What is an Index?
When people find out I am a book indexer, the response I get is either, “what does that mean?” or “I thought computers did that.” So what is an index? An index is found at the end of a non-fiction book and is, most typically, an alphabetized listing of names, terms, and concepts with page references to their location in the text.
Are Indexes Found Only in Books?
I specialize in back-of-book indexes, but websites and databases can also be indexed. Most indexers use dedicated indexing software, which is useful and powerful for alphabetizing, sorting, and other “mechanical” functions of creating an index. All of the term selection is a result of the indexer actually reading the text and discerning thematic relationships. A computer-generated list of words that appear in a text is more properly called a concordance. As a concordance is merely a list of words, a user has no sense of how those words may or may not be interconnected or even relevant to what information the user is trying to locate.
The Nuts and Bolts: Reading, Selecting Terms and Editing
The index is typically the very last part of the book to be completed and thus usually needs to be done in a very short period of time. The indexer must work with “final” page proofs, meaning the page numbering has been determined and will (hopefully!) not be changed, so that the locators are leading to the correct page. Depending on the length of the book and the depth of indexing required, the indexer has, on average, 2-4 weeks to complete the index. Indexers have a variety of work methods but essentially they all: read the text, input selected terms and page references in to some type of indexing/computer program, and edit for consistency and clarity before submitting the index to the publisher/client. A majority of indexers work on a freelance basis and are contracted by either the publisher or the author.
Learning About Julia While Indexing
Earlier this year, I had the privilege of writing the index for In Secret Service of the Sacred Heart by Fr. Blaine Burkey. In Secret Service of the Sacred Heart is the extraordinary story of Julia Greeley and the impact she had on all who knew her. She was born a slave in Missouri and later settled in Denver. She became Catholic at Sacred Heart Church and had a special devotion to the Sacred Heart of Jesus. She served the poor with a special generosity of spirit and had a special ministry to firefighters. Julia Greeley died on her way to Mass on the Feast of the Sacred Heart. Unexpectedly large crowds turned out for her funeral and she is thought of as a saint by those who knew her.
Topics, Names, Headings and Subheadings
I was fortunate to receive unfinished page proofs of the Julia Greeley book well ahead of the actual start date of the indexing project so I was able to read through the material multiple times, which is rarely the case for most projects. A large portion of the book consists of recollections from many people who either knew Julia or knew of her and all of those names had to be included in the index. Some works will have multiple indexes if there are a great many names to be included; this book, however, has a combined name and subject index. As the entire book is about Julia Greeley, I had to determine which subheadings for her entry would be most relevant to users and which entries relating to her would have their own headings. For example, Julia Greeley’s special love for children was emphasized, so there is the heading, “children, Julia’s love of”. Julia was remembered for her charitable acts to others, as well as children, so under the heading, “Greeley, Julia”, there is the subheading, “charitable acts of”, which includes the page references for all mentions of her charity, including charity towards children. In indexing terminology, this is a form of “double-posting” or including the same information at more than one entry point for the user.
“Tough Decisions Will Have to be Made”
The final, and for me, the most time-consuming, task in writing an index is the editing. Indexers usually have space constraints and a seasoned indexer is able to keep those in mind as they are deciding terminology and subheadings. But it is inevitable that the index will be over (or, rarely, under) the length requirements and tough decisions will have to be made about combining, shortening, or removing entries. Cross-references must be checked for consistency. For example, in the Julia Greeley book, Julia Gilpin has several subheadings under her entry. She is also mentioned in the book by her maiden name, Julia Dickerson. If a user looks up her maiden name they will find, “Dickerson, Julia. See Gilpin, Julia Pratte”. Dedicated indexing software will assist in this process by informing the indexer if there are any cross-references that direct a user to a non-existent entry. Finally, the indexer needs to make sure all entries are spelled correctly and there is consistency in the phrasing of headings and subheadings, such as the inclusion of prepositions. When everything is complete, the index is shipped off to the client in either a .doc or .rtf file and the typesetters format the index file for printing of the book.
Should an eBook Have an Index?
With the growing popularity of eBooks, the question arises: Why is an index necessary when one can use a “search” function? The most basic reason why search is inferior to an index is the fact that the terms and phrases one finds in an index will lead the reader to relevant information. Search will lead a reader to every instance of the term or phrase, but it will not always be to information that is useful to the reader. Additionally, an indexer is able to gather all references to a subject under one useful heading whereas a reader relying solely on a search function will have to have knowledge of a wide variety of search terms in order to locate all of the references relevant to the query. For example, if one was reading a book about the American West and wanted to find mentions of Buffalo Bill, a search function would only direct the reader to instances where the author specifically referred to “Buffalo Bill”. In an index, the reader might look up Buffalo Bill and likely be directed to an entry for “Cody, William Frederick (Buffalo Bill)”. If the reader was not familiar with “Buffalo Bill’s” full name, a search function would not lead him/her to any locations where the author used the name “William Cody”, or any variation of his name.
Why Can’t a Keyword Search Find Everything I Need?
Similarly, in the index for In Secret Service of the Sacred Heart, the reader will find an entry for “racial attitudes” and a variety of sub-entries directing the reader to information about the topic. Because Julia Greeley was a former slave and because of the time period she lived and worked in, issues of race are an important part of her story. If a reader was interested in finding references to race and/or racism in the life of Julia Greeley, a keyword search becomes a cumbersome and time-consuming process that may or may not capture all of the relevant information. The reader would have to search “race”, “racism”, and “racial”, and even those would exclude instances in the book where race is discussed without using those specific terms. An indexer has the ability to collect relevant information under usable headings, even if a specific heading word is not used in the pages the reader is directed to. The indexer can tie the nuances of the author’s words to the theme of the author’s writing. The computer merely shows one every place a word or phrase is mentioned with no regard to context or meaning.
Indexers Have to Read the Reader’s Mind
An index serves many important functions and enhances the value of the text for the reader. Users tend to look to the index to locate information about a specific topic. Indexers anticipate the needs of potential readers in order to direct them to relevant information. They analyze the material and determine the terminology based on conceptual ideas and relationships and they gather information that is spread throughout the text into useful headings and subheadings. Additionally, they make use of cross-references to show connections between related terms and concepts and to direct the user to the author’s preferred terminology. Nancy Mulvaney, author of Indexing Books, sums up the job of the indexer best: “The indexer is constantly balancing the words of the author with the needs of the reader.”
So the next time you flip to the back of your favorite cookbook to find that cake recipe or turn to your computer manual when your screen goes blank or even want to find out more about Julia Greeley’s church pew, take a moment to silently thank the indexer who led you to the information you were seeking.
Thank you Gina!! I for one, haven’t thought much about all the hard work and the human element of decision making that goes into an index. I sure do appreciate them though. And I can’t help thinking that Julia herself has given a very special blessing to you, her indexer. It certainly is a great asset to Father Burkey’s book and Julia’s memory!