    Commissioning a professional indexer also provides another opportunity for someone else to read the text – carefully and in its entirety. I have often discovered errors in a text and the professional, indexing concepts rather than simply name spotting, is likely to identify arguments in the text that don’t make sense. An author is far too close to the text to spot these things.

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