Interviews With Indexers

Hi, everyone! Continuing last column’s discussion of the history of indexing, I have found that these days there are almost as many methods of index creation as there are indexers! At this point I felt like my book research could only take me so far, so I decided to interview a few longtime indexers to get some anecdotes on the topic. Mike Bennett, Ellen Chapman, Linda Hallinger, Pam Rider, Barbara Roos and Kamm Schreiner come from a variety of backgrounds and I learned a lot from speaking with them!

Shoshana: Hi, everyone! So, when did you all start indexing? What technologies were available at the time?

Pam: I began indexing as the sole production/editorial staff of a small academic publishing company. Eventually, a title arrived that the authors did not wish to index. The CEO (owner) just kept saying, “Pam will do the index.” And I kept saying, “There are professional indexers who do that.” Of course, my boss won. Even though we followed APA style, Chicago was a backup source. Even in the early 1980s, there was a major indexing section. I also did my first index based on preferences as a devoted index user. No one had to tell me not to have a long string of undifferentiated locators. “Techology” was electric typewriters and index cards. Like today, mental processes and human evaluation were really the most important aspects of creating indexes.

Linda: I started filing slips for my mom in the 1960s, but I did not begin indexing on a full-time basis until 1977. We used regular-sized sheets of paper (8.5 x 11) that had perforations that divided the page into 10 sections. We would type each entry into its own section. At the end of the day we would then have to separate the sections and begin to file them. We used to use soda cartons that held 24 bottles as our filing assistant. Growing up, filing those slips was my first job, paying 1 cent per inch of slips that I filed, generally down to the third letter. Then, once the slips were completely filed, the whole index had to be retyped. My best typing speed at that was about 100 pages a day, so I could spend most of a week on a long index—and then we just put the index pages into the mail. I guess things were working on a different time frame, but at least there were not so many of those frustrating last-minute revisions. Our technologies consisted of our IBM typewriters (although I did do a couple of years of indexing on a manual typewriter too), perforated indexing paper, soda boxes with 24 divisions for filing (a couple had to get doubled up), and assorted boxes for holding the slips of paper. We made the transition to computers and CINDEX software in 1991. Our mother-daughter collaboration continued for nearly 30 years, until my mom retired from indexing after 62 years and I took over the business.

Mike: Reminds me of my index training in about the same period on a publisher's indexing staff. We dictated our lines on dictabelt machines. The typist pool ("the girls") typed them on specially-ordered heavy paper that fed into the typewriters from a roll. The paper was perforated at about 4” intervals. Another department separated and alphabetized the slips and they were returned to us for revision. Sometime in the mid-‘70s this operation was revolutionized. (It was about the same time that computers replaced the linotype machines.) Our dictation was "inputted" by special IBM terminals, and sent to an outside vendor for sorting. It was returned to us as a "printout". We "marked up" changes which somebody else transferred to the IBM data. Seemed pretty snazzy at the time.

Ellen: In 1968 part of my first professional librarian job was to index periodicals for a quarterly bibliography. We used pre-printed index cards, filled in the info by hand and alphabetized the cards each day. A typist merged the cards from several librarians each quarter and typed it all onto master sheets that were photo-reproduced for the publication. In 1991-92 when laptops were beyond my budget, I lived in a developing country with erratic electricity. I indexed a year's worth of a newspaper on microfilm, using a hand-crank portable microfilm reader (when the electricity was on). Suitcase space was tight, so I brought 3x5 notepads of thin paper and used both sides for handwritten indexing. Tedious, but there was not much else to do there. Also tedious was keyboarding the thousands of entries to produce the index when I returned to the U.S.

Shoshana: How did the popularity of typewriters/word processors/computers/the Internet change the way you index, including average time worked on each project and editing your indexes? How about the advent of indexing software programs?

Linda: As an example of the slower pre-computer pace, we used to have editors write us letters, asking if we were available for a project. We would reply by mail, and then would eventually receive the project by mail or eventually UPS. When doing the pre-computer indexing, the final retyping of the index could take several days, but this was also a way of doing a final check on the index. Losing that review time was a big adjustment in going to the computers. Also, pre-computer, it was rare to have last-minute revisions, and I think in general the books did not have so many errors too. I don’t miss having to spend the time on filing slips or retyping the final index, and I do appreciate other computer benefits too, such as spellchecking, verifying cross-references, being able to switch to a page order sort at times, and being able to search a file for a term I missed earlier. Those are all very helpful features, but in general my approach to indexing is not that much different than when I was using a typewriter.

Pam: I began using CINDEX software in the early 1990s, about the same time I went online. Naturally, software provides automated ease: allowing a larger proportion of time to be devoted to analysis. Having software alphabetize is still, to me, the largest advantage of software. It’s the sort of thing that a machine does best. Of course, with software, I can constantly check on consistency of entry wording—I edit as I enter. Spellchecking is helpful, but can be a trap. The Internet has proven to be a wonderful research tool. I can now look up obscure terms and usage. Determining which medications are generic and which are “brand names” is wonderful—print lists are always behind the actual formulary. Of course, most of my marketing and client contact is through the Internet.

Shoshana: Kamm, I know you’re not an indexer, but your indexing software, SKY Index, has become one of the “Big Three” programs in the indexing world. Can you tell us a little about how that came to be?

Kamm: I am a latecomer to the professional indexing world. MACREX was first (I think) and then came CINDEX (again, I think). SKY Index got started by chance. My mother is a genealogist and she has compiled many bibliographies. She used to do the indexes using 3x5” cards which she had my brother and I help sort. She and a hired helper would type the finished index on a typewriter. During my college years she was working on another large index that she had entered into a dBase III program and asked me if I could write a program to sort, format and print the index for her. I said yes and wrote a very simplistic dBase III program that did just that. After she finished the book, she said I could sell the program to genealogists, but I said no way because it had not been written with any kind of user interface that was intended for a consumer. She sold some without my permission at a genealogy conference and I was so upset that she sold these programs that weren't intended for a consumer that I wrote a user interface for the program and that became the first "SKY Index". I gave that updated program to the purchasers for free. For many years it was marketed only to genealogists, but it was clear that market simply was not a good market. I then found out about "professional" indexers and thought I'd give that market a try. In 1998 I sold the first "Pre-release" copy of SKY Index Professional v5.0. I think the rest you probably know...

Shoshana: I can imagine that even today, there are still almost as many ways to index as there are indexers (and I, as a relative newbie, am still figuring out which one is the best!) So what do you do? Hard copy or PDF? Use PDFs while indexing or just while editing your completed index? Mark up text first and then enter into software, chapter by chapter, page by page, other? No marking up, just use dual computer screens or windows open? Read the whole book first, just read table of contents, skim book for an idea of general content or just dive in head-first?

Linda: I still have a strong preference for working with a hard copy, and one computer screen. For most books I use the “dive in head-first” method that you mentioned. I will sometimes underline terms that I have indexed. This can help me if I need to go back and correct the index for last-minute text revisions.

Pam: If you are seeking interesting processes—believe it or not—one comes from The Chicago Manual of Style. My first copy was the 12th edition. The indexing chapter was mostly index cards. The editing process detailed was delightful for such an august, esteemed publication. The wording was something like: “It may sound funny, but most people don't have much horizontal desk space. The best way to organize cards is to create alphabetical piles on the floor. The indexer then crawls around the stacks as the cards are edited and placed in new stacks.” Working on staff at a publisher, I had my stacks on piles of books in the warehouse. At home, the floor stacks and crawling worked fine. I think that process continued through the 13th edition. Ninety percent of my books come to me as PDFs, a form I initially balked at. I still would prefer to have both hard copy and PDF, but that’s mostly a pipe dream. PDFs are most handly for the search capabilities. Since using software, I don’t mark copy. I can always check out a page-order sort. I have definitely found that my memory ability has exploded as an indexer. I call it “exercising the memory muscles.” In addition to just the normal memory demands of indexing, I find that not marking copy forces me to concentrate at a level that enhances memory retention. Nothing makes works with contributed chapters easier—indexers just have to slog through and adapt to a plethora of various terminology changes. Good copyediting should take care of this, but that seems a pipe dream in today’s publishing world.

Shoshana: How did you learn how to index?

Pam: I learned by doing and reading indexes. I took no course. The worst thing was that I never got any feedback. I had the feeling that authors and clients were just happy the book was finished and ready to print. I got a lot of thank-you notes, but nothing about pluses and/or minuses.

Shoshana: At what point do you think indexing became a “real” career?

Barbara: I can tell you from my experience, there were few people calling themselves indexers before computers came on the scene. When people began looking for occupations to do with computers, many seized upon indexing as an occupation.

Linda: I was recently looking through some of my mom's papers, and found some from when she started her indexing business in 1944. Her initial marketing efforts included an introductory letter, followed up with a face-to-face visit with editors in many different publishing companies, mostly in New York City and in Philadelphia. Of course, there were a lot more publishing companies then than there are now. Her indexing rate at that time was 3.5 cents per entry. For some projects, such as a large medical encyclopedia, she recruited others to help and split the per-entry rate with them. One interesting thing is that right from the start she recruited others to index with/for her. Eventually she did change to working alone, but I thought that was quite different than most people today would start their indexing business.

Pam: I really began indexing solo in the mid-1990s. I would have preferred combining copyediting and indexing, but the copyediting paid so little (valued so little by publishers) I had to drop it. Now, I have several clients who have talked me into copyeditng at a fair hourly rate, but indexing is 70% of my billings.

Shoshana: Thanks so much, it was great talking to you!

From talking to these experienced indexers, it seems that it is true what Hazel Bell says in her book Indexers and indexes in fact & fiction: “The computer [is] often fallaciously credited with relieving indexers of the greater part, if not indeed the whole of their labours. Not at all: technology may ease and speed up the formerly manual processes of indexing, and the structural organization of an index, but can take no part in the determination of significance of references or the devising of linguistic terms to encapsulate and express them.”

Hope you enjoyed reading about indexing history as much as I enjoyed researching it! Next time we’ll dive into how to start your own indexing business. Bye!

Shoshana Hurwitz
Hurwitz Indexing


Bell, Hazel K. 2001. Indexers and indexes in fact and fiction. Toronto: University of Toronto Press.

[Parts of this column will also be published in the 50th anniversary issue of the International Journal of Indexing The Indexer in September 2008. ( The Indexer covers topics on just about all things related to indexing—much of the information in this column originally came from its articles (which has all been reproduced here with the kind permission of the Editor), and is a great addition to the subscription list of anyone in the publishing field!]