Where Do Indexes Come From?

by Nina Hoeschele

Published at 2012-04-27

This is not something I ever wondered before working in publishing. In the past, I saw indexes as a minor annoyance, things that ordered me through a series of bothersome page-flips and never seemed to have what I wanted when I needed it. But I never stopped to think how one might be made.

Indexing does not seem like a human process. The end result comes in strange phrasing and lists of numbers, like something generated by a machine.
For me, this idea changed with my first indexing class. But indexing isn't something that most people think about.
Case in point: At one Saturday brunch with my parents I proudly announced that I had just finished my first professional index. This was met with some confusion. I explained, “You know… that thing at the back of the book that tells you where to find stuff.”
My father — a practised devil’s advocate — was quick to launch the cross-examination. “Couldn’t you get a computer to do that?”
I frowned at him. This is like asking an editor why her job can’t be replaced by spell check. “How would a computer do it?”
“It could find all the terms and list the page numbers for them.”
“Oh, great. So you’ll be able to find all eighty thousand instances of the word ‘the.’”
“You could trim down the list afterwards,” my father persisted. “Wouldn’t that be much easier than reading every word yourself?”
It seemed logical enough. And I’m sure this is what I believed in the back of my head before I had a chance to really think about indexing. But as it turns out, there’s very little about indexing that’s mechanical. It’s an extremely subjective and deeply metacognitive process.
Know Your Subject and Your Reader
As an indexer, you’re not just compiling words that appear in a book. You’re refining the book into themes and concepts, then grouping them together. This is why a computer program could never do what an indexer does (not until we have some steep AI advances, at any rate). Context is extremely important when indexing terms, as is a broader understanding of the book as a whole. If you don’t know why a concept is relevant to the overall book, then you certainly won’t know where to put it in the index.
And this leads us to the deeper complexity of indexing: considering the reader.
Earlier I mentioned the frustration of searching an index and not finding what I wanted. Most friends who learn that I am an indexer are quick to bring up their own disappointing experiences. This is a testament to the difficulty of making a good index. Not only must indexers get a sense of the book’s themes and condense them into a short, navigable format, but also they have to predict what people will want to look for. This can make indexing feel like a psychological exercise. Why might someone be reading this? What will they want to find? What words will they have in their heads when they try to find it?
What’s more, when indexing, you have to be specific. If it’s a book about hockey, you can’t just put “hockey” in the index. You’ll end up with a stream of numbers that no reader will want to search. (The reader’s convenience is another guiding concern — if you’re going to make them flip pages, my indexing teacher would remind us, then you’d better make it worth the effort!) You need to unpack terms to their essential components so that the readers' searching work is (mostly) done for them.
When I index, I feel like I’m stretching out my brain — trying to fit the whole book and all of its readers into my head. It’s a tough and absorbing process, but the end product is always deeply satisfying.