The Book Index: Why It Matters (To Readers of Civil War Books)

Think back to the last non-fiction Civil War book that you read. How many times did you refer to the index? If you read the book from front to back, the index probably did not factor significantly into your experience. However, if you picked up the book for a quick glance—perhaps to decide whether to buy it—or for research or to check a specific fact, you likely utilized the index quite a bit.

A good index is crucial to the value of a book. It not only includes all of the most important names, places, and events discussed in the text but it also points a reader to nuanced topics about which the book contains longer and more detailed analysis.

Did you ever wonder how a book index is made? Surely it is automatic at this point, right? A computer just spits it out? No, it is still not that easy! There are some programs available for purchase that can help you to identify terms and list their pages, but these programs cannot flesh out the meticulous distinctions that comprise a book like that ones that Civil War readers consume on a regular basis.

Grab James McPherson’s Battle Cry of Freedom off of your bookshelf right now (c’mon, we know you all have it), and open to the index. The version on my bookshelf has an index that is 22 pages long. Organized alphabetically, there are straight-forward entries for names that only appear once, such as “Brough, John, 686.” But skim down the page to the entry for “Buchanan, James.”

McPherson IndexYou’ll notice that there are five page numbers that refer to him in a general way and then 14 subcategories for further exploration. His involvement with things such as the Ostend Manifesto, the Dred Scott case, and Forts Moultrie and Sumter might seem easier to index because they also are proper nouns but other subcategories reveal the thorough work of this indexer; “favors acquisition of Cuba,” “denies the legality of secession,” and “advocates compromise” are only three such examples. A computer program would not be able to tease out those kinds of connections (at least, not yet).

Skim through the rest of the index to notice other entries that are equally as comprehensive: “Elections, U.S.A., presidential” is particularly impressive, as are “New York Tribune,” “Prisoners of war,” and “Slavery.” The “Slavery” category, for example, is comprised mainly of subcategories that were devised by the indexer, including “as a stumbling block to British recognition of Confederacy” and “as issue in Confederate debate over arming blacks.” The time put into this level of analysis is evident and commendable.

Publishers generally offer authors three options regarding their book index: the author can create the index, the author can hire someone directly to create the index, or the publisher will hire someone to create the index and the author will pay that person. Regardless, the burden of the index falls on the author, whether that be time or money. If the author chooses to make the index herself, she clearly knows her book inside and out and can make decisions about how the index should reflect the most important topics of the work. If the author hires out the index creation, she still has extensive input into the process, including suggesting subcategories.

Professional indexers abound and their contact information is found on lists held by the publishers, ready to be doled out to authors who request it. Other indexers work by word of mouth or have their own advertising methods. I decided to enter this world recently and it has a number of rewards. I get to read interesting manuscripts before they are published, create my own schedule, collaborate with fascinating people, learn more about the publishing process, and gain tremendous satisfaction from the detail-oriented nature of the work.

The feedback has been positive so far; historians like that another historian will be doing their index. They believe that my background and experience as a Civil War scholar means that I’ll pick up on precise details in their work. I understand trends and debates in recent literature and I can address the more political nature of what should be in an index – meaning which topics are considered important in today’s discourse. This is especially important when it comes time for book reviews. Reviewers often utilize an index to find a quick reference to something they remember reading but did not jot down, to check for major topics that a book of that nature should contain, and any number of other measurements through which they evaluate the quality of the book. Making sure that an index contains those key phrases and categories is something that requires a deep understanding of the conversations happening in the Civil War world at the moment. An index, just like a book, is usually a product of its time and place.

So, the next time your page proofs arrive and you are asked to check them and create the index all in 3-4 short weeks, consider hiring someone for the index work. Rates are generally about $4 per indexable page (meaning only the text and notes, not back/front matter, acknowledgements, bibliography, etc). The work will be done quickly and efficiently and you will know that the painstaking process of triple-checking every page number was completed by someone else while you focused on starting your next project!

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Julie Mujic can be followed on Twitter at @JulieMujic and reached via email at julieamujic@gmail.com.

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7 Responses to The Book Index: Why It Matters (To Readers of Civil War Books)

  1. Mark Hartshorne says:

    I not only read the index but the source books listings too — that way I can find other materials to read and compare!!

  2. jimrada says:

    While I find indices invaluable (and not just for Civil War books), I don’t think I have the patience to develop one. It’s wonderful that you can and that you like doing it.

  3. Meg Groeling says:

    I use the index & notes sometimes more than the rest of the book, especially if it is past the initial reading. But like the response above, I am not sure I could do one myself. I love process, and I am glad to know more about this one. Thanks.

  4. Rob Wilson says:

    Interesting to read how the sausage is made. I agree with the commenters above: A good index is invaluable. And it’s infuriating to me than when I know something is mentioned in a book that I’ve read, yet I can’t find it in the index.

    • John Foskett says:

      A subset of that problem is when a name is indexed that appears throughout the book and the index shows only page numbers without breaking them down by subject. For example (and I have no specific book in mind) a volume on Gettysburg which lists the page numbers at which “George G. Meade” is mentioned but it’s not broken down by “reacts to Sickles’ maneuver”. “July 2 council of war”, etc.

  5. judi diamond says:

    I’ve been indexing for years, along with other editorial duties that are too painful for writers to generate. I began in the 1970s when a friend of mine typed (remember that?) theses and dissertations for math/physics/chemistry/geology students at USC and hated doing the mathematical equations and indexing. I took that on, bought a used IBM Selectric and earned a decent living until computers made it easy for anyone to do equations. I still do editing and indexing.

    One point in favor of doing at least a first pass yourself, and I tell this to all clients: you will catch errors in your text when you generate an index. Not a single person who followed my advice came out of it with zero mistakes/needed changes. Even though I lose money, your writing will improve if you do indexing yourself, and we all strive to become better writers. Don’t we?

  6. Pingback: ECW Week in Review July 3-9 | Emerging Civil War

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