The joy – and importance – of the analytical index

Not long ago, a learned society of which I am a council member made the decision to stop commissioning an analytical index for volumes of the journal it published. Up to that point, every year an index had gone out to institutional and individual subscribers, which libraries bound together with the journal numbers for that year. The indexing was dropped on the grounds that barely anyone bothered to bind a volume of the journal anymore, but more importantly because the journal was now being uploaded to electronic repositories. It was here that most scholars would encounter it, and it would of course be electronically searchable. What need is there for analytical indexes in a digital age?

I have written ten indexes so far, all for my own books, and each time I have enjoyed it more. Compiling the initial list of terms for an index is a very valuable editorial exercise, since it immediately brings to light any areas of vagueness within the text and is a good way of checking consistency and accuracy in use of terms. I always compile this list before sending the final manuscript to a publisher. In fact, I would go so far as to say that compiling an index is an integral part of the process of writing an academic monograph in the humanities – which is why I have always refused the assistance of an external indexer, even when publishers have offered it. Indexing compels an author to adopt an Aristotelian approach to the subject matter, dividing it logically beneath headings and subheadings, avoiding unnecessary complexity but mindful always of who is most likely to read the book and what they are most likely to look up in the index. Indexing forces the author to think of his or her audience, which is another reason why it is an integral part of writing. More than once, the indexing process has caused me to go back and make changes to the structure of a book.

The mystical author Arthur Machen (1863-1947), who was compelled to take all sorts of poorly paid editorial jobs to fund his writing, had a low opinion of indexing: ‘Indexing is a horrible job; a weariness, a nuisance; a matter of covering the table with innumerable little slips of paper that flow over on to the floor; and one must be careful, and accurate, and I have always hated being careful and accurate – unless I happen to be interested in what I am doing (Things Near and Far (2015), p. 73).’ This may well have been the case in the nineteenth century, but we live in an age when indexing has never been less messy. I personally find that I cannot index properly without using paper; when PDF proofs come back from a publisher, I will start filling the page numbers in my pre-prepared index list, but I find it easier to keep track of them by writing them down on paper. Other indexers may use other methods but this works for me. Indexing is hard, but then so is research and writing – and I can honestly say that I now look forward to the indexing process and enjoy it as much as writing.

There are innumerable reasons why an analytical index is vastly superior to electronically searchable text, and I cannot cover them all. A human indexer takes note of places in the text where a theme is covered but the actual words associated with that theme do not occur. An indexer will spot where a synonym is used, and reference this in the index. And, crucially for monographs on early modern and medieval history including direct quotations in Middle English, an indexer will take note of variant spellings – something a searchable database cannot do. Indexes also have a role to play within electronic databases; if the index is scanned along with the text itself, then a search will throw up the term in the index, which will inform a scholar of places where something is covered that a brute-force search alone does not throw up. For this reason, it is just as important for e-books to be indexed as print copies.

It now seems to me that there is nothing sadder than an unindexed book – indeed, if a book is worthy of an index and does not have one, I feel a pang of desire to provide it with this final and most important adornment of scholarship. I have found it invariably true that the quality of an index indicates the quality of a book, and I know that academic librarians often decide whether a book will go on open shelves or be consigned to the stacks on the basis of whether it has an index and other critical apparatus. There are no technological shortcuts that can be a substitute for a properly written index; I suspect there never will be, because indexing is integral to writing and is indispensable to ensuring a book is logically structured and useful to scholars.

Let’s hear it for the index, and for the indexers!

2 replies on “The joy – and importance – of the analytical index”

Thank you for your wise and humane thoughts. I post as a professional writer and accredited indexer.

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