New Byte the Book member, indexer, editor and Advanced Professional Member of the Society of Indexers Paula Clarke Bain, tells us about the importance of the index and the inaugural National Indexing Day.
The Society of Indexers is celebrating its diamond anniversary in 2017 and has designated Thursday 30 March as the inaugural National Indexing Day, marking 60 years since our formal constitution. Book indexing is an essential but little-understood part of the publishing industry. Who are these indexers and what exactly do we do?
The oldest printed indexes are found in two editions of St Augustine’s De arte praedicandi (‘On the art of preaching’), published in the 1460s soon after the invention of the Gutenberg printing press. Handwritten indexes date back much further. Records from the papal court at Avignon show that by the early 1300s people were being paid to compose indexes. There is further evidence suggesting that the 3000-year-old ancient book of hexagrams I Ching (Book of Changes) from China contains the world’s oldest index. It is an ancient art.
The Society of Indexers, based in Sheffield, currently has about 400 members, working for authors and publishers in more than 100 subjects from accountancy to zoology. We have come a long way from handwritten indexes and the days of filing index cards in shoeboxes. Today’s indexers use sophisticated indexing software to create standalone back-of-the-book indexes or embedded/linked indexes within the main text itself.
In the digital age, indexes are just as essential in ebooks; a full-text search or Ctrl-F cannot think like the reader. A good book index is made neither by magic nor machine; an index is not just an automated alphabetical list of keywords. Computers can’t read, so they can’t index. They don’t cope well with homographs, synonyms or judging between significant and passing mentions of a topic. Context is key; it all depends. Professional book indexers are trained to analyse each text, identify the important concepts and allow for alternative reader approaches. A good index is like a road map back into the main text. A bad index can be less than useless. And a non-fiction book with no index at all is a crying shame.
To help you find the best indexers in the business, the Society of Indexers has an ‘Indexers Available’ online directory which lists approved accredited indexers who have passed its distance-learning ‘Training in Indexing’ course. It also runs local groups, workshops and an annual conference and publishes The Indexer international journal.
There will be much ado about indexing in Oxford this June. As the Society of Indexers finish celebrating our diamond anniversary conference and gala dinner at St Anne’s College on 21 June, index scholars and lovers will gather at the Bodleian Library for a two-day symposium on the Book Index (22–23 June) organised by Dr Dennis Duncan.
We hope that the launch of National Indexing Day on Thursday 30 March will provide a useful opportunity to promote the profession of indexing. We will be encouraging people to share gems of best indexing practice on social media with the hashtag #indexday. Please do join in if you appreciate a good book index. It’s high time for the diamond indexers to shine.
For more information on the Book Index symposium, see https://indexconference.wordpress.com.
To get in touch with Paula Clarke Bain see her details on our Hub.