Q: What is an index?
A: There are two internationally-recognized, standard definitions of an index:
- The American National Standard for Library and Information Science and Related Practices--Criteria for Indexes (ANSI Z39.4-1984) defines as index as " . . . [a] systematic guide to terms contained in or concepts derived from a collection. These terms or concepts are represented by entries arranged in a searchable order, such as alphabetical, chronological, or numerical. This order is normally different from that of the items or concepts in the collection itself.
- The British Standards Institution (BS 3700-1988) defines an index as " . . . [a] systematic arrangement of entries designed to enable users [readers] to locate information in a document."
In addition, a more detailed definition of an index is listed by N.C. Mulvaney in the landmark indexing text, Indexing Books. Mulvaney writes: "An index is a structured sequence--resulting from a thorough and complete analysis of the text--of synthesized access points to all the information contained in the text. The structured arrangement of the index enables users [readers] to locate information efficiently [and effectively]. . . . A proper index is an intricate network of [hierarchical] interrelationships."
Q: What is the purpose of an index?
A: The primary purpose of an index is to provide the requisite access to the information contained within a book (or other print or electronic document) for the user (the reader). The British Standards Institution (BS 370-1988) offers a detailed list of purposes, including the following:
- To identify and locate relevant information within the material being indexed.
- To discriminate between information in a subject and a passing mention of a subject.
- To exclude the passing mention of a subject that offers nothing significant to the potential user.
- To analyze concepts treated in the document so as to produce a series of headings based on the document's own terminology.
- To indicate relationships between concepts.
- To group together information on the subjects scattered by the arrangement of the document.
- To synthesize headings and subheadings into entries.
- To direct the user (who is seeking information under terms not chosen for the index headings) to the headings that have been chosen by means of cross references.
- To arrange entries into a systematic and helpful order.
Q: A computer can do the indexing automatically--right?
A: According to L.P. Wyman and L. Harrison, "The short answer is no. Computers can easily construct a concordance (a list of words or phrases and where they appear), but this is not an index, and is not very useful to someone looking for information. The so-called automatic indexing software programs . . . are simply not up to the task of indexing a book. Book indexing involves a little bit of manipulating words appearing in the text, which computers can do, and a lot of understanding and organizing the ideas and information in the text, which computers cannot do and will not do for many years to come. An example of the difference is that a book on protective gloves for occupational use might have a chapter discussing surgical gloves, how they get punctured and how they are tested for integrity, but might never use the word holes. Yet a user of the book would expect to find this word in the index and be directed to the appropriate chapter [or page, etc. where this information appears]. The indexer handles dozens and hundreds of such issues in every book. Where the text is already on computer disk [or other electronic media], the indexing features of word processing programs can easily handle the page numbers and sorting, but the real indexing work is still done by the human. Powerful dedicated [indexing] software is also available . . . to aid the professional indexer in constructing, sorting, editing, and formatting the index, whether from hard-copy text or computer files." That said, even the best indexing software programs cannot create (that is, write) the index--the indexer still creates the index. The software program is merely a tool that allows an index to be created more efficiently, more effectively, with less error, and in a wide-range of electronically-compatible formats. By way of analogy, word processing programs (such as Word or WordPerfect) cannot write a book--the author still creates (that is, writes) the book.
Q: How can I tell a good index from a bad index?
A: There are, of course, both good and bad indexes. The American Society of Indexers' (ASI) Indexing Evaluation Checklist details criteria for evaluating indexes. This Checklist is available on the ASI web site.
Q: What is the real value of an index?
A: The real value of an index is in the access it provides to the information contained in a book or other print or electronic document. The American Society of Indexers (ASI) invites authors, publishers, and booksellers to consider the following:
1. What is the index worth to a book's bottom line:
- In bookstore sales?
- In text adoptions?
- In reviews?
- In staff time?
- In typesetter charges?
2. Who is the best qualified to better that bottom-line with the best possible index?
- The author?
- The computer?
- The professional indexer?
3. What is the value of an index to:
Bookstore buyers and point-of-sale browsers (who may use the index in making purchasing decisions)?
- Educators and institutions (who use indexes in making textbook adoption decisions)?
- Librarians (who use indexes in making acquisition decisions)?
- Reviewers (who use indexes as criteria for thumbs-up/thumbs-down judgments)?
- Publishers' production staff (who need fast turn around on the index to get books into the marketplace)?
- Publishers' typesetters (who need an index that is ready to go without delays)?
Q: Does the indexer really own the index copyright until payment is made for the index?
A: YES! The following court cases (including two U. S. Supreme Court cases) found in favor of the creator/s of indexes:
- 1903: Kipling v. G.P. Putnam Sons (120 F. 631, 635 (2d Cir. 1903)).
- 1977: New York Times v. Rosbury Date Interface, Inc. (424 F. Supp. (D. N. J. 1977)).
- 1989: Community for Creative Non-Violence (CCNV) v. Reid (USSC: No. 88-293).
- 1991: Feist Publications, Inc. v. Rural Telephone Service Co., Inc. (USSC: No. 89-1909).
Q: What sources of information were used to create this FAQ?
A. The following sources have been cited or referred to in the Indexing FAQ:
- American National Standards Institute. 1984. American National Standard for Library and Information Sciences and Related Publishing Practices--Basic Criteria for Indexes (Z39.4-1984). New York: American National Standards Institute.
- American Society of Indexers. 2000. Indexing Evaluation Checklist. Reston, VA: American Society of Indexers. [Also available on the ASI web site.]
- American Society of Indexers. 2001. Especially for Publishers. Reston, VA: American Society of Indexers. [Also available on the ASI web site.]
- British Standard Institution. 1988. British Standard Recommendations for Preparing Indexes for Books, Periodicals and Other Documents (BS 3700-1988). London: British Standards Institution.
- LexisNexis/Reed Elsevier Inc. LexisNexis [database].
- Mulvaney, N.C. 1994. Indexing Books. Chicago: University of Chicago Press.
- Wyman, L.P., and L. Harrison. 2000(?). Can't a Computer Do the Indexing? Reston, VA: American Society of Indexers. [Also available on the ASI web site.]