MiddleoftheNight Editorial Services

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Indexing: What is it?

Back-of-the-book indexing is a "painstaking intellectual labor," as the current 16th edition of the Chicago Manual of Style describes it, that enables a reader to efficiently locate information in a book. The work consists of analyzing a book for its central ideas and gathering this thematic structure into key terms called entries and subentries (or headings and subheadings). These entries are alphabetically sorted, then thoughtfully arranged, cross-referenced with related terms, and assigned page numbers, called locators, corresponding to their locations in the book.

Why are book indexes important?

The ready retrieval of information is essential in our Information Age. A book that is well indexed is easily searchable for its central themes, rendering its important information at our fingertips. A book becomes accessible through its index, whether one is lightly perusing its contents when deciding to buy in a bookstore, searching inside an enticing book on Amazon, or zooming in for closer study. As indexing master Nancy Mulvany has written in Indexing Books:

Neil Larson said that “indexing is adding value that never existed in the original material.” That is the magic of an index. The index goes beyond the words in a text. It provides a gateway to ideas and information that is accessible to others. An index, whether it appears in the back of a book or on a Web site, is a knowledge structure. Access to information is the added value the indexer brings to the material.

Indexing services: What we can do.

Addressing the question of who should index a work, Chicago observes:

The ideal indexer sees the work as a whole, understands the emphasis of the various parts and their relation to the whole, and knows—or guesses—what readers of the particular work are likely to look for and what headings they will think of. The indexer should be widely read, scrupulous in handling detail, analytically minded, well acquainted with publishing practices, and capable of meeting almost impossible deadlines. Although authors know better than anyone else their subject matter and the audience to whom the work is addressed, not all can look at their work through the eyes of a potential reader.

MiddleoftheNight provides such professional indexing services. Working from paginated page proofs (that is, only after a book's pagination is finalized) and using stand-alone indexing software (SKY) to produce a final RTF file (standard practice), we generally require about three weeks to produce a well-written and thorough index, possibly longer if separate subject and author indexes are sought.

Do Mi Stauber's classic, award-winning book (earning the prestigious 2007 Wilson Award for Excellence in Indexing) on the art of indexing, Facing the Text: Content and Structure in Book Indexing, closely guides our work. (EKM has engaged in numerous hour-long phone consultations with mentor Do Mi to gain her expertise on particularly challenging indexing projects.) Everyone has experienced the annoyance in consulting poorly constructed indexes of having to look up a dauntingly large number of page numbers for which no description is given (known as a string of undifferentiated page locators). We "spare readers unnecessary excursions" (Chicago) blindly chasing a subject throughout a text by breaking down main entries with five or more locators into descriptive subentries, whose occurrences in the book can then be knowledgeably tracked down—or not.

We follow a client's house style for the numerous formatting decisions in an index or, in the absence of such specifications, abide by the guidelines in Chicago's chapter on indexing.

As Hazel K. Bell writes in "Viva la différence! The survival of the softest," there is a need in our present age to "isolate indexing from cataloguing and classification, information science and even bibliographical work": "Squeezed into a corner remains a group of those 'genuine freelance non-librarian book indexers'. " MiddleoftheNight Editorial Services is allied with this smaller group of back-of-the-book, extra-disciplinary indexers who index primarily for individual readers rather than for impersonal databases, focusing on works in the humanities rather than on technical specialties.

Check out screen shots of a few sample indexes for a work of literary criticism, for a subject index on cognitive psychology, and for a names index on cognitive psychology. Full sample indexes are available upon request. Email EKM here and please specify whether electronic document or hard copy is preferred.

Indexing guidelines

  • A good index reflects a book's language and tone while also taking care to be reader-centric.
  • Avoid undifferentiated locators (more than five or six page numbers) by breaking down such a main entry into descriptive subentries
  • Unless instructed otherwise by house style, we follow the good indexing practices suggested by the Chicago Manual of Style's chapter on indexing.
  • Blind cross-references (see references that lead only to another see reference) are a bad joke!