Indexing chat

As a diversion from writing about the rare book indexing project and about Capt. Hamilton’s experiences, I’ve decided to chat a bit about indexes and indexing in general.

The what and why of indexes

What exactly is an index?

Dictionary definitions aside, Nancy C Mulvany, indexer and author of Indexing Books, defines an index as:

“…a structured sequence – resulting from a thorough and complete analysis of text – of synthesized access points to all the information contained in the text.’ She also notes that “… as creative, authored works, indexes are granted copyright registration.” (Mulvany, 1994, p.8)


How I prefer to describe an index to people who aren’t sure of what I do …

‘Unlike the table of contents, an index (that section at the back of the book) is a specifically drafted finding tool that can quickly reveal the precise bit of information that a reader seeks from a book, just when that information is needed.’

What does ‘indexing’ involve?

It’s an activity involving the human brain; one who reads your book word for word, line by line, beginning to end. Possibly twice! It’s the process of considering the intended users/readers while choosing terms and headings that will collate and highlight the topics within the book. It’s a meticulous task, identifying the important from the passing mention, to create a user-friendly, organised tool which complements the book.

Mulvany describes it as, “creative work”, “like other types of writing … communicative by nature”, “an art …”.  She also states that the goal of indexing is to strive for “directness, succinctness and clarity” to get the reader out of the index and into the material with as much efficiency as possible. To achieve this, it is desirable that the indexer has good, if not expert, knowledge of the subject being indexed. You can find an indexer for any subject by searching the various societies’ websites. The American Society of Indexers (USA), the Society of Indexers (UK), the Australian and New Zealand Society of Indexers, and the Association of Southern African Indexers and Bibliographers are but a few that offer an indexer locator service.

In a January 2019 article by EBSCO in the Library Journal, indexing is lauded for its value in accelerating research. Of course, EBSCO is pushing for the use of their abstract and index databases, but it’s true, nonetheless, for each back-of-the-book index. With the abundance of information sources available, paired with time-pressured deadlines, how do we decide whether the resource we located is one that we can use for our current purpose? Via the index! It simply doesn’t make sense to publish a non-fiction book without one.

Current trends in publishing are changing how mainstream publishers approach their business. Cost-cutting tendencies often affect the decision to include an index. It is either left out altogether (rendering a book worthy of ornamental display only), or it is farmed out at low cost, to an untrained individual who often relies entirely on a word processor that cannot identify related themes or passing mentions, to create an index. Scholars, students and business executives rely on indexes to point them to relevant information. Non-fiction books sell because users want them in a library or personal collection, to read and refer to, time and again. Librarians scan indexes before they decide to purchase. And then there are the book reviews – many include a (sometimes scathing) remark regarding the lack of an index.  By way of an example …

Book review snip

What good would a self-help book be to a busy executive who suffers from work-related stress and depression, if he must read the entire book to find the section that can help him with a specific issue? And, like Google, the search function of an e-book doesn’t cut it, as it delivers too many unnecessary hits. (E-books benefit from an index too, but more on that another day.) Consulting editor Alan Rinzler, in his blog post Every non-fiction book needs an index: here’s why, refers to the index as an “indispensable tool”.

Bookshop by memyselfaneye from Pixabay

Advantages of an index

To name a few offhand …

  • Beginning with the most obvious – an index provides access to otherwise hidden material. A table of contents does not point to individual concepts in the book.
  • As a finding tool, it saves the reader’s time.
  • It shows that the author/editor is dedicated to the book, stands by its content.
  • If constructed well, it will offer alternative entry points that point to the text. An indexer worth their salt will anticipate and know how to incorporate commonly used keywords that readers might choose, to search for information within.
  • It provides a creative (and alphabetical) thematic outline to the content of the book.
  • An index helps to sell a book. Even during the earliest days of printing, it was recognised that the ‘provision of indexes helped to sell books’ (Wellisch, 1994).
  • It could serve to invite (often vital) conversation/feedback from readers.
  • As mentioned earlier, it facilitates and accelerates research.
  • And, finally, because of the above points, an index simply enhances the value of a book, from the day of purchase, and well into the future.
rarebooks shelf
Image from Pixabay

Indexes and rare books

Indexes have been around for yonks. According to Wellisch, some early incunabula indexes (printed in the first 50 years of printing, up to and including 1500) were probably modeled on even earlier written ones. While some antiquated items may have an index, as we saw in the late 16th-century book that I referred to in my last blog post, many don’t. Today, across the globe, archival resources, manuscripts and rare books are being digitised and/or transcribed for our use. Look at this interesting collection from the State Library, Victoria. And here’s a recent tweet from the British Library’s ‘Medieval Manuscripts’ account, regarding a newly digitised collection …

By no means have I investigated, but it may be that only a small portion of this new online collection has an index. Within the sample (970 books) of incunabula that Wellisch (1994) researched, for example, only 8.6% had an index. However, the later the period of printing, the more likely the item is to have an index. Indexing techniques improved, and indexes became more popular in printed books.

old docs
Image by Michal Jarmoluk from Pixabay

An exciting thought (to me) is how awesome it would be to set about creating indexes for archived resources and rare books that don’t have one. Scholars would have a window into the wealth that lies within those fantastic materials, resulting in a valuable contribution to the knowledge environment. Access to these (often primary) resources can help to document facts, piece together historical incidents, biographical details, timelines and more. Providing, of course, that an indexer can be found who can read and/or understand the manuscript’s text and script. 🙂

A still capture from an online video
A still from an online MOOC on deciphering manuscripts, showing a portion of an illuminated manuscript, to illustrate the challenge around dealing with some scripts.

Another important advantage of having an index to physical antiquated/rare books is that it would serve to protect these (often fragile) resources from any unnecessary handling and potential damage. In an ideal world, libraries and archives would be well funded to enable these institutions to afford a professional indexer who can work on creating indexes for these wonderful resources.

In the next blog post, I’ll broach the subject of usefulness i.r.o. indexes, the criteria for a great index, and why I chose to index a rare book. Until then, thanks for stopping by.

Please feel free to leave a comment if you find an error, or if you would like to add to the discussion.

Reference list: 2019. Incunabula: The Early Printed Books [website article]. Available at: [Accessed April 2, 2019].

Duncan, D. 2015. A table of discontents: a history of the English book index. Available at: [Accessed April 7, 2019].

EBSCO. 2019. The value of indexing for accelerating research. Library Journal. Available at: [Accessed April 1, 2019].

Mulvany, N.C. 2005. Indexing books 2nd ed., Chicago, IL: University of Chicago Press.

Rinzler, A. 2009. ‘Every non-fiction book needs an index: here’s why’, The Book Deal [blog]  Available at [Accessed 5 April 2019].

Sosnowski, M. 2017. ‘Can non-fiction authors create their own indexes?’ Reedsy [blog]. Available at [Accessed 6 April 2019].

Wellisch, H.H. 1994. ‘Incunabula indexes: the sample and its characteristics’, The Indexer 19(1), pp. 3-12. Available at [Accessed 1 April 2019].

Featured image – Antiquated books: Gerhard Gellinger from Pixabay 


Author: LibSandy

Durate, et vosmet rebus servate secondis. (Endure for a while, and live for a happier day.) Infopreneur. Indexer. Proofreader. Libraries/lifelong learning advocate. Wife, mother, grandmother. Expat.

2 thoughts on “Indexing chat”

  1. Hi Sandy, thanks for the article! Great points raised. This will go on the list of resources to share with clients on the fence about indexes 🙂 Do you have a link to the MOOC you mention in the image caption? Looks like an interesting course!


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