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Book design

An index is a list of words or phrases ('headings') and associated pointers ('locators') to where useful material relating to that heading can be found in a document. In a traditional back-of-the-book index the headings will include names of people, places and events, and concepts selected by a person as being relevant and of interest to a possible reader of the book. The pointers are typically page numbers, paragraph numbers or section numbers. In a library catalog the words are authors, titles, subject headings, etc., and the pointers are call numbers. Internet search engines, such as Google, and full text searching help provide access to information but are not as selective as an index, as they provide non-relevant links, and may miss relevant information if it is not phrased in exactly the way they expect.[1]



Indexes are designed to help the reader find information quickly and easily. A complete and truly useful index is not simply a list of the words and phrases used in a publication (which is properly called a concordance), but an organized map of its contents, including cross-references, grouping of like concepts, and other useful intellectual analysis.

Sample back-of-the-book index excerpt:

sage, 41-42. See also Herbs ← directing the reader to related terms
Scarlet Sages. See Salvia coccinea ← redirecting the reader to term used in the text
shade plants ← grouping term (may not appear in the text; may be generated by indexer)
hosta, 93 ← subentries
myrtle, 46
Solomon's seal, 14
sunflower, 47 ← regular entry

In books, indexes are usually placed near the end (this is commonly known as "BoB" or back-of-book indexing). They complement the table of contents by enabling access to information by specific subject, whereas contents listings enable access through broad divisions of the text arranged in the order they occur. It has been remarked that, while "[a]t first glance the driest part of the book, on closer inspection the index may provide both interest and amusement from time to time." [2]

Indexing process


Conventional indexing

The indexer reads through the text, identifying indexable concepts (those for which the text provides useful information and which will be of relevance for the text's readership). The indexer creates index headings, to represent those concepts, which are phrased such that they can be found when in alphabetical order (so 'indexing process' rather than 'how to create an index'). These headings and their associated locators (indicators to position in the text) are entered into specialist indexing software which handles the formatting of the index and facilitates the editing phase. The index is then edited to impose consistency throughout the index.

Indexers must analyze the text to enable presentation of concepts and ideas in the index that may not be named within the text. The index is intended to help the reader, researcher, or information professional, rather than the author, find information, so the professional indexer must act as a liaison between the text and the its ultimate user.

Indexing is often done by freelancers hired by authors, publishers or book packagers. Some publishers and database companies employ indexers.

There are several dedicated, indexing software programs available to assist with the special sorting and copying needs involved in index preparation. The most widely known include Cindex, Macrex, and SkyIndex.

Embedded indexing

Embedded indexing involves including the index headings in the midst of the text itself, but surrounded by codes so that they are not normally displayed. A usable index is then generated automatically from the embedded text using the position of the embedded headings to determine the locators. Thus, when the pagination is changed the index can be regenerated with the new locators.

LaTeX documents support embedded indexes primarily through the makeindex package. Several widely-used XML DTDs, including DocBook and TEI, have elements that allow index creation as part of the document too. StarWriter/ Writer, Microsoft Word, WordPerfect, FrameMaker, and most other Word processor have some facility for embedded indexing as well.

An embedded index requires essentially the same amount of work to create as a conventional static index; however, this work differs slightly in character as the original source files are being edited, which may slow the process or prove distracting. An embedded index saves considerable work if the material will be updated even infrequently.

Index quality

Some principles of good indexing include:[3]

  • Ensure each of your topics/sections includes a variety of relevant index entries; use two or three entries per topic
  • Understand your audience and understand what kind of index entries they're likely to look for
  • Use the same form throughout (singular vs. plural, capitalisation, etc.), using standard indexing conventions

Indexing pitfalls:

  • Significant topics with no index entries at all
  • Indexing 'mere mentions' --- "But John Major was no Winston Churchill..." indexed under 'Churchill, Winston'
  • Circular cross-references: 'Felidae. See Cats' --- 'Cats. See Felidae'
  • References to discussions of a single topic scattered among several main headings: 'Cats, 50-62' --- 'Felidae, 175-183'
  • Inconsistently indexing similar topics
  • Confusing similar names: Henry V of England, Henri V of France
  • Incorrect alphabetization: 'α-Linolenic acid' under 'A' instead of 'L'
  • Inappropriate inversions: 'processors, word' for 'word processors'
  • Inappropriate subheadings: 'processors: food, 213-6; word, 33-7'
  • Computer indexing from section headings: e.g. 'Getting to know your printer' under 'G'

Indexer roles

Some indexers specialize in specific formats, such as scholarly books, microforms, web indexing (the application of a back-of-book-style index to a website or intranet), search engine indexing, database indexing (the application of a pre-defined controlled vocabulary such as MeSH to articles for inclusion in a database), and periodical indexing[4] (indexing of newspapers, journals, magazines).

Some indexers with expertise in controlled vocabularies also work as taxonomists and ontologists.

Some indexers specialize in particular subject areas, such as anthropology, business, computers, economics, education, government documents, history, law, mathematics, medicine, psychology, and technology. An indexer can be found for any subject.

References in popular culture

Kurt Vonnegut's novel Cat's Cradle includes a character who is a professional indexer and believes that "indexing [is] a thing that only the most amateurish author [undertakes] to do for his own book." She claims to be able to read an author's character through the index he created for his own history text, and warns the narrator, an author, "Never index your own book."

Vladimir Nabokov's novel Pale Fire includes a parody of an index, reflecting the insanity of the narrator.


  • ISO 999:1996 Guidelines for the Content, Organization, and Presentation of Indexes (this is also the national standard in the UK, Australia, and New Zealand)


See also


  1. ^ Human or computer produced indexes?
  2. ^ Robert L. Collison, Book Collecting, London, 1957, p. 121.
  3. ^, Creating Online Help (Part 2): Strategies and Implementation
  4. ^ Weaver, Carolyn. "The Gist of Journal Indexing," Key Words 10.1 (Jan./Feb. 2002), 16–22.

Further reading

  • Booth, Pat (2001) Indexing: the manual of good practice (K. G. Saur), ISBN 3-598-11536-9
  • Borko, Harold & Bernier, Charles L. (1978) Indexing concepts and methods, ISBN 0-12-118660-1
  • Browne, Glenda and Jermey, Jon (2007), The Indexing Companion (Cambridge University Press), ISBN 978-0-52168-988-5
  • Mulvany, Nancy (2005) Indexing Books, 2nd ed. (University of Chicago Press) ISBN 0-226-55276-4
  • Smith, Sherry & Kells, Kari (2005) Inside Indexing: the Decision-Making Process (Northwest Indexing Press), ISBN 0-9771035-01
  • Stauber, Do Mi (2004) Facing the Text: Content and Structure in Book Indexing (Cedar Row Press) ISBN 0-9748345-0-5
  • Wellisch, Hans (1995) Indexing from A to Z, 2nd ed. (H. W. Wilson) ISBN 0-8242-0807-2

External links


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