What is an index, really?
An index is a systematic arrangement of entries designed to enable users to locate information in a document. Entries consist of important names, concepts, and terms. Entries are ordered and organized differently than in the text but an index is not an outline of the text. A good index reflects the text accurately and anticipates the reader’s viewpoint.
Why can’t a computer do it?
A computer can’t analyze “aboutness.” Computers are (somewhat) useful in creating concordances of words, but not in evaluating text and context. A computer cannot pick just the right term to describe a concept, when the term is never used in the text.
A good index helps users by:
- identifying information a user might look for
- distinguishing substantial information and passing mentions
- providing terminology that may not exist in the text
- analyzing concepts to produce headings
- directing a user, through cross-references, to appropriate terminology and concepts
- grouping together references to the same topic
- organizing entries systematically, e.g., hierarchically, alphabetically
- collecting different ways of wording the same concept
- providing subentries (rather than long strings of unanalyzed page references) to guide researchers directly to a specific aspect of a topic
- retrieving information for review by students
- filtering information for the reader in order to prevent burnout
- facilitating quotation by other authors, by the media, by students, by readers
- anticipating the reader’s viewpoint; that is, entries are worded to be useful to non-experts asking questions or looking for information
- filtering the avalanche of information to reduce overload
- organizing “aboutness” for quick recall
A good index helps publishers, companies, and authors by:
- reducing the number of calls to a support hotline
- ensuring your company’s positive, interactive and ongoing presence on a permanent basis in thousands of customer homes and workplaces at minimal cost to the company.
- permitting a potential buyer to compare books to verify inclusion of secondary topics not mentioned in the chapter headings
- allowing professors to choose textbooks based on whether they or other known experts or researchers in the field are quoted or discussed in the book
- focusing the book’s information gateways to a specific audience
- showing an author’s pride in his or her own work, and a regard for researchers and readers
- determining whether a library purchases the book at all
Thanks to Martha Osgood for her contributions to this information.