I have recently had the very great pleasure of publishing with Facet – my professional text, The Academic Teaching Librarian’s Handbook, was finally published in January 2021 after a two-year period of hard work, one repetitive strain injury, and of course the COVID-related upheaval that complicated the final months of the project. Those of you who are already authors will recognise and appreciate the inevitable ups-and-downs of authorship, from submitting the initial proposal, through the intensive first-draft writing stage, and then on through the eventual revising, redrafting and proof-reading tasks that shape the book into its final, publishable format. While it is tempting to think that you are done and dusted once you have submitted your “final” manuscript, this is really not the case, and many more months will elapse before you have finally ticked every box, and the book is sent to press. Of course, these post-writing tasks are essential, if your book is to be the best it can be. One task, however, that is mostly optional for authors, but which I chose to take on, is that of compiling the index for the book, once the final proofs - with pagination in place - had been prepared. While I did have the option of asking Facet to employ a professional indexer, and then to offset this cost against future royalties from my book sales, I chose not to - having compiled two book indexes previously, I relished the prospect of tackling another one. Perhaps this was due to my original professional background in librarianship, which would never allow me to pass on a challenge such as this! But I had found also that I enjoyed the process; it allowed me to take a broader overview of the work I had completed, and as the final task requiring conceptual input, gave a sense of closure to the project as whole.

To set the scene, it’s helpful to consider why indexes are important, especially in the digital age. For non-fiction texts, the purpose of an index is essentially to create a “map” of the book’s contents, through systematically listing the important concepts, ideas, names, places and things that appear in the book, and indicating where the associated content is located. It provides your readers with different access points to the text, allowing them to find relevant sections quickly, and to understand how topics have been treated by the author – for example, if they have examined concepts from several different theoretical or geographical perspectives at various points in the text. Much of the time, academic texts are not read from cover-to-cover in sequence – readers may dip in and out, according to their information needs at the time. An effective index is tailored to the anticipated needs of the audience, and the terms and phrases they are likely to recognise and use when searching for information. Although the increasing availability of eBooks has enabled readers to rapidly search through texts for specific words and phrases, this is not really a substitute for a well-planned index, which offers a contextual overview of the book’s contents – at a glance, you can get a sense of the nuances and angles taken by the author in their treatment of the book’s subject matter.

For instance, think about the ways in which readers typically approach books to decide if they are relevant or worth reading, since titles do not always reflect contents. A scan of the blurb at the back of the book is one way, and then perhaps a quick look at the chapter titles and sub-titles in the Table of Contents (ToC), to get a sense of the main subjects covered, and the depth of coverage that might be expected. Another way is to flick through the index, to hunt for key words or phrases that don’t appear in the ToC, but which might give readers a better sense of the book’s scope. As a reader, if certain phrases or terms don’t appear in the index, you might decide that this book is not the one you are looking for; conversely, a book with a misleading title might contain precisely the information you need, which you would have missed if you had relied solely on the title to guide you.  

As you start to compile your index, the best piece of advice to bear in mind is this – always place yourself in the position of your prospective readers, when making decisions about what to include and exclude, and the exact words and phrases that you choose to represent your book’s contents. The terms that you use as an expert might not be the same as those that some of your readers will use; for instance, if your book is targeted at a student audience, your readers might not yet be familiar with some of the scholarly or technical terms that might be second nature to you. In the case of my book, I was aware that many of my readers, including students and early-career librarians, are likely to be novices in this area of practice, although some will be experienced and familiar with technical terminology. This can especially be the case when it comes to acronyms in a field. As a result, I was careful to select terms that both audiences would be likely to use, sometimes through the use of cross references (“see” and “see also”). One example is that I refer to “hybrid learning” at certain points in the book – however, the term more commonly used to capture this concept is “blended learning,” so I chose to represent the associated content in the index with this term instead. “Hybrid learning” is also included in the index for readers who might be familiar with it, but they are re-directed to “blended learning” by means of a “see” reference. So, to emphasise the point – your readers must be at the centre of your decision-making as you compile the index. It might be worth asking yourself intermittently as you go along – “what will my readers use this index for, and will this choice help or hinder them?”

Knowing where to start can be a daunting prospect. As I was new to Facet, having written for a different publisher previously, the first thing I did when my final proofs arrived was to look through several Facet books, to get a sense of how other authors had approached their indexes. This gave me useful insight into the level of detail that might be expected, how items such as names and organisations are treated, as well as stylistic and formatting conventions. It also helped me to see the task as more “do-able,” which is helpful when you are weary from many months of writing, editing and redrafting. I also took note of Facet’s indexing guidelines which had been sent to me with my author pack, and accessed indexing guidelines from other academic publishers, to gather as much information as possible about the process. It is also important to note that it’s only the main body of the text that’s indexed, rather than the prelims (i.e., preface, ToC, acknowledgements); however, these were in fact supplied as separate proofs, so easier to handle.

Most indexing guidelines advise authors to start by reading sequentially through the text and making a list of the terms and phrases that you want to include, which are typically nouns, rather than verbs or adjectives, although I did include some verbs in the end. The index consists of main headings and sub-headings, so as you go along, you are mentally assigning terms to one or the other category – the sub-headings represent the more detailed aspects of the content captured by the main headings. The guidelines from Facet suggested a sub-heading when “a main entry would contain more than six page numbers,” but this is not set in stone. In truth, you might already have a solid idea of your key words and phrases when you begin – after all, you have spent many months writing the text, and you know it inside-out. Many headings suggested themselves, and I also used my chapter titles and sub-titles to generate terms, although it should be noted that the titles themselves should not be included as index entries. I found that one of the key challenges of this stage of the process was in distinguishing between (to quote the Facet guidelines), “terms that receive significant discussion in the text” and those that are trivial, or only mentioned incidentally. The index should only contain the former, but I found this extremely challenging. Deciding what constitutes “significant discussion” is a subjective process, and I went back-and-forth a few times on certain terms before deciding what to include. For instance, is a single paragraph significant? Or should it mean one or two pages of discussion? In the end, I returned again and again to my readers – what terms are they likely to look up? Even though a term might only have been referred to in a couple of places, I made the decision in certain cases to include it in the index, as I felt that the broader context of its use would be of interest to readers – an example would be the term “social media” which crops up several times, although there are no particular sections devoted to it in the book – it seemed a probable access point for readers and is an important concept in relation to several of the book’s major themes. The same issue arose for individual authors’ names that I chose to include as index entries, in addition to the bibliography – only authors who were mentioned frequently across multiple chapters or sections were added to the index, although this was essentially a subjective choice also – once again, a reader’s perspective guided me here. Another question arose in relation to acronyms – I refer frequently in the text to various organisations, which are more commonly known by their acronyms, rather than their full names, e.g., CILIP, IFLA. Which term should constitute the main index entry, and which the cross-reference? In the end, other Facet indexes provided the answer – the main index entry was chosen as the full names of the organisations, with “see” references attached to the acronyms, to cover both access points for readers. Equally, where I felt that is was important for readers to understand that two terms are conceptually related, cross-references were included. One example of this would be the term “social justice” – in the context of the book, it was important to indicate a close relationship between this term and “critical information literacy,” so a “see also” reference in the index highlighted this connection.  

In a sense, I felt I was working at two levels in preparing the index. One is what I refer to as the stylistic level, which has mainly to do with the conventions required by the publisher - for example, alphabetisation, word capitalisation, indentation, page ranges, punctuation, cross-references, etc. In many ways, this is the easier part, as it only requires that you follow the guidelines that are clearly set out for you. The second level is where the main challenges lie; I call this the conceptual level, and it relates to the aforementioned subjective task of deciding how to distil the essence of the book into a series of main headings and sub-headings that will capture and map the content for readers. I would estimate that the index took around two-three weeks to complete fully, although it’s important to note that I was fitting it around my teaching, admin and research work during a busy academic term (in the middle of a pandemic!). I tried to fully complete the index for each chapter as I went along, so I could draw a line under it – however there was an inevitable process of going back and making adjustments as subsequent chapters threw up new perspectives that had to be accommodated. In the end, it becomes a process of trusting your own judgement –  while the index might look a little different in someone else’s hands, it’s highly likely that you have got it mostly right, as you are the person closest to the work. Overall, this was a positive experience, and compiling the index gave me a greater appreciation of what readers might seek –  and find –  in my book. It also goes without saying that excellent support from Facet contributed greatly to my overall enjoyment of writing the book, and that was much appreciated. 

To summarise, I would propose the following top tips:

  • Start by thinking about what your readers will need from the index – what will they use it for, and how can you help them locate the information they need in the text?
  • Examine the indexes from other books in your publisher’s catalogue to get a sense of what will be expected
  • Closely read the guidelines supplied by your own publisher, but also look up some guidelines from different publishers – there are plenty available on the Web
  • Always ask for clarification from your publisher if you are uncertain about anything – naturally, they have a vested interest in the process, and will be extremely helpful
  • If possible, ask a colleague or helpful friend or family member to check over the final index, to identify any glaring errors, or logical inconsistencies.

Claire McGuinness is Assistant Professor and current Deputy Head of School at the School of Information and Communication Studies, University College Dublin, Ireland. She has a long-term interest in researching and teaching information and digital literacy and has published extensively in these areas and others including academic librarianship, reflective practice and teaching skills for librarians. She has designed and taught multiple information and digital literacy modules over the past two decades, and currently leads several courses on the MLIS and BSc Social Sciences programmes at UCD. Since 2004, her advanced teaching librarian course on the MLIS and Diploma programmes at UCD has prepared trainee librarians for the instructional work that is increasingly part of their professional remit in different sectors.