The Art of Indexing

 

Catalyst Communication Arts

Good indexes improve sales. Textbook adopters read indexes  when deciding on what books to buy for their classes. Librarians who are responsible for buying thousands of books use indexes to make their decisions; many libraries will not purchase nonfiction books without indexes. The world's largest bookseller, Amazon.com, so values indexes as a sales tool that they are now available for prospective purchasers to examine. And we are all familiar with the usefulness (and guilty pleasures) of the indexes to celebrity tell-all books. Is X in the index? How many pages are devoted to Y's love life? Does Z get a mention?
 

Authors as their own indexers. Burnout almost inevitably follows the massive creative push of completing a manuscript. The last thing most authors are prepared to do is to spend additional days or weeks analyzing the text and creating a user-friendly index. In addition, authors are usually too familiar with their own words: they cannot put themselves in the position of the reader who is seeing the concepts and ideas for the first time. A good indexer serves as a go-between to introduce the author's work to readers, and help them find the information they need.
 
"Why can't I use my computer's word processing function to index my book?" As my colleague, Dick Evans, says, "The computer can prepare the index to the same extent that the word processing program can write the book." Computers (and indexing programs) are tools used by professionals to create an index; these tools are not capable of intelligent human thought. The indexing function of a word processing program merely produces a concordance: a list of words occurring in the text. In a book about dogs, for example, the word "canine" will not be listed unless it actually appears in the book--even though it may be the first word readers think of when looking for a specific concept. "Afghan Hound" will appear (if it is in the text), but not as a subentry under "dog breeds." And there will be literally hundreds of undifferentiated locators (page numbers) under the term, "dog." In short, this list will be an undigested, unanalyzed, and basically useless page-filler.
 
It takes a professional indexer to organize the material so that readers can find what they want quickly and easily and provide an accurate key to the author's concepts. No computer program can accomplish this task.

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