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The Art of Indexing

A moment of respectful gratitude for the art of indexing and especially professional indexers, from Judy Feldmann, Associate Managing Editor at MIT Press, on this the second National Indexing Day.

“The labour and patience, the judgment and penetration which are required to make a good index is only known to those who have gone through this most painful, but least praised part of a publication.”

—William Oldys, bibliographer

“If you don’t find it in the index, look very carefully through the entire catalogue.”

UnknownSears, Roebuck, and Co. Consumer’s Guide, 1897

Some may think of indexes as dry and dull affairs. But, as one Dr. Allibone put it in his Dictionary of English Literature, “with more truth it may be said that this is the judgment of the idle and the shallow.” In fact, I’ve heard it said that any index should contain a joke—at the root of which is a serpent biting its tail. Consider the entries in Doug Hofstadter’s Le ton beau de Marot. Not only does the index contain “index” as an entry, it goes even more meta: “index: typo in, 631”; on page 631, we find the entry “typo in index, 633 [there is no page 633].” A personal favorite of mine is the index for Nabokov’s Pale Fire: the mystery of the location of the crown jewels is reflected here, with the entry for “crown jewels” leading us to “hiding place,” directing us to “Pataynik,” which points us to the abbreviated “Taynik,” Russian for “hiding place,” which leads us back again to “crown jewels.” And Georges Perec, a self-professed lover of the index, enjoyed himself immensely with his indexes. The index for La vie mode d’emploi (Life A User’s Manual) contains solutions to many riddles that appear throughout the book.

Of course, especially in academic publishing, we want more from indexes than wit and laughs; in today’s deluge of data, the ability to navigate information is more important than ever. We hear a lot about metadata and content, but what we all need is a way to digest and use the information that is all around us, whether in books or on the web. Kudos, and our eternal gratitude, to indexers for taking on this gargantuan task. 

See also

Henry Benjamin Wheatley, How to Make an Index (1902)

Christine Shuttleworth, “Marot, Hofstadter, index,” Indexer 21, no. 1 (1998),…

Bernard Magné and Peter Consenstein, “Georges Perec on the Index,” Yale French Studies, no. 105,