Index (publishing)

This article is part of the series on:

Book design

  • General page layout and typography choices
  • Front and back covers
  • Endpapers
  • Front matter
    • Front cover
    • Half title or Bastard title
    • Frontispiece
    • Title page
    • Edition notice
    • Table of contents
    • List of figures
    • List of tables
    • Foreword
    • Preface
    • Acknowledgments
    • Introduction
    • Dedication
    • Prologue
  • Body matter, which may include:
    • Parts
    • Chapters
  • Back matter
    • Epilogue
    • Extro/Outro
    • Afterword
    • Conclusion
    • Postscript
    • Appendix/Addendum
    • Glossary
    • Bibliography
    • Index
    • Colophon

An index is a guide, in an electronic or print form, used to locate information in documents, files, publications, or a group of publications. It is often listed in alphabetical or numerical order, arranged by subjects, authors, titles, and types of publications.

The traditional back-of-the-book index is a list of words that point to where those words can be found in a document. The words or phrases are selected by an indexer and the pointers are page numbers, paragraphs, or section numbers.


The Periodical index is a guide used to locate articles in periodicals such as journals, magazines, and newspapers. A Search engine is a web based index.


An index is designed to help the reader find information quickly and easily. A complete and truly useful index is not simply a list of the words and phrases used in a publication (which is properly called a concordance), but it is an organized map of its contents, including cross-references, grouping of like concepts, and other useful intellectual analysis.

Sample back-of-the-book index excerpt:

sage, 41-42. See also Herbs ← directing the reader to related terms
Scarlet Sages. See Salvia coccinea ← redirecting the reader to term used in the text
shade plants ← grouping term (may not appear in the text; may be generated by indexer)
hosta, 93 ← subentries
myrtle, 46
Solomon's seal, 14
sunflower, 47 ← regular entry

In books, an index is usually placed near the end (this is commonly known as "BoB" or back-of-book indexing). They complement the table of contents by enabling access to information by specific subject, whereas contents listings enable access through broad divisions of the text arranged in the order they occur.

Types of index

There are several types of index. Back-of-the-book index indicates pages, sections, chapters, a listed word (subject, name, title) appear or is explained in the book. Sub-entries and cross references are sometimes provided to the listed term.

A periodical index is an index for articles of periodical literature such as journals, magazines, and newspapers.

A citation index is an index of citations between publications, allowing the user to easily establish which later documents cite which earlier documents. The Impact factor, often abbreviated IF, is a measure of the citations to science and social science journals. It is frequently used as a proxy for the importance of a journal to its field.

Elements of Subject Indexing

Subject indexing involves two steps.[1]

  1. Conceptual analysis
  2. Translation

To maintain a consistency of indexing, a set of indexing rules and guidelines can be established prior to indexing.

Conceptual analysis

An indexer first analyzes what a document is about. An indexer identifies the range and scope of coverage, perspectives, types of research, disciplinary areas, and other specific information the document provides. The level of indexing specificity and other details of indexing are determined primarily by user group needs. If a user group is a specialist in a certain field, indexer needs to tailor index to their specific needs.


After a conceptual analysis, an indexer translates his or her conceptual analysis to index terms. Conversion of conceptual analysis into index terms is called translation. There are basically two methods of translation: Derivative Indexing and Assignment Indexing.[2] These two methods are distinguished by a difference concerning how and where index terms are obtained.

  • Derivative Indexing

An indexer finds terms or phrases used in the document and extracts them as index terms. An indexer often extracts words or phrases from the title, abstract, and a table of contents.

  • Assignment Indexing

For this type of indexing, an indexer selects index terms not from the documents but from controlled vocabularies which are a set of preselected, predefined terms. Those index terms may or may not appear in any part of the document. A collection of controlled vocabularies is called thesaurus in information science.

Other principles of indexing

One of the most important principles of indexing is specificity of index terms. An indexer uses the most specific terms that can cover the topic. Rather than a single broad term, an indexer uses several specific terms that can exhaustively cover the topic.

Another important principle of indexing is to give multiple access points to the information. A retrieval rate of a document increases if it can be found from multiple indexed topics.

Indexing process in practice

Process of indexing

The indexing process usually begins with a reading of the text, during which indexable (significant) concepts are identified and the terms to be used to represent those concepts are selected and sometimes marked (e.g. with a highlighter), or more likely, entered into a professional indexing software program. The indexer may make a second pass through the text during which he or she enters the terms into an index document, creating subentries where appropriate. Professional indexing software handles such tasks as formatting the index and arranging the entries into alphabetical order. The final task involves editing to improve consistency, accuracy, and usefulness, and to ensure it follows publisher's guidelines.

Indexers must analyze the text to enable presentation of concepts and ideas in the index that may not be named within the text. The index is meant to help the reader, researcher, or information professional, not the author, find information, so the professional indexer must act as a liaison between the text and the its ultimate user.

Indexing is often done by freelancers hired by publishers or book packagers. Some publishers and database companies employ indexers.

Indexing software

There are indexing software programs available to assist with the special sorting and copying needs involved in index preparation. They include Cindex, Macrex, and SkyIndex.

An increasing interest in the use of electronic documents has led to the development of embedded indexing, where index terms are inserted into appropriate places in one or more source documents using some kind of markup language. An accurate, sorted list of these marked index terms ("index entries") can then be generated dynamically from the source document(s) at any time. This is a standard, yet little known, feature of many popular word processing programs such as Microsoft Word, StarWriter/ Writer, and WordPerfect.

Index quality

Everyone has experienced a bad index; it's almost worse than no index at all. Some principles of good indexing include:[3]

  • Ensure each of your topics/sections includes a variety of relevant index entries; use two or three entries per topic
  • Analyze your audience and understand what kind of index entries they're likely to look for
  • Use the same form throughout (singular vs. plural, capitalization, etc), preferably using standard indexing conventions
  • One grouping approach uses nouns as the first level entries with verbs as the second level

Indexing pitfalls:

  • Topics with no index entries at all
  • Duplicate entries under different names (ie. "word processors" and "processors, word"). This is a problem only if entries are inconsistent, e.g., contain different locators. However, the process of double-posting entries under one or more terms can help users find the information, since they may very well use a term different from that used in the text.
  • Inconsistently indexing similar topics

Indexer roles

Some indexers specialize in specific formats such as scholarly books, microforms, web indexing (the application of a back-of-book-style index to a website or intranet), search engine indexing, database indexing (the application of a pre-defined controlled vocabulary such as MeSH to articles for inclusion in a database), periodical indexing (indexing of newspapers, journals, magazines).

With their expertise in controlled vocabularies, some indexers also works as taxonomists and ontologists.

Some indexers specialize in particular subject areas, such as anthropology, business, computers, economics, education, government documents, history, law, mathematics, medicine, psychology, and technology.

References in Popular Culture

Kurt Vonnegut's novel Cat's Cradle includes a character who is a professional indexer and believes that "indexing [is] a thing that only the most amateurish author [undertakes] to do for his own book." She claims to be able to read an author's character through the index he created for his own history text, and warns the narrator, an author, "Never index your own book."


  • ISO 999:1996 Guidelines for the Content, Organization, and Presentation of Indexes (this is also the national standard in the UK, Australia, and New Zealand)


  • Indexing Society of Canada
  • American Society for Indexing
  • Australian and New Zealand Society of Indexers
  • British Society of Indexers
  • China Society of Indexers

See also


  1. Wilfrid F. Lancaster, Indexing and Abstracting in Theory and Practice, p. 8.
  2. Wilfrid F. Lancaster, Indexing and Abstracting in Theory and Practice, p. 13.
  3. Creating Online Help (Part 2): Strategies and Implementation, Adobe Systems Incorporated. Retrieved April 24, 2008.


  • Booth, Pat F. Indexing: The Manual of Good Practice. München: K.G. Saur, 2001. ISBN 3-598-11536-9
  • Browne, Glenda, and Jon Jermey. The Indexing Companion. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 2007. ISBN 9780521689885 ISBN 0521689880
  • Lancaster, F. Wilfrid. Indexing and Abstracting in Theory and Practice. Champaign, Ill: University of Illinois, Graduate School of Library and Information Science, 1991. ISBN 878450831 ISBN 9780878450831
  • Mulvany, Nancy C. Indexing Books. Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 2005. ISBN 0226552764 ISBN 9780226552767
  • Smith, Sherry L., and Kari J. Kells. Inside Indexing: The Decision-Making Process. United States: Northwest Indexing Press, 2005. ISBN 0-9771035-01
  • Stauber, Do Mi. Facing the Text: Content and Structure in Book Indexing. Eugene, Or: Cedar Row Press, 2004. ISBN 0-9748345-0-5
  • Wellisch, Hans H. Indexing from A to Z. New York: H.W. Wilson, 1995. ISBN 082420882X ISBN 9780824208820

External links

All links retrieved February 28, 2018.


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