The Process of Index Creation

Hello again, my fellow Elephants! I would like to continue this week on the topic of “how we index”—indexing processes of yesterday and today and the history of indexing technologies. The American Society of Indexers ( website gives the following standard process:

How is indexing done?

The indexer usually receives a set of page proofs for the book (images of the actual pages as they will appear, including final page numbers), often at the same time as final proofreading is being done by someone else. The indexer reads the page proofs, making a list of headings and subheadings (terms to appear in the index) and the location of each pertinent reference. After completing the rough index the indexer edits it for structure, clarity and consistency, formats it to specifications, proofreads it and submits it to the client in hard-copy form, on disk, by modem, or by email. Since the indexer is very late in the production process, there can be unreasonable time pressure. Where the text is already on computer disk, the indexing features of word processing programs can ease the handling of page numbers and sorting, but the real indexing work is still done by the human. Powerful dedicated software is also available for personal computers to aid the professional indexer in constructing, sorting, editing and formatting the index, whether from hard-copy text or computer files. Many indexers use one of the programs listed on the Indexing Software page.

Donald and Ana Cleveland give the following guide to steps of the actual indexing process as follows:

  1. Decide which topics in the item are relevant to the potential user of the document.
  2. Decide which topics truly capture the content of the document.
  3. Determine terms that come as close as possible to the terminology used in the document.
  4. Decide on index terms and the specificity of those terms.
  5. Group references to information that is scattered in the text of the document.
  6. Combine headings and subheadings into related multilevel headings.
  7. Direct the user seeking information under terms not used to those that are being used by means of see references and to related terms with see also references.
  8. Arrange the index into a systematic presentation.

In G. Norman Knight’s 1979 book Indexing, The Art of, a couple of process descriptions are given:

“Compiling an index necessitates the preparation of a number of entries, which in their final form must be either typewritten or very legibly handwritten in ink. Several different methods of recording them are in use, but probably 90 percent of indexers today use either index cards or ‘slips.’ The size usually preferred is 5 x 3 in. Two further kinds of equipment are essential. The first is a container in which to hold the cards (or slips) while in use on one’s desk. For this a wooden tray, with sides shallower than the slips or cards, is best. The other necessity of at least twenty-four guide-cards, marked (on a projecting surface) with the letters of the alphabet—X, Y and Z on the bought version usually come together on the same guide-card. It has long been my practice to use cards rather than slips and to type on them all headings and subheadings in the first reference in each case, adding any further references in ink. Another method of recording entries is by the use of gummed sheets of paper, perforated throughout their length at intervals of two or three inches. Each item is written or typed on its own perforated strip. When the indexing is completed and double-checked, the strips are separated at their perforations and sorted alphabetically, and then the gummed strips are mounted on quarto rough paper, ready for the printer. The use of a notebook—preferably loose-leaf—is one of the earliest methods of recording the entries for an index. But it lacks the flexibility of cards or slips and that it could not be expected to work well for a large index, or one involving many sub-subheadings.”

I just have to reprint here what could be the winner of the “most unusual indexing method” award, which has been related in several indexing books, including The Indexer (vol. 6, no. 3) and Knight’s Indexing, The Art of, devised by Dr. Lindsay Verrier: “I read through the book in galleys...and underline in pencil words or phrases that need indexing, and so am ready for instant action as soon as the page-proofs arrive. Taking a foolscap sheet and two carbons into my typewriter, which is an elegant Olympia electric, I set margins for two columns, and write my index straight-out, in page order. I then take a rather large plastic bowl, one of those kitchen bowls with a snap-on cover, and shut the doors and windows and snip up the whole index into single-line pieces, which all fall into the bowl. The snap-on lid allows me to leave the work at any stage. Next, I sort the small strips into first-letter order on a table, getting 26 piles of varying size, and when done stuff them into old envelopes which are rubber-banded together. Now, at leisure, and in the depths of the silent tropic night, the real work can begin. I tip out the first (“A”) envelope on a large smooth table, turn the strips face-up, and slither them into alphabetical columns. This is very easy and rather fun. When a number have been done, I take a galley-sized piece of newsprint, torn from the large roll of 18-inch newsprint that is fixed on the wall, and run on to it two lines or strips of PVC adhesive from one of the standard dispensers. With tweezers the little strips can be picked up and touched down on the PVC, to which they instantly and permanently adhere...this pasted-up set can be corrected or amended in several ways: it can be written-on; new lines can be pasted on; it can be cut through and new segments inserted, and so on. This operation gives me a line-by-line index that is a pleasure to copy. By counting the numbers one can type straight out across the page in two columns...this copy is discussed with the author, and the final copy made in single column to suit his wishes...typings are of course made with several carbons, to guard against disasters...our main enemies are hurricanes, house girls and cocktail parties.” Doesn’t sound very time-efficient to me!

Next time, I’ll continue the discussion by interviewing some longtime indexers. Until then!

Shoshana Hurwitz
Hurwitz Indexing


The American Society of Indexers website (

Cleveland, Donald B., and Ana D. Cleveland. 1990. Introduction to indexing and abstracting. Englewood, Colo: Libraries Unlimited.

Knight, G. Norman. 1979. Indexing, the art of: a guide to the indexing of books and periodicals. London: Allen & Unwin.

[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!]