For today’s article, I reached out to Mary Harper, indexer of print and ebook publications. An experienced professional with over 600 indexes to her name, Mary gives us the lowdown on a piece of back matter that, like good health and youth, we don’t appreciate until it’s missing.
The Index as a Map to a Book’s Content
It is often said that a book without an index is like a country without a map. Imagine you wanted to visit Aunt Helen. You know she lives in Amsterdam, you know her street name and number, but if you have no map of the city, how do you find her?
Just as a map of Aunt Helen’s city and neighborhood will help you locate her, an index will help you locate vital information within a book. Basically, an index serves five functions:
- It encourages efficient retrieval of topics;
- creates a map of the author’s message with succinct entries;
- groups together concepts that are scattered throughout the text;
- creates interrelationships between explicit and implicit concepts; and
- can function as a decisive factor in book selection or purchase.
What Is Included in an Index?
An index is an efficient information retrieval tool, especially where detailed information is important. Nancy Mulvany, author of Indexing Books, wrote:
An index is a structured sequence—resulting from a thorough and complete analysis of text—of synthesized access points to all the information contained in the text. The structured arrangement of the index enables users to locate information efficiently.”
Below are two examples of types of indexing. The first is a concordance, which is simply a listing of page numbers for a term found in the text. This type of list can be auto-generated by software. The second example is of a subject index, created by a professional indexer.
New Deal era, 5-9, 16, 17-18, 31, 43, 45, 54, 64-65, 68-72, 78, 88, 101, 105-108, 265-270
New Deal era
banking crisis intervention, 5-9
Civilian Conservation Corps, 265-270
Farm Security Act, 16, 54
recession of 1937, 31, 101
Rural Electrification Administration, 88
securities regulation, 105-108
Social Security System, 45, 68-72
Think back to that map: If you were looking for Aunt Helen’s house, which would make it easier for you to find it? If you were a reader looking for the passages on securities regulation, the subject index would lead you right to it, without the need to thumb through hundreds of pages.
Does My Personal History Book Need an Index?
In general, there are two audiences for a book index. One is someone looking to determine if topics he or she is interested in are in the book before reading it; the other is someone who has read the book already and wants to find the page numbers of certain topics he or she recalls or wants to research further.
In my opinion, biographies of people, families, organizations, and companies are the type of works that especially need an index. Human lives are each unique, and a person’s life history requires a nonstandard index, which means the entries must be written to describe the aspects and subtlety of the events, relations, accomplishments, philosophies, and so forth of that unique life.
The index of a biography or personal history is for a genre that is more likely than others to be used based on recall. A detailed subject index leaves a map of the life history for future generations to easily research and build upon.
In many types of works, the preface, acknowledgments, illustrations, and appendices of a book are not included in the indexing process, but they often are indexed in the case of a personal history. Source material such as diary entries, letters, and photographs require specialized treatment in the index to distinguish them from the narrative text material. Font choices such as italics, bold, and use of parentheses with a corresponding note at the beginning of the index can help distinguish the various types of content referred to in the index.
The indexer must organize and group the information about the life into umbrella headings such as appearance, childhood, education, marriage, family life, children, career, friendships, health, religion, finances, political life, hobbies, military service—to list some common ones. I would suggest for posterity’s sake that any personal history should at the very least have a name index, which may be something the personal historian him- or herself might feel comfortable tackling. However, depending on the scope of the historical narrative, it can get pretty complex pretty quickly.
I once created the index for a family history that started in 1700s Ireland. There were seventy-seven individual Kelly family members discussed in the text and many, as was the naming custom, had the exact same names. The author and I agreed it would be best to distinguish the various people with birth and death dates. I had to sketch out the family tree to keep all the generations straight. In this situation the indexer may need clarification from the author about the exact relationships between people.
In a name index, parenthetical identifiers are often used to make the index even more useful. This is especially important when, as in the example above, there are many people with the same surname and the same or similar given names.
Name indexes present other challenges, such as treatment of birth and married surnames for women, name changes as a result of entering religious orders, pseudonyms, and nicknames. Sometimes only the surname is available, and you may need to identify the person, for example, as “Johnson, Miss (teacher)” or “Clara, Aunt.” Naming conventions vary greatly in different languages and cultures, and an accurate observance of these conventions should be reflected in the index. The Chicago Manual of Style has some basic guidelines on international naming customs.
Other Reasons to Include an Index
If you or your client hope that a personal history book will be sold commercially or be included in a library collection, there are even more reasons to include an index. I give any nonfiction author these three: (1) Book reviewers often look for the inclusion of an index as a sign of quality—this author has paid attention to details; (2) The library market expects a nonfiction book to have an index; and (3) Indexes can help increase sales, both online and in the store.
We all have observed people in a bookstore browsing through an index to help them decide whether the book contains the topics they’re looking for. Think about how information-laden our lives have become and how useful an index is to someone who feels short on time. For books sold online, being able to browse the inside of a book, which often includes the index, contributes to sales. Amazon has noted that books using their “Look Inside!” feature are significantly more successful than books that don’t use this feature.
Regarding the selection of your book for a library, Robert Broadus wrote in a text on library book selection criteria that “a good index should be expected in any work except creative literature.” Richard Gardner, founding editor of CHOICE, a publication of the Association for College and Research Libraries, had an even stronger admonition: “Publishers need to be told that nonfiction works without an index are practically useless in libraries and in the long run will lose sales.” For S. R. Ranganathan, an early expert on library book selection, “to get into a book without an index is like getting into a forest without a trained guide.”
Can You Create Your Own Index?
No one knows a book like its author, but authors are often so immersed in their subject that they find it difficult to analyze the text from the readers’ standpoint. Usually authors do not have training or tools, nor will they be familiar with current indexing conventions. In APH*, we strive for the highest quality, whether that be in interviewing, writing, editing, layout, or design, and we encourage each other to hire professionals who offer those services. A professional indexer will bring a fresh eye to a project, careful thought about the author’s message, and the ability to keep the whole project in his or her head at all times. As Olav Kvern and David Blatner, authors of the Real World Adobe InDesign series, observed,
Sitting down and indexing a book is—in our experience—the most painful, horrible, mind-numbing activity you could ever wish on your worst enemy. And yet, where this is the kind of task that a computer should be great at, it’s actually impossible for a computer to do a good job of indexing a book by itself.”
How Are Indexes Priced?
The cost of an index is typically set on a per-page basis. The page rate varies depending on several factors, including (1) density of text (expected number of index entries per page); (2) complexity of material (technical terminology, footnotes, etc.); and (3) page and font size (as these are book, not manuscript, pages). The indexer prefers to preview a chapter from the midsection of the book to evaluate these factors before giving a fi rm quote. Rush deadlines sometimes incur additional fees, so giving the indexer ample lead time will help keep your costs down and help ensure you receive the highest quality index.
Learn More about Indexes and Indexers
To judge or write a quality index, the “Index Evaluation Checklist” at the American Society for Indexing is a useful resource. For information on naming conventions, I recommend Indexing Names, published by the American Society for Indexing. A free resource for international naming conventions is from the Human Rights Information and Documentation Systems International: How to Record Names of Persons. You can find an indexer at the American Society for Indexing, ASI Indexer Locator. Links to other internationally based indexing societies can be found there also.
About the author: Mary Harper’s freelance business, Access Points Indexing (www.accesspointsindexing.com), produces indexes for print and ebook publication. She has been indexing since 2004 and notes that biography is a favorite genre to index.
This article first appeared in the Fall 2013 edition of APH’s Perspectives: The Trade Journal for Personal Historians. A big thanks to Mary for letting us share it here!
*Hello, readers, Amy here again: The APH, or Association of Personal Historians, was a professional organization that fostered the careers of countless personal historians over its twenty-year existence; sadly, the APH folded in 2017. Its demise is one of the reasons I decided to start this website and the companion Life Story Coach podcast. Numerous kind-hearted personal historians in the APH helped me when I was new to the field. This is my attempt to pass that generosity on to others.