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Indexing, the art of

by Angus Trumble, 30 November 2017

The first index I created was for my first book, and, to my astonishment, that was almost twenty-five years ago. It earned me a certificate of accreditation to the Australian Society of Indexers in Melbourne, which I still cherish. Indexing a book (and even our own annual report) is a wonderfully absorbing task, and nowadays under-appreciated. Not that serious bibliophiles do not appreciate a good index. Rather, it is becoming a widespread misconception, even among some editors and publishers, that somehow keyword searching and computers or even, God forbid, book indexing software, can somehow take the place of an indexer with a brain, a measure of judgment, and a beating heart. This is simply not the case (even though the software can be mighty helpful).

Many concepts, ideas, and themes that recur in a book do so rather subtly, and lurk beneath sentences and in chapters that require deft herding, and considerable discrimination, in the best sense. Indeed they may only swim into particular focus when the indexer has had the good sense to identify and collate them under clear and simple headings: food; Jewry and Jewishness; florists, court; Fashoda Incident (1898); servants, ubiquity of, see also butlers, chauffeurs, valets—whatever. At times, the author is only partly aware of their very existence. This is especially true when the volume contains the work of many hands. If the book is your own, you may only discover the existence of a slender sub-theme or thread worthy of mapping and inclusion when you are actually compiling the index. We all have blind spots, and none is more glaring than our own. And of course complex ideas may evade particular words or even phrases in which they are nevertheless firmly embedded. In other words, there may be no concomitant keyword(s).

The indexer’s art is therefore to join many, sometimes hundreds of dots, mindful that the resulting reference tool may open for potential readers a rewarding vista of possibility. You can never know what people will try to find in an index, but obviously the more and better points of access you create, the wider the vista that will open before them, like a glorious Persian carpet: Tabriz, Kashan, Herat, see also Kerman. I suppose the word create is key here. Book indexing is a deeply creative process, and can even embrace humour. Readers may well turn excitedly to the pages referred to by a single entry that reads “Beaton, Cecil, 65−66” only to discover that Cecil is merely the last word on page 65 and Beaton is the first on page 66. On the whole, indexers do their best to avoid creating wrong impressions but in that example one’s hands were tied.

Admittedly, these days, indexes are inclined to be starchy. I have noticed lately that many indexers loftily declare their firm intention to disregard titles and honorifics when listing names. How foolish! Such an approach would be almost insulting if it flew in the face of Edwardian social usage, for example, whose nuances can be extremely revealing, because naturally “Vincent, Lady Helen (later Viscountess D’Abernon)” floated effortlessly several social notches above “Clarke, Marguerite, Lady,” but not nearly so high as the stratospheric “Gower, Millicent Sutherland-Leveson-, Duchess of Sutherland.”

This is not to exclude the special claims of “Wettach, Charles Adrien, called ‘Grock,’ clown,” or even “‘Toby,’ performing dog,” far from it, but the indexer has a palette and brushes, and would be ill-advised not to resort to them liberally. Such an approach admittedly requires a good number of wordy cross-references such as “Cranborne, Viscountess, see Cecil, Marjorie Olein Gascoyne-, Marchioness of Salisbury,” or “Minto, fourth Earl of, see Kynynmound, Gilbert John Elliot-Murray-, fourth Earl of Minto.” Never mind. It’s worth it. In the end, when the almost defining issue of space raises its ugly head, as it surely must, these things can afford to bite the dust. But, with luck, there will be enough space, so they can stay for the edification of future inquirers into the vanished universe of Edwardian pecking order.

What do you need to be a good indexer? You need time and patience. You need to switch off the media, ignore e-mail, and concentrate for long periods, because you are, in a sense, reading and re-reading the book in question more closely even than the authors. You need a sense of proportion, such that a single passing reference to this or that does not cut the mustard as regards the special form of acknowledgment that is a discrete entry in the index. You need an excellent library of reference books, trustworthy ones—none of this wiki nonsense. You need a good chair, a strong bottom, broad shoulders, and a wide desk. You need to care enough about consistency to be able to render at times vital, last-minute assistance to overworked copyeditors and typesetters, but also to be flexible enough to allow for subtly revealing forms of creative inconsistency within the parameters of the index itself. You need to be a good note-taker, and to have an eye for detail, as microscopic as possible, whilst keeping hold of the larger vista. These are not insignificant skills, and it is a tragedy for this little profession, this calling, that many publishers are no longer in a position to pay fair market rates for the invaluable service an indexer provides.

Some indexes are more helpful than others. Who has not cursed the compiler of an index that contains an entry as completely useless as “Ward, Sir Leslie, 55, 58, 68, 84, 71, 99−101, 123, 140‒1, 186, 188‒9, 191‒3, 195‒6, 200, 253, 298, 315…”? Who, by contrast, has not breathed a sigh of gratitude when given the gift of

Gober, Robert, 1: 116–34 passim, 2: 41, 60; and dioramas, 1: 116, 118, 120–1, 129–31; and paradox, enigma, riddles, 1: 116, 118, 130–1; and Freud, and primal fantasies, 1: 120–1, 122, 128; and enigmatic signifiers, 1: 121–2, 130–1; and the breast, 121–3; and Surrealism, 1: 121–3, 125, 127; ‘traumatic playpens’, 1987, 1: 123–4; questions death, desire and loss, 1: 124; and homosexuality, 1: 124–30; and Roman Catholicism, 1: 124–5; and Duchamp, 1: 122, 125, 127–9; Hal Foster on, 156; Forest Wallpaper, 1991, 1: 115, 119, 126; Untitled, 1991, 1: 115, 119; Untitled, 1991, 1: 120, 122–3; Three Urinals, 1988, 1: 123, 127–8; Double Sink, 1984, 1: 123; Untitled, 1991, 1: 126; Male and Female Genital Wallpaper, 1989, 1: 128; Drain, 1989, 1: 128; Bag of Donuts, 1989, 1: 128; Untitled, 1994–95, 1: 131

In the end, a further factor may strengthen the usefulness of an index: luck. After the job is done, and the index itself is double-checked by the editor, one suddenly becomes aware of arbitrary but stimulating adjacencies, a simple consequence of alphabetical order. Thus:

Gaita, Raymond
George V, King
Giurgola, Aldo
Gladwell, Shaun
Gleeson, James
glossary and abbreviations
Gold, Joyce
Google Cultural Institute
Gorton, Sir John Grey

Wishing you all Christmas, a very Merry!