U.S. Intellectual History Blog

Doing an index: it’s important but still a drag

I am in the midst of doing the index for the book you see to the left. The book is due to appear in the summer of 2012, but the index needs to be done a bit sooner–in two weeks. I am reading through the page proofs just now, looking for any errors and assembling the index as I go.

This is not the first time I’ve done an index but each time I set to work on one I have a fantasy of handing off the job to someone else. And then a little voice enters my mind.
Actually, the little voice is Jeffrey Herf, the very good modern European historian at University Maryland, who was a mentor of sorts to me when he was at Ohio University in the late 1990s. At the time, I had just finished my doctorate and had received a contract from the University Press of Kentucky for my first book, It’s Only a Movie. I had to do my first index and Jeff told me that no one other than the writer should do an index, though almost every professor I had at that time had long given that task to someone else.
One of my colleagues had a girlfriend who had become a professional editor and indexer. She offered to help me with the mechanics of indexing and when I asked how much she charged for doing this stuff, the figure was not unreasonable but would have pretty much absorbed the modest advance I received for the book–and I wanted that advance to buy the computer that would help me write a new and, of course, truly great book. Funny, the computer I bought did not have a key to help that process along.
And so, I am doing my index, and once again wringing my hands over how to list a term such as “civil religion” which is the subtitle of the book and in some ways on every single page. I wonder how far to divide up a term like this, and whether I should get a bit creative and use a term that might not appear a great deal in the book but that covers the points I make nonetheless. I know I must go beyond the obvious personal names, places, and terms, but I always deliberate over the threshold that needs to be met for inclusion in the index.
For example, if a person appears in the book but is simply part of a list of names to illustrate a larger point, should I include the names on that list, or just the term associated with the point? The publisher of this book, Rutgers University Press, has given me guidance, of course, but I am still the author of both the book and the index and can make some decisions that emphasize aspects of my work in ways that no one else really can. That was Jeff’s point. And while I will not give the task of indexing to anyone else (at least for now…) I am curious what other writers use for guidance as they consider an index. I like looking at indexes when I am sizing up a book; I understand how important it is to do this well.
What makes a good index?

4 Thoughts on this Post

  1. “I like looking at indexes when I am sizing up a book; I understand how important it is to do this well.”

    I think that about sums it up. If you find an index in a book and you think, “That’s how I’d like my index to be,” well, there you go.

    What I like are indexes that take an entry and then break it down according to how it shows up in the book. Take John Locke. Sixty page numbers listed after his name helps no one. But one that has sub-entries on “and toleration,” “and Earl of Shaftesbury,” and “activities in Netherlands” is very helpful. Doing it that way actually tells you something about what’s going on in the book.

    Overall, though, the best advice seems to be what you already have given yourself about using the ones you found most helpful and useful as your guides.

  2. On a related note, how are you actually making the index? Are you using Word (or whatever word processor you used) or a specific indexing program?

  3. Hi Varad:

    Just using Word. And you’re right that using other good indexes helps, but I’m wondering about general approaches that people take when doing these things. For me, it is almost easier to identify those indexes that are useless than to identify what in particular makes a really strong index.

  4. Making an index is a monumental task; I just completed my first index two months ago. I still don’t know what makes a great index, but I will say that when I was speaking with a non-academic (my mother, to be precise) about it, she said that it sounded a bit like the skeleton of the book. I responded (after some thought) that I actually believed it was more like an X-ray of the book. By looking at the index, you should get a pretty good idea of what is in it–important people, events, main themes and topics. Reading the index is not a substitute for a thorough reading–autopsy? dissection? not sure of the proper metaphor–but it is a good start. I know from experience that I have bought books simply because the right terms were in the index, or not bought a book because there were very few significant terms in the index.

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