Love reading nonfiction? Know quite a bit about a lot of subjects? Expert author in your field? It seems like these would be great preliminary qualifications for building indexes. And understanding of the subject matter is a very important prerequisite for indexing a book, although PhD-level expertise may not always be necessary.
For example, I have just a bachelor’s degree in linguistics and some graduate courses in philosophy under my belt, but I’ve successfully indexed many scholarly books in fields from history to ethnomusicology, along with technical documents on computer hardware and software, even safety manuals in the oil and gas industry. If the material is well written and organized, one can often find an understanding of the material that’s sufficient to produce a good index.
The mental process of indexing, however, involves a different type of thinking about the subject matter than most people use when just reading or even writing a book. The reader and the writer will both do well in seeing the outline of the book and probably its major themes. These elements will usually find their way into the index. But the meat of the index should include main headings for significant mentions of more detailed topics.
From my experience teaching indexing workshops and short courses, I’ve noticed that there’s only one way to figure out if a person has a knack for finding these more detailed topics and using common sense, pattern recognition for semantic relationships, and attention to detail to structure a truly useful index for the user: practice with real books and review by an instructor or professional indexer. There are just too many specialized ways of thinking about the index as a map to the text, and way too many judgment calls in choosing topics for this to be an easy task for readers or writers oftentimes.
Many of my indexing students seem to have particular trouble deciding what’s important. They will either stop at the outline phase and have only general topics as main headings, or they will “get lost in the trees” and index trivial mentions of terms that are in lists or used just as short examples. I get feedback that people often don’t trust their own sense of what’s important and want to “cover all the bases.” But this does a disservice to the index user, who wants to get to just the important stuff quickly. For more on the topic of the trivial or passing mention, see last week’s article on indexing names.
Students also often don’t see related topics that might be scattered around the text instead of being all together in one section. For example, all of the following terms occur in a government booklet on geography: human environment, immigration, diversity, economic activities, society. There were also terms about the natural environment and how it interacted with the human one. Some students did make main headings for some of the specific topics here, but very few thought about also putting them as subheadings under a heading like “human environment,” mostly because they took a literal approach to the terminology. If it didn’t say “human” in the text, then they didn’t think about making the connection to other terms that are part of the human environment.
This last ability to see the semantic connections among topics in a text is what separates a human indexer’s analysis from that of a computer, and also often separates the indexer from readers and sometimes authors as well (although I’ve met plenty of authors who saw these connections as well as others I was unaware of!). And unless one practices actually building indexes and then getting feedback on the results, this seminal indexing skill can be easily lost, leading to low quality information access for the index user.
So, if you are interested in indexing or thinking about jumping into indexing your book or another person’s book after a short webinar or just reading up on indexing principles, please realize that these methods may not be enough to allow you to create a good index. I know that full indexing courses require quite the monetary investment, so take the opportunity to try a taster course in indexing that involves at least a little practice on a short text plus feedback from the instructor. Also, after finding out about the principles of indexing, try practicing indexing a full-length book or two in your own library (without peeking at the index if it has one) to get a more hands-on idea of what is involved in the indexing task.
There’s no substitute for practice in almost any skill, and this adage definitely applies to indexing!
PI Pick of the Week
I’d like to introduce you to a UK indexer and editor who has just started blogging, Paula Clarke Bain. She will give you a great flavor for what daily work life is like for an indexer, largely because she writes with great wit. Go to her inaugural post here and enjoy!