As I delve more deeply into editorial- and book-related listservs, blogs, and social media sites, I find very little discussion of back-of-the-book indexes. Some inveterate indexers keep in touch with each other, and a few endeavor to keep in touch with other editorial service providers, but almost no one attempts to reach out to what I’ll call “mainstream” readers, writers, and word-folks. The result, of course, is an increasingly common devaluation of this important aspect of written communication. Why?
Having devoted several of my earlier editorial years to compiling indexes, I have my own suspicions. I know a bit about indexes and what kind of people engage in that manner of making a living. So, it’ probably true that certain personality traits common to many index compilers count for something.
Just who does take up the banner of “indexer” and persevere in providing for him/herself and family by compiling these vital tools? I can only base this estimation on myself and the dozen or so other indexers I have known well, and none of us tend toward extroversion. Many have backgrounds in library cataloguing, and both professions have similar attributes: they demand quiet, are concentration-intensive, and seldom are effectively done unless in solitude. One must keep hundreds or thousands of names, terms, and ideas in play for the duration of an index’s preparation. Otherwise, the final product winds up including too many separate terms for the same things.
Such constraints don’t necessarily translate well into social contact. I remember more than one bout of intensive indexing after which quite a bit of time elapsed before I was able to speak intelliglbly. After one such indexing foray, I unconsciously continued to transpose names in conversation:
“Hey, Brian, what was the name of that women you introduced me to last week? You know, with the shoes?”
“Oh,” I answered. “That was 'Marcos comma Imelda'.”
Then, too, a sizable portion of educated, intelligent readers, who habitually rely on indexes for study and research, haven’t a clue about how an index comes into being. They assume that text is simply “plugged in” to some software application, which then magically separates out the concepts, names, and ideas that need to be indexed and appends appropriate page numbers. In my experience, however, a good, reliable—dare I say responsible?—index has yet to be made by a machine. While software certainly is a boon to information management as well as to automating many rote tasks an indexer until fairly recently did by hand (think alphabetizing, sequencing page numbers, manuscript preparation, etc.), a computer does not interpret text in ways that will make the contents of a document readily available to a human reader. Not that long ago, in fact, I too often indulged in self-amusement by reviewing the “terms” that arose from electronically “indexing” brief passages with Microsoft Word. Anything for a laugh!
But finally, I think the principal reason so little attention is paid to indexes and their composition currently stems from the present nature and perception of information (or, call it text, if you prefer). Why use a compiled index when you can perform a quick electronic search for the name or term you need? I frequently make use of Safari Books Online,
a virtual library of (mostly) technical books—software manuals, technical specifications, business guides, and the like. When trying to size up the usefulness of any given publication before deciding to add it to my “bookshelf,” I head to the index to look up specific concepts or terms. Lately, however, almost none of the books I have reviewed have had indexes. Well no wonder, you must think; it’s simpler to perform a search. Not really. If my search is very tightly targeted (e.g., “Marcos, Imelda”), perhaps this is true. But what about something more generic, which could appear in a number of contexts and mean many things (let’s say, “shoes”)? Suddenly, I am wading through dozens upon dozens of hits, of which one or two may be on target. Very frustrating, and a real waste of time.
As the person who commissions editorial service providers to contribute to the production of books, I am very particular about the index. Potential indexers must have the right sort of experience and temperament to work for me. There is no point in launching almost any nonfiction book upon its sea of readers—who will need to be able to use it in myriad ways—without backing them up with a useful index. This is a crucial element, even for books destined for electronic versions. Of course, now it is among the first expenses publishers seem to feel free to cut, often shunting the work off to underpaid (and ill-equipped) editorial assistants. And a poor index is almost as detrimental to a book as none at all, but that’s a subject for another blog.