The ‘nerdy’ art of indexing

‘… the index is, in any nonfiction book, more useful than almost anything else in the apparatus. It is a map of the text; a cunningly devised series of magical shortcuts’ (Sam Leith, ‘In our Google era, indexers are the unsung heroes of the publishing world’,The Guardian, 30 March 2017)

If there isn’t a long, sad German word for the feeling when you turn to the back of a book to look something up and find there’s no index, there should be.

We take indexes for granted until they aren’t there or drive us crazy. Only then do we remember our reliance on indexing to guide us through long and complex publications. Despite being so important to readers and – if they care about their work being read – authors, indexing is a mystery to many. It reputation suffers from three basic misconceptions.

  1. Indexing software does most of the work. That’s like expecting Word to write the executive summary for your report. Software provides a tidy framework; it doesn’t create useful content. A skilled human being still has to read the whole book, work out what’s going on, decide what people are going to want to look up, and make hundreds of little decisions about how to help them.There is software that can list every word in a document and every page it appears on. The result, if published, would be ridiculous. Software can’t understand the text or work out its logic. It can’t plant a number of well-chosen flags along the most intuitive paths to what readers will look for. At this point, only a human indexer can do that.
  2. Indexes list every reference to every topic in the book. If they did, they’d be both massive and unhelpful. What we want are the most direct and most complete references to each topic.
    If I pick up a book about animals to find out what zebras eat, I don’t want to look at every page that mentions zebras. I want to see ‘Zebras, diet, p. 33’. Equally, I don’t want to go to five different pages and find basically the same information. I want the indexer to pick the best one for me.
  3. Indexing may be fiddly but it’s an easy, mechanical process. This may be true of bad indexes. Making a good one is a kind of art – an intellectual and creative challenge that takes judgment, balance and intuition to pull off. A good index won’t make a good book but a bad (or no) index can break a reader and sabotage an author.

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