An American Editor

October 15, 2018

Indexes — Part 5: Names in Indexes

Ælfwine Mischler

A potential client recently asked me what an index is. Does it contain every name and event in a book? How is it different from a concordance?

A concordance maps every occurrence of words in a work or corpus, usually with the surrounding words to provide some context. A concordance might categorize the words by parts of speech (noun, verb, adjective, adverb) or by form (run, running, runny). There are, for example, concordances for the Bible, Shakespeare, Old English literature (which has a limited corpus), and the Qur’an (in Arabic). For most books, though, a concordance is not very useful.

Imagine a book about aardvarks — do you really want to know where every occurrence of the word aardvark is? Wouldn’t you rather want to know where to find information about the diet, habitats, mating habits, diseases, and natural enemies of aardvarks? That is what a well-written index provides. Indexers create entries for the topics discussed in a book and — if they do the job right — break long topics into subentries so readers can easily find what they want. Nobody wants to check all the pages in a long string of page numbers (or other locators) to find particular information.

What about names of people — should every instance of every name appear in an index?

Not usually. A computer-generated index might pick out all the words beginning with a capital letter and index them without differentiating between those that are passing mentions and those attached to substantial information. If a page says that Fay Canoes went with Bob Zurunkel, and that Fay did X, Y, and Z, and Fay said “yadda yadda” and “blah blah blah,” Fay is going to be indexed for that page, but not Bob. He is just a passing mention there. If Fay appears many times in the book, a human-produced index will usually have subentries for Fay, but a computer-generated index will not.

Often, a trade book or one that has limited space for the index will have longer strings of locators — and, thus, fewer subentries — and fewer details in the index.

As I said, usually not every occurrence of every name will appear in the index. There are exceptions, of course, and indexers should anticipate the needs of the reader. For example, in local histories, even passing mentions of every person or place (building, street, town, etc.) should be indexed because they might serve as clues for later researchers. In a handbook of literature, every author’s name might be indexed even if they are only mentioned in passing, but book titles might be indexed only if there is substantial discussion of them. What constitutes “substantial discussion” is sometimes a subjective decision.

Authors used as sources may or may not be indexed, and practice varies from one field to another. In the social sciences, it is common to have a separate name/author index that includes all sources, even if they are named only in parentheses, without subentries. The indexer has to refer to the bibliography to get the first name or initial(s) of authors, so bibliography pages should be counted in the page or word count used for pricing the index.

In other works, sources might be indexed only if there is substantial discussion of their material, or only if the source name appears in the text as opposed to only in a footnote or endnote. Authors and editors should make their expectations clear to the indexer before indexing begins.

Human indexers can decide which names to include in an index. They can also index people with nicknames properly (e.g., recognize that Frank and Buddy are the same person), people whose names have changed over time, and people who are referred to by a title or family relationship. A computer program will not index such people correctly, if at all.

So what goes into an index? That depends on the nature of the book, needs of the reader, practice in a given field, and space available for the index. If you have particular needs or questions, discuss them with your indexer before work begins. If you are the indexer, be sure to have this conversation before you begin the work.

Ælfwine Mischler is an American copyeditor and indexer in Cairo, Egypt, who has been the head copyeditor at a large Islamic website and a senior editor for an EFL textbook publisher. She often edits and indexes books on Islamic studies, Middle East studies, and Egyptology.

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