Book Indexing, Part 1: Is a Computer the Right Person for the Job?

Photo courtesy Calsidyrose.

In short, no.

Back-of-the-book indexing is much misunderstood, which I know from having to argue at cocktail parties that it cannot be done adequately, let alone well, by a computer. (Yes, unfortunately, that’s what passes for cocktail-party banter in my neighborhood.)

Of course I understand how computers can scan and tag and sort, and I understand that in many ways they are more accurate and reliable than humans, and thank god for that. Computers can write lists and outlines and concordances, and they can keep track of page numbers. But for a useful and intelligent book index, you need a thinking human.

An index, after all, is not a list or an outline or a concordance. In its highest incarnation, it is more like a map or tree showing the looping and scattered relationships of topics and subtopics throughout a book. Indexers harvest concepts as much as words; their index entries regularly feature words that never appear themselves in the text being indexed.

The elegance and complexity of the best indexes require a level of thought and nuance and creative judgment that so far software has not been able to achieve. Indeed, although the first thing readers may look at when they browse a new book is the table of contents, the second thing will be the index—not because it provides a list of all the names and places mentioned in the book, but because the hierarchy of its entries and subentries and cross-references provides a snapshot of a book’s issues and trajectories that the contents pages only begin to suggest.

So if a computer is not going to index your book, the question remains whether you will do it yourself or hire an indexer. Having edited countless indexes, I’m in a position to advise you.

  • Indexes can be expensive. If your publisher or institution isn’t paying (check your contract), and you don’t have a spare thousand dollars or so, then the decision is made for you.
  • Many writers who specialize in difficult topics fear that an indexer won’t have sufficient grasp of their material. Good indexers, however, are weirdly able to transcend this difficulty. A nonspecialist indexer can often produce a better index than a brilliant writer who never really understands how to index. So think about whether you are likely to do a good job yourself.
  • If you decide to hire someone, don’t hire just anyone. Ask published writers in your discipline for recommendations and hire a good one. (Tip: Good ones don’t necessarily cost more than bad ones.)
  • If you decide to write your own index, ask your publisher or copy editor for guidelines. The indexing chapter of The Chicago Manual of Style covers the basics in some depth; Nancy C. Mulvaney’s Indexing Books is a classic how-to. And when Part 3 of this post is up, read that.

The American Society for Indexing annually presents the H. W. Wilson Award for Excellence in Indexing. In 2008 judge Janet Russell presented it to Margie Towery for The History of Cartography, Volume 3: The Cartography of the European Renaissance, Parts 1 and 2. The book had 1,903 indexable pages. I was struck by the terms Ms. Russell used to describe the work. “This index is very seductive,” she said. “It draws you in.” When I try to imagine a computer generating an index that seduces, my imagination fails.

In her acceptance speech Ms. Towery spoke of immersing herself in the project, listening to Renaissance music, reading Cervantes, and fantasizing about how she would map her own acreage without the use of modern tools. “Indexers are a lot like cartographers,” she concluded. “Our jobs are about mapping knowledge of some thing in a way that we can move away from it yet find our way back.”

Something Margie Towery didn’t say in her speech was how much wicked fun there is in indexing. (Next week in Part 2.)


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