Back Words Indexing 

  Back-of-the-Book Indexes
     for Publishers and Authors

      "You're going to love the way your book ends!"



about indexes
my background

authors as indexer
computers asindexer

quotations about indexes/indexing
indexer humor

order of the kohlrabi
wilson awards judge



Martha Osgood
Back Words Indexing

Since 1996

author of the index in
Inside Indexing:
the Decisionmaking Process

by Sherry Smith & Kari Kells




Quotations About Indexes and Indexing 

The E-Reader Effect
"...Selling print books is all about hooking browsers, he says. That means sexy covers, grabby titles, and shelling out for prime placement on bookstore racks.
.. Pushing e-books, on the other hand, will turn on how well presses are able to optimize the electronic versions for search-and-discovery, Hussey says: less cover design and layout, more metadata and keyword-friendly titles and abstracts..."

Searching vs indexing
     Search tools are good at what they do, but haven't yet reached their full potential. In particular, most don't yet "understand" context. For example, they cannot distinguish between different uses of the word"printing": procedures for producing paper output, distilling a Word file into a PDF document, learning whom to ask for permission to print 500 copies of a user manual, and finding troubleshooting instructions for network printers.
      Moreover, users must know the precise wording used in the document to find it with a search; for example, instructions for typing the letter é might be found under "foreign characters," "accented letters," "HTML entities for European fonts," or the letter itself. An indexer will examine each chunk of information to identify its role, then create synonyms so that readers with different mental models of the information can more easily find what they seek.
David Brown  http://www.html-indexer.com/

An index is a consciously designed method of finding mentions of subjects, persons, or ideas. A Google search return is merely a software-derived order based on rankings of key words, embedded words, and other data designed to return the 'mostest.'  Google is an incredible tool but it is comparing apples to a bushel of acorns to think a Google search is anything but an easily manipulated return of key phrases. Indexers, like bibliographers, are unsung heroes of enlightenment and progress. Overworked and poorly paid they delight in obsessively creating something that even a child can use and profit by.
- unknown

Value of an Index
"Lord Campbell [John Campbell, 1st Baron Campbell, 1779-1861] proposed that any author who published a book without an index should be deprived of the benefits of the Copyright Act; and the Hon. Horace Binney, LL.D. [1780-1875], a distinguished American lawyer, held the same views, and would have condemned the culprit to the same punishment."
-- H[enry] B[enjamin] Wheatley, How To Make An Index
(New York: A. C. Armstrong & Son, 1902), 82

The Good Enough Principle
... I was charged with creating a keyword list that the program could draw from. What we have ended up with is something that looks like an index, behaves a little like an index and can fool a bunch of people much of the time... What used to be considered one of my company’s strengths, an excellent index, is now something that’s just good enough. What my company loves best is that what used to take me 10 to 15 hours now takes about 2 and a half hours. The quality is pretty poor, but so far we have had only one complaint... The reality of the Good Enough Principle has certainly hit home.

John Q. Henry (for now)

Why Hire an indexer?
"Sitting down and indexing a book is—in our experience—the most painful, horrible, mind-numbing activity you could ever wish on your worst enemy. And yet, where this is the kind of task that a computer should be great at, it’s actually impossible for a computer to do a good job of indexing a book by itself. A good index requires careful thought, an understanding of the subject matter, and an ability to keep the whole project in your head at all times. In short, it requires comprehension—a quality computer software, at this early stage of its evolution, lacks. Until recently, it also required a large stack of note cards, highlighter pens, Post-It notes, and serious medication."

then later:
"Hire a professional indexer. The author of a text is the worst person for the job. You simply know the material too well (or, if you don’t, why in the world did you write the book?) to create a useful index. A professional indexer will read and understand your text, and will create an index that opens it up to a wider range of possible readers than you ever could. It’s what they do."

From Working with Long Documents in Adobe InDesign CS3 from the chapter on Indexing


The word "passim" may well be archaic but the concept isn't. It's very useful to know that a subject appears here and there between pages 190 to 193 rather than being dealt with throughout the whole of those four pages. The only problem with the word "passim" is that index users don't know what it means and very probably won't look it up.

Lack of an Index?
The lack [of an index] is a genuine disservice to future analysis for books, such as that by Obama campaign manager David Plouffe in his Audacity to Win. It's easy to guess, but historian Douglas Brinkley praised indexes as research aids in a C-Span interview. The Plouffe book, reviewed as providing insider information on slips and triumphs of one of the most historic presidential campaigns. It was certainly a groundbreaking process. That's genuine grist for scholarly research. Actually everyone who buys a nonfiction book deserves the research assistance provided by indexes.

Scholarly use of index can really be of genuine service to authors and publishers. Scholars cite previous works. It may be unfair, but books most easily researched (those with indexes) have an edge on being cited. The scholars certainly should have thoughtfully read their source books, but ease in locating remembered tidbits likely means the indexed book will have a longer life in the world of letters than an unindexed book.

Books that are cited and included in bibliographies and/or reference lists may well be purchased by readers of the works citing the original books.

Indexes are significant value-added book elements. I love footnotes; I love timelines; I love maps. I need indexes.

--Rachel Rice

On the wider subject of automation in general, there is also my page"Human or computer produced indexes?" on the Society of Indexers site at  <http://www.indexers.org.uk/index.php?id=463> <http://tinyurl.com/5fruxa>
James Lamb

I use the author's words whenever possible, but often the only way to create a useful subheading is to mentally digest a passage of text and extract a theme that the author has not stated explicitly. Sometimes it's as simple as a paragraph about the prevalence of a disease that does not use the word "prevalence."

When I was doing ebooks back in the day, these problems hadn't been solved yet. I worry sometimes that if they remain unsolved, the noble art of book indexing will wither and die—and the search engine, as I hope you now understand, is not an entire replacement.
The Humble Index - Aug 09

One of the problems we are up against of course is that authors and publishers are beguiled by suggestions that nowadays the whole thing is automatic, and just needs the author to press the right key in Word to get a perfect index.
Maureen MacGlashan <m.macglashan@btconnect.com>

Harold MacMillan, prime minister, wrote a warm welcome to the Society of Indexers in Great Britain, including several quotes about indexing.  The Harold McMillan piece is at http://www.theindexer.org/files/01-1/01-1_003.pdf.

Oula Jones' was Bernard Levin's indexer. His correspondence with her is quite funny at
http://www.theindexer.org/files/24-3/24-3_133.pdf - he was one of the indexing profession's greatest supporters and certainly learnt better than to try to do it himself.


Opinion. What do indexers "do"?
Lawyers "draw" contracts and wills.

There's no "writing" in indexes because there's nothing in a good index that won't be found in the text.

The best indexes "draw" common elements from throughout a work into common headings. This means selecting the most common synonym or (rarely, but logically) introducing the relevant synonym. Drawing common elements together is typically a significant aspect in definitions of indexes. It's one of the rationales for cross-referencing.

How about "produce"? ("I produce indexes.") Any different from "create"? Hmm. Somebody said "provide" -- well, an agent does that. The publisher does that, for the reader.Produce, construct, create. Any subtle differences?  I guess what we're trying to do is reduce the indexing process to only one verb -- and there isn't one. It's part reading, it's part analysis, it's part writing, it's part just typing, it's part creative editing, it's part agonizing, it's part swearing, it's part . . .

One does not "write", "compile", etc an index for a text; one simply, and irreducibly, "indexes" the text.This sounds like it might be right, explaining our difficulty in finding any fully satisfactory verb to go with "index" as a noun.

When speaking otherwise, I say that the index is "composed"; as an act of "composition". IMO this catches the sense of "compilation", and relates well with the usage "writing"; while also containing a (broad) hint of "creative" input. I grant this but like the other options it falls short. Thinking of "composing", as in composing music, I imagine creating references primarily to aspects of one's own imagination as opposed to aspects of an objective reality like text.

On the other hand, indexing is not merely compiling, as in gathering together a known set of components -- one must first discern what's to be gathered and then develop the index accordingly -- and there's another possible verb: develop -- to develop an index. Moreover, I can see myself as an index developer, but still, this term is too broad to be fully satisfactory, so it too falls short.

. . . I most often use "write";  Indexing may not qualify as "creative writing" but there are lots of kinds of writing and indexing is one of them. Since "writing" works for mathematicians why not for indexers? Next to irreducible "indexing" of course. Indeed, I always say, "I index books", and then add, "I write indexes for books" or "I write indexes that appear in the back of books".  Michael Brackney

Without digression upon postmodern problematics of "ecriture", I will venture a suggestion that that the term "to index" denotes a relatively irreducible human activity, like running, thinking, eating, etc, and should be considered as primarily a verb. A denominative form, when required, would then be derived as "indexing"; thus, as an indexer I provide "indexing for" an assigned text; not an (and certainly not "the") "index". On this view, one does not "write", "compile", etc an index for a text; one simply, and irreducibly, "indexes" the text. When speaking otherwise, I say that the index is "composed"; as an act of "composition". IMO this catches the sense of "compilation", and relates well with the usage "writing"; while also containing a (broad) hint of "creative" input. I think this is an important string, as many types of "indexing" are being conflated these days, while there is as well an overall trend toward an understanding of indexing as reducible to some form of programmable function; ie, as some combination of purely mechanical activities, such as sorting, searching, alphabetizing, etc.! Often when I tell otherwise literate persons, who however are unfamiliar with professional indexing, that I am an indexer, they reply: "I thought that was all done by computer now." That said, I should say that, with Ken and Julie, I often use "write"; but, as a mathematician, I also say (in a manner understood in the mathematical community) that I am "writing" mathematics, though I am pretty sure that the novelists I know would not readily agree that what I am then doing is what they do. 
Jim Farner

I've been dipping into an intro guide to Lacan, Derrida, and Foucault in spare moments, partly because I've always been curious about their stuff, which struck me as flaky (like it does many people), and partly because I've been trying to learn what the various disciplines concerned with language, meaning, and texts have to say, out of interest in the theory side of indexing.

I still think they're flaky, but their views on the nature of language actually fit indexes pretty well. One of the weird things about indexing is that the actual meaning and content of the text is secondary, even irrelevant. If the author talks a lot about Reagan's legacy, that's obviously a candidate for a heading, and I'd probably use it, and I'd probably structure the entry correctly even if I disagreed vehemently with the author about what Reagan's legacy "is," and it would probably even be about the same way an indexer in sympathy with the author would do it (assuming we're both competent). Not only that, you can take it to its logical conclusion without reaching a total absurdity: It's possible to successfully index a text you don't understand, if you know what you're doing and are mindful of your limits. It probably won't be the best or most elegant index, but it will be valid and very probably even adequate.

Index terms look like, and often are, textual terms, but they stand for topics rather than things, and in and among themselves they reflect significance and context of the communication embodied in the text+index, and the purposes of the communicants (the author, the reader, and the indexer), not the content of the communication itself. After all, the Basic Thing That We All Know is that the index _displays_ what the text is "about" without _explaining_ it.

When you stop to think about it, that's weird and not at all intuitive (and it's an interesting thing that it's possible at all). It's the first thing to grasp or you won't go much past the starting gate. I'm struck by how there are competent, even fine, editors who just don't "get" indexing. It seems to me that although editing and indexing both require a lot of (technical) understanding of and skill in using language, editing is still largely an extension of the naive, direct mode of reading. OTOH, indexing involves conscious, deliberate examination of the implicit and situational aspects of the text, which a naive reader pretty much takes for granted, and it traffics in those indirect elements, not the content itself.

That's a pretty postmodern set of priorities. From the book:

"In Derrida's view of language the signifier does not yield us up a signified directly as a mirror yields up an image. ... Indeed, there is no fixed distinction between signifiers and signified. Suppose you want to know the meaning of a signifier, you can look it up in the dictionary; but all you will find will be yet more signifiers, whose signifieds you can in turn look up, and so on. The process is not only infinite, but somehow circular: signifiers keep transforming into signifieds, and vice versa, and you never arrive at a final signified which is not a signifier in itself. ... Meaning is scattered or dispersed along the whole chain of signifiers; it cannot be easily nailed down, it is never fully present in any one sign alone, but is rather a kind of constant flickering of presence and absence together. Reading a text is more like tracing this process of constant flickering than like counting the beads on a necklace. ... There is also the fact that language is a temporal process. When I read a sentence the meaning of it is always somehow suspended, something deferred. One signifier relays me to another; earlier meanings are modified by later ones. In each sign there are traces of other words which that sign has excluded in order to be itself. And words contain the trace of the ones which have gone before. Each sign in the chain of meaning is somehow scored over or traced through with all the others, to form a complex tissue which is never exhaustible."

That's about as good a description of the mental image of a text that an indexer constructs as any I've seen. The flaky thing about Derrida seems to be that he takes it a bit too far. Apparently he sees the internal workings of the text as no different in kind from the relationship between the text and its index:

"Husserl made an important distinction in _The Logical Investigations_ between expression and indication. The expression, linked to the intention of the speaker, is what we might call the pure meaning of the sign, and as such is distinguished from indication, which has a pointing function and could occur without any intentional meaning. Now, Derrida has argued that pure expression will always involve an indicative element. Signs cannot refer to something totally other than themselves. There is no signified which is independent of the signifier. There is no realm of meaning which can be isolated from the marks which are used to point to it."

We'd probably all agree that this is taking the Basic Thing too seriously, but to be fair it's not totally crazy. Again, it _is_ weird that there's a literary form at all (BoB indexes) that's characterized by the Basic Thing; and if Derrida hasn't shown it, maybe it's still right that there is no real difference in kind, only one of degree, between indexes and other literary forms.

I don't think so, but in any case we indexers fortunately don't have to go there to do what we do. The point is that the picture of language at issue is relevant for us in some ways, IMO, even if taking it as a paradigm is misguided.

Here's an ironic thought: The postmodern view of language, in a reversal of the usual priority, privileges the index over the text, and eliminates the difference between the "simple" pointing function of the index and the"substantive" denoting function of the text. Yet, as observed, deconstructive analyses based on that identification are often themselves unindexable. So the identification of meaning with indexicality is either unintelligible or reestablishes the dichotomy it purports to dissolve. How's that for a deconstruction of deconstruction, which it would take an indexer to devise? Or is it all just solipsism? Should anyone even CARE? ;-D

With appreciation to Neil Ching <neilc40@comcast.net>

[The book is Madan Sarup's "An Introductory Guide to Post-Structuralism and Postmodernism."]