My Story

How Does an Indexer Become an Indexer?

Well, I became a librarian first. This is not the ordinary path for most indexers. You’ll see why when you read my story.

Living with my husband in Spartanburg, South Carolina I commuted each week to earn my Master of Librarianship degree at the graduate librarian program in Columbia, South Carolina.

It was there that I made my first stab at indexing. I took an independent study course where I indexed the first six years of Mother Earth News.

Mother Earth News was a new magazine in the 1970s. Mother Earth was  founded in 1970 as part of a “back to the land” movement in that century. I had discovered this magazine while living in Berkeley California and I really liked it.

Mother Earth News cover

When i offered my index to the magazine, they weren’t interested. I was disappointed but glad I’d made the index. I liked doing it, and I used my index to find things in its issues. However, I doubt it was a very professional index. You’ll see why shortly.

Since many books have indexes, you probably think librarians would be trained on how indexes work, but that wasn’t the case in the last century. There were no classes on indexing that I know of in library schools back then. 

It wasn’t until 17 years after I’d started creating indexes after taking a correspondence course from the British Society of Indexers that I learned there was an indexing course being offered in the U.S.

During those years I had worked as a librarian while I did a little indexing on the side. In the year 2001, out of the blue, I received a manila envelope from a professor, Judith A. Jablonski.

Inside the envelope was a copy of a syllabus (i.e. reading list, for a college course) that Professor Dr. Jablonski was using to teach a new class from 1999 to 2001 titled, Indexing Theory and Practice – Master’s Level Course Syllabus .

I was pleased to see her syllabus and to learn that she taught at the Helen C. White graduate school of library science at my alma mater, The University of Wisconsin-Madison, where in the early 1970’s I’d gotten Masters degrees in both English and Economics,

I was even more surprised to see that my name (slightly misspelled) appeared at the bottom of her syllabus under Recommended Readings.

I was really impressed by Dr. Jablonski’s list as well as honored to be on it. I instantly recognized many names on her list. These included Glenda Browne (Australian indexer), Ken Bakewell and Hans Wellisch (British indexers), Michel Foucault (famous French philosopher), and Jessica Milstead, Nancy Mulvany, and Bella Ruth Weinberg (American Indexers).

These were some of the giants of the indexing field at this time, known mostly to indexers and not librarians.

Later in 2003, my “Mind Maps” article showed up along with other notable indexers of this century as Required Readings in the syllabus created by Instructor Dr. James Maccaferri at Clarion University in Pennsylvania for his class, Indexing and Abstracting for the World Wide Web.

Back in library school at South Carolina in the mid-1970s, I had had to ask my advisor in library school, Bernie S. Schlessinger, editor of several Who’s Who of Nobel Prize Winners during the 1900s, if he would oversee my doing an independent study project to create my Mother Earth News index.

Bernie was a lively professor with a great sense of humor. I liked him a lot, but when pressed, Bernie admitted that he didn’t know much about indexing. He told me the real expert at South Carolina back then was the professor who taught cataloging—Dr. Elspeth Pope.

Elsepeth was a big-boned Canadian woman with light-colored hair who wore knee-length dresses to class. When Elspeth walked in a room you could not miss her. And you knew she knew her stuff.

Unfortunately for me, Elspeth suspected me of being an informant that tipped of my peers when faculty conducted interviews of students that went into our permanent records without students’ knowledge.

I wasn’t the informant, but I knew who was. And having made a promise to that person, I wouldn’t divulge that information to Elspeth.

Also, when I was working alone in the media lab one very early morning (having gotten a keys from Elspeth who ran the lab) a man started banging on the door demanding to be let in.

Living weekdays in a former slave cabin in a neighborhood where there was a retarded boy/man exposing himself to women, and to me one day as I waited for a bus to the college, I was not about to open the door to a man I didn’t know who was angrily banging on my door.

When I’d asked if anyone knew the retarded fellow, all the women on the bus exclaimed “yes,” and one noted that “His daddy is a doctor, honey—the police won’t do nothing about him doin’ that.“

That was the day that William Faulkner’s classic Southern novel The Sound and the Fury came alive for me in a way it hadn’t when I first read it as an undergraduate English major at Temple University in Philadelphia, PA.

Despite my conflicts with her, I admired Elspeth greatly for her cataloging knowledge. Especially when she reminisced with our class about setting up a library for a large Jewish collection of books about religion in Toronto.

Elspeth told us that Melvyl Dewey, while sitting in church one Sunday, created the the Dewey Decimal System. That’s the system used in our U.S. public libraries for shelving books.

We were given to understand that Dewey’s book classification system for shelving books is a “closed system”. Decimals can only be used on a finite number of print books before librarians run out of space on the book spines.

The fact that Dewey’s system was finite was the reason the Library of Congress librarians created an “open system” we call the “LC System” for shelving their humungous collections of books.

The Library of Congress system uses both letters and numbers and no decimal points. It is the system most often seen in U.S. colleges and universities and many other libraries.

Elspeth showed my class that almost all of religious books in the Dewey system 200s are about Christianity. Because Melvyl Dewey was Christian. Dewey left very little space in his system for other religions.

When Elspeth explained how she had to create a whole new classification system for the new Jewish library in Toronto, she (unknowingly) became my hero.

I really wanted to do what Elspeth did – create a library from scratch.

I loved library classification systems. I spent hours alone in the graduate student library in the Davis College building at the University of South Carolina. And I read every book about structuring human knowledge and indexing that  I could find in that room.

During my library career I cataloged and classified a women’s studies library at UC Berkeley, a collection for the Pacific Asia Travel Association in San Francisco, and a library database for Alcohol and Other Drugs Prevention Center in the Bay Area. 

Indexing, My Second Career

When I decided to retire from being a librarian for twenty years, and became self-employed,  I flirted with ideas other than indexing: as a consultant, I helped advise a State of California agency library, and I networked computers for a few non-profits.

But I soon decided to go full-time into indexing books. I’d already been indexing part-time while working as a librarian. I thought “Why not go full-time?”

It was a few years later that I discovered that Elspeth too had left teaching. And she too had finally become a full-time indexer. I was amazed to see her name listed in the Portland, Oregon chapter of the American Society for Indexing.

Elspeth was an expert on cataloging, a field that encompasses not only creation of the call numbers used by libraries for organizing books, but also were responsible for creating cards used in “card catalogs”.

Catalogers were responsible assigning subject headings that describe what a book is about. Catalogers also have to provide lengthy physical descriptions of books (a subdivision of cataloging called “descriptive bibliography”).

You might think that indexing would also be is also a subdivision of cataloging? Well, not really!

Once I first set foot in the world of librarians, I quickly learned that back-of-the book indexers and library book catalogers live in two very worlds.

How Librarians Differ from Indexers

Catalogers generally work in back rooms in a library or even in a separate building from the library. Catalogers must use  an established set of rules, rules such as Sears Subject Headings followed in most U.S. public libraries or like the Library of Congress (LC) System of subject headings used by U.S. colleges and universities.

And many other countries also have their own types of subject heading classifications of books.

For example, the Universal Decimal Classification is used in Europe and many other countries around the world. In Canada, they currently follow Canadian Subject Headings (CSH). And all over the world librarians make up many smaller classification schemes for their books.

Indexers also make up systems of describing the contents of books, but we don’t use subject headings guides. We are pioneers who do our baking from scratch.

Indexers create our own structures of subject headings (called “topics’). The metatopic (top topic) reflects the overall “aboutness” of the book or other kind of document we’re working on. 

Then we work downwards from many main topics to create the “bones” of an index structure, and flesh those out with subheadings under most topics. Finally, we create cross-references where needed by readers to See or See also cross-references from words we’ve chosen not to use to point to related words we have chosen to use.

Basically we create a map that allows readers to find things they want in that book.

Catalogers, on the other hand, who deal with a much larger universe of knowledge found in many books as well as many types of media in library  collections are limited to use of only a handful (1-6)  of pre-created “official” subject headings, often with very long strings of words, to describe what an entire book is about.

Indexers, however, get to dive in head first. We can use up to hundreds of subject headings (proper names, places, objects, or concepts) to bring readers a glimpse of a single book’s contents.

Under those headings we gather together discussions that are sub-headings or even sub-subheadings that relate to main topics of the book.

Ah, books, we are all book lovers but…

You may think librarians get to read books, but we don’t. Librarians are far more likely to be reading book reviews than actual books.

Indexers, other the other hand, do get to read books and we get paid for doing that, but at a much lower rate than librarians earn.

Another difference from indexers is that librarians, even librarians in small libraries, deal with an outside world of large corporate vendors that specialize in helping librarians buy and catalog books and/or create computer programs that help librarians help patrons to find the books they seek.

Some librarians work closely with the public. Other librarians work in back rooms and deal with salespeople from the corporations that flutter around libraries and provide the books and other materials that feed the public’s appetite for information and entertainment.

As a result, librarians are usually paid a high salary and are given management responsibilities over other workers in a library.

Indexers on the other hand are self-employed professionals, mostly found working at home in solitude, imagining the audience who will want to find things in a book, and trying our hardest to create paths into the significant parts 0f that particular book so readers can find what they seek.

Both Elspeth and I got to have a foot in each of those worlds; cataloging and indexing. I feel we both were very lucky women.

I meet Elspeth again

After I gave a talk at the Portland annual conference of the American Society of Indexers in Portland in 2009, Elspeth and I met again at the exhibit area where Elspeth was womanning a booth.

Elspeth was much thinner than I remembered, and I was probably much bigger than she remembered.

Perhaps encountering other people we know who look so different after we’ve not seen them for so long, paves the way for viewing past disputes as being of lesser importance in the present. That certainly has been the case for me a few times.

After our meeting in Portland, Elspeth and I conversed frequently via email for a few  years until she died suddenly, and too soon, on Saturday, May 18th, 2013

An obituary from the Pacific Northwest chapter of indexers recognized Elspeth as the “mother” of their chapter. And here is a longer obituary that describes Dr. Pope’s life and work.


Previously in 2007, I had lost another colleague who was many years younger than Elspeth. This was Susan Coerr.

Susan was an artist, a college art teacher, an assistant director at the San Francisco museums of Art (the DeYoung and Legion of Honor), and finally a back-of-the-book indexer.

Susan had a quirky sense of humor and loved to tell funny stories.

A favorite story Susan often told was about a publisher, who when she asked him to give her credit for her index in his book, balked.

Susan told the publisher he had given credit in the book to the photographer. Why not her work?

The publisher replied, “Because he worked for a year for us. You only worked a week.”

If you are an author or a publisher reading this, I hope you’ll remember not only to pay for your index in a timely manner, but also, please, please, somewhere in your book, give your indexer the credit they deserve!