About indexing — A few notes by a novice indexer

Last year I had an opportunity to create indexes to a couple of books I was initially commissioned to edit. I enjoyed indexing, so I added it to my professional development goals for this year. I started with an Indexing basics workshop run by the Society of Indexers (SI), and now I’m  the Society’s member towards becoming an accredited indexer.

In this post, I want to discuss a few issues surrounding indexing books close to my heart:

  • what do indexing and copyediting have in common?
  • why do we still need human indexers?
  • are content lists sufficient indicators the users can use to find the information they seek from the text?

But first, let us briefly consider what indexes are, what purpose they serve and how they fulfil their mandate.

A word about indexes

Although everyone who has ever held an academic, professional or other non-fiction book in their hand will be, at least vaguely, familiar with the concept of an index, defined by the Oxford Dictionary as ‘an alphabetical list, placed (usually) at the end of a book, of the names, subjects, etc., occurring in it, with indication of the places in which they appear.’

But there is another meaning of the word, defined by the dictionary as ‘that which serves to direct or point to a particular fact or conclusion; a guiding principle.’

Albeit more abstract, I like this definition more because an index does serve to point the reader (called in indexing a user) to the information they seek in the text. And so, how do indexes do that exactly?

A user-friendly index:

  • ensures that as much information as possible is easily retrievable by the index user regardless of their varying levels of knowledge of the subject and familiarity with the text,
  • permits access to information via a variety of entry routes,
  • is consistent in language, detail, style and layout.
  • reflects an easily recognisable organisation pattern.

Indexing vs copyediting

The more I learn about the art of indexing, the more it makes me realise the indexers’ duty of care is foremost to the reader, just as it is with editing and proofreading, albeit in different ways. While copyeditors strive to ensure the text language and presentation are consistent and grammatically correct so that the information conveyed by the text is comprehensible to the reader of the text.

On the other hand, indexers provide access to this information by creating structured lists of direct and implied concepts covered in the text, essentially gathering and organising scattered information. The indexers must be able to imagine how the user might go about finding the desired information, considering the terms that will come to the user most naturally and their synonyms. (A side note — I have never realised that empathy is a desired characteristic in an indexer). Furthermore, another way in which indexers consider users’ needs and interests is by creating cross-references to topics related to the sought terms that may also be of interest to the user. It seems that indexers, by virtue of what they do for the readers, are kind and caring.

Human indexing vs automation

Unavoidably, the question of, in the era of modern technology and automation, do we still need (human) indexers? Unequivocally — YES. There is a vast list of operations that an indexer will do to create the most user-friendly index, which is simply impossible to achieve by any automated process. These operations are based on the indexers’ knowledge of the subject, intelligence, empathy and analytical skills. In contrast to software, a human indexer can, among others:

  • provide alternative access to terms for users (by providing see cross-references or creating a double entry to synonymous terms),
  • recognise relationships with other topics (by providing appropriate see also cross-references to inform the user of these related terms),
  • identify implied concepts that are referred to in the text but not named directly,
  • distinguish between homographs (words that look the same but have different meanings), e.g. China (country)/china (pottery),
  • distinguish between important information and minor or irrelevant references (known as passing references),
  • acknowledge references to variant word forms (e.g. plural forms or alternative spellings),
  • point the reader to the information contained in images or other visuals.

For instance, the fifth edition of the SI training course sums up the superiority of human indexing as follows:

‘There is no substitute for intelligent analytical indexing by a human indexer who has analysed the text in detail, identified the concepts discussed, recognized the inherent relationships between topics, anticipated the alternative approaches that might be made by users, provided pertinent entries with helpful modifiers and subheadings, and organized the whole into an efficacious arrangement so that the user can easily scan entries to find what they need.’

Furthermore, indexers, as they anticipate the needs of readers, also take into account their varying characteristics and skills, including:

  • education, age and occupation,
  • familiarity with document use,
  • knowledge of the subject,
  • language competence,
  • literacy and digital literacy level,
  • vocabulary range.

Only when accounting for these elements characterising the intended user of an index, can the indexer create an appropriate index in terms of style, language, coverage and layout. At the same time, they remain inconceivable for an automated indexing process.

Index vs list of contents

Finally, why do we need indexes if books (and other documents) usually have lists of contents? Indeed, these also count as organised lists of the information conveyed by the text. Well — yes and no. The contents list only provides an insight into the high-level organisation of the text, the chronology of the topics discussed giving the reader only a broad indication of the contents. Depending solely on the list of contents to find the needed information may resemble more a lucky dip or a guessing game rather than an organised search. This is why an index is necessary since it rearranges the information present in the text giving the reader easy access to every worthwhile topic and term.


In sum, we need indexes created by (human) indexers to continue providing user-friendly access to information in the materials we publish. Contact me to ensure your index does precisely that.

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I am an editor, indexer and a lifelong lover of literature with a PhD in literary history. I am an Intermediate Member of the Chartered Institute of Editing and Proofreading (CIEP), a student member of the Society of Indexers and a vetted partner of the Alliance of Independent Authors (ALLi).