Secret Society of Indexers Article

Secret Society of Indexers Finds a Home at the Back of the Book

The Register-Guard
February 11, 2001

“Do you have to read the book?” Book indexer Cynthia Landeen says that’s the most common question she’s asked about her work.

“I used to say, ‘I just got a new ergonomic chair and all I have to do is sit on it (the book) for a few days,’ “ she says with a laugh.

But, she adds, you can’t introduce yourself as a book indexer without preparing for the inevitable follow-up questions:

You’re a what?

A book indexer. I write indexes for books.

People actually do that? Not computers?

In fact, indexing is a very human profession. It’s reading on behalf of all those other people who might pick up the book, then anticipating what they’ll need to know and how their brains will seek it out.

An indexer needs to be part etymologist, part archivist, part analyst – with a dash of the poet, too.

THE MECHANICS of writing an index aren’t difficult to explain. The indexer reads the book, decides what needs to be referenced and how to organize that information in order to provide the best access.

“Sometimes indexing is an advanced form of outlining, term selection and fancy cross- referencing,” Landeen says, “and then sometimes it’s a lot more than that. Sometimes you’re taking huge concepts and having to turn them into an access point for the reader” – as in theology books, for example.

For Sherry Smith of Bend, it’s all about the detective work.

“Indexing is often perceived as underlining words in a book,” Smith says. “Often, people wonder why a computer doesn’t do the entire thing. If indexing was this easy, there would be no puzzle aspect and there would be no need for any detective skills.

“However, creating, writing, building an index is like solving a puzzle. I am given pages of text, and from those pages I must develop access routes to the information in the book. There are clues to follow. The author will have terms, names and concepts in her discussion.

“My job is to determine how they relate to one another. Otherwise, the final index is just a list of words.”

Although it doesn’t affect the indexer’s underlying thought processes, new software has lightened the load. With clinks of a mouse, indexers can format and sort entries, alphabetize, even ignore words such as “the” if they choose. The software can sort by Arabic or Roman numerals, format cross-references, even convert the whole thing to the HTML computer language should an Internet version be desired.

Indexers, who work on a free-lance basis, are hired by publishers, who usually send the indexer a final proof of the book to work from. They are paid not by the length of their indexes, but by the number of “indexable” pages they have read to create one. Each project takes roughly one to two weeks.

“We write creative works, copyrighted under creative writing, that aren’t books,” Landeen explains.

A reader may not notice a great index, she says, but they always notice a bad one.

“You’ve probably had this experience yourself. … You can’t find what you need in the index, and you throw the book aside. It makes you really upset, right?”

LANDEEN and Smith belong to a group of local indexers who meet once a month, upstairs at the Fifth Street Public Market, for a peer review session that’s fairly unusual in the field. In a solitary profession, the feedback and fellowship prove helpful, the group’s members say.

They read over one another’s indexes, checking for consistency and ambiguity, offering advice and questioning decisions – yes, without reading the work being indexed. It’s a special knack.

Brand new to indexing, Alisa Macci Berti drove down from Silverton for the group’s January meeting. A former library clerk and insurance agent, the 30-year-old is taking a correspondence course on indexing; she takes notes and asks numerous questions as her work comes under supportive scrutiny.

“Your index says `Clients – see Publishers.’ “ Berti is asked. “Did it talk about publishers and editors as clients?”

“No, it was strictly publishers,” she replies.

“What you could do is under ‘Clients,’ you could double-post it instead of cross-reference, and that way it would be in both places. Under ‘publishers’ it’s expanded, but under clients you could just put the page numbers.”

“Oh, OK,” Berti says, relieved. “That’s why I didn’t double-post it; I thought they had to be exactly the same.”

It is a specialized world.

Later, Smith reassures Berti, “It doesn’t matter which choice you make. Chances are, there’s four right ways to do it.”

Adds Phyllis Linn of Eugene, the group’s organizer, “If you look at most books on the market that weren’t indexed professionally, it doesn’t matter what choice you make; it’ll be a hundred times better than the index would be otherwise.”

Each of the four veteran indexers at the meeting entered this line of work in the last three to five years. Each has come to it along a different career path, with varying areas of expertise.

Smith indexes books in the social sciences: public policy, political science, economics.

Martha Osgood of Eugene, the former owner of a cleaning service, indexes books on the philosophy of religion, genealogy, history and current culture.

Noting that “a well-indexed book enhances its credibility and public acceptance,” Linn prefers indexing books about alternative health, vegetarianism, sustainable building methods and agriculture, organic gardening and spirituality.

“I also enjoy working with books on any topics that challenge or move beyond conventional wisdom, and I index how-to books on any subject,” she adds.

Landeen has been an industrial engineer, and she worked in academia and as a consultant. With five degrees in engineering and the sciences, she gravitates to those areas.

“Anything technical is like second nature,” she says. “What I love and find most challenging is theology. Because it’s conceptual. Because I learn a lot.”

WHY INDEXING? The word “flexibility” comes up a lot. “Mostly, my husband was getting ready to retire, so I wanted a portable business, or one that I could take breaks from without harming it,” Osgood admits.

“If I had a project with a short deadline, I might work 12-hour days,” Linn says, “but I might space such projects so that I had time to do other things in between.”

“When I have a book to index,” Osgood says, “I probably work full time. That includes middle-of-the-night insomnia time.”

But they also have chosen indexing because they possess that certain way of thinking.

“What suits me best is that it requires detail, creativity and working independently,” Berti says.

Adds Linn, with characteristic precision, “I have always liked the process of formulating just the right sentence or phrase to convey an exact meaning or idea. This comes in handy as an indexer.”

Writing an index, Landeen says, “is as if it’s organic. It creates a form.”

It’s a specialty, to be sure. The American Society of Indexers has 950 members. The group’s Pacific Northwest Chapter, of which Smith is the president and Osgood the secretary-treasurer, has 35 members; it’s the national organization’s second-largest chapter.

Membership is voluntary, so some indexers out there belong to neither group. But still, it’s a small field.

And it’s such a specialty, they say, that even publishers may not understand exactly what it is that indexers do. After an indexer assigns the index’s copyright to the publisher, the company can chop it up any way it likes.

As Landeen remembers:

“The publisher calls. `Here’s what happened to your index. We showed it to the author, who decided that he wanted every single name throughout the book added. So he had his graduate student add the names, which made it too long.’

“So then they decided to take entries out, and collapse things, and make things different than they were.

“It was the hardest book that personally I’d ever done,” she recalls, “and the index has been completely violated.”

That turn of events is why the lack of credit – you never see the words “index by” – isn’t always a bad thing.

“Sometimes indexers can feel beleaguered,” Landeen admits, “because the author expresses appreciation for the family dog more often than he expresses appreciation for the indexer, who has provided access to all the information in the book.”

“But you know what?” Smith counters. “I don’t feel beleaguered, and I don’t feel unappreciated. I have good relationships with my publishers and with my authors. … I feel more than rewarded by the amount of attention that I get when people say, ‘You do what?’ “

Actually, Landeen says, “I don’t know an indexer who is not completely thrilled to do what he or she is doing. … We are people who found a fit for ourselves, later in life, and that for the most part, when we found it, it was the most wonderful place for us to be.”

Text from the original article published by the Register Guard. Photographs were unavaible 8/21/02.