Is Indexing an Art or a Science? | Lex Academic Blog

As any author who has tried to compile their own index will tell you, it’s easy to underestimate the sheer amount of skill, knowledge and effort that goes into creating a first-class index. The work of an experienced, talented indexer, in fact, combines a rigorous and methodical approach with a nuanced understanding of how to make a text more accessible to readers, no matter what the subject matter. In this sense, then, one can definitely state that, like so many of the finer things in life, indexing is both an art and a science.

If, however, one wanted to make a case for indexing being exclusively one or the other, one could find plenty of ammunition on either side. As the Society of Indexers puts it, ‘the skill of indexing lies in analysing the document, identifying indexable terms and concepts, and creating appropriate headings,’ which all sounds strikingly scientific. It’s true, moreover, that indexing involves a range of mechanical tasks (which are often completed using specialised software), and that there are certain elements that all professional indexes will include. This means that every indexer worth their salt will arrange an index in alphabetical order; will eliminate duplicate entries and combine similar ones; will list entry page numbers in numerical order; will use sub-categories and cross-referencing; and will be scrupulously consistent throughout.

On the other hand, an index is much more than an alphabetised list of words. This becomes apparent when, for example, one tries to use full-text searches in place of a well-conceived index. However diligently such searches are performed, they cannot distinguish between homographs, pick up on synonyms, or understand the difference between significant and trivial references to a topic, nor can they deal with inferences or images. This means that they leave a reader uncertain as to whether the information that they have provided is relevant and/or complete. In other words, whilst artificial intelligence has many functions, it’s no substitute for judgement, experience, and a flair for understanding how to help a reader engage with a text. A really skilled indexer will be capable of working with a wide range of documents – including academic monographs, legal and medical texts, general non-fiction, and textbooks – and will be able to anticipate how readers will use them, what entry points are suitable for each audience, and how to lead them to each pertinent use of a particular term. This includes making decisions on the appropriate style and length for each index, and ensuring maximum user-friendliness throughout. It’s worth bearing in mind, too, that a book’s index is often the first part of a text that readers see, given that potential readers, librarians, lecturers and reviewers may all head straight to the index to ascertain whether a book merits their attention.

It’s often said that a good index is like a map, telling the reader what lies ahead and how to get there. This is an apt analogy for our argument here since, whilst drawing a map is an unquestionably scientific endeavour, the result can also be a thing of beauty.