Note: This post by Joanne Sprott originally ran in December 2014 (the Pick of the Week has been updated). More great content is available in our archives, which you can browse by date or topic using the menus on the right.
I’ve had a couple of situations arise recently wherein I was reminded that authors and publishers can get a bit confused over what an index is supposed to do. They want so much detail in their index that it becomes a rather cumbersome abstract of the document. In other words, they make it so that you don’t really have to leave the index to go to the text itself to get a synopsis of the information you desire.
This approach to “indexing” involves things like ten subheadings all with the same page number that follow little paragraph headings on the page, even though a simple main heading with a page number would suffice to get the index user to the page where all the information is clearly visible. The index becomes a sort of Cliff Notes for the text.
One of the situations I found this method used in was actually a textbook on pharmacology designed for nurses, and I can see the publisher wanting to use the index for this abstracting purpose so when the student is studying, they can actually use the index as a tool to review all the relationships among drugs and classes of drugs, as well as uses for different disorders.
The other situation I had where this abstracting occurred was in a multi-volume series on recruitment and management of state militias and their relationship to state and federal governments during the Civil War. The text is a very detailed, almost day-by-day account of primary source correspondence between government officials in organizing troops for the war. The author wanted this highly detailed “index” that copied faithfully the longish phrases in the text itself, to the point that the index was actually an abstract of what was on each densely packed, chronological, two-column page. I can see him wanting to extract the themes and legal details from this text because otherwise it’s quite the slog to read word for word.
But this is not an index.
An index is meant to be a much briefer keyword/keyphrase alphabetical “map” to the document’s names and subject matter, which means that it should be easily and quickly scannable so that the index user can find the topic they are looking for and then go back to the place in the text to find the details.
As a freelance indexer, what I’ve learned from these experiences is to better understand and estimate cost for the extended scope of this abstracting version of indexing (when I can’t talk the client into a real index). This approach makes for a much longer indexing process and justifies at least twice the cost of a normal index for the same material.
For you indexers out there, something to keep in mind so you can price your services appropriately and ask the right questions about what the client really wants from their index.
PI’s Pick of the Week
Margie Towery’s recent book, Ten Characteristics of Quality Indexes, is a great resource—and just a plain great read. With chapters covering just about every aspect of an index, from consistency to common sense, there’s something in it for novices and experts alike. Stories from Margie’s own successful indexing career illustrate each section and make this a reference you’ll want to keep close at hand. The book is available from Information Today.