Term Consistency and Indexing

by Nancy Humphreys on January 4, 2012

A term is a word or a phrase. A word or a phrase can have a variety of meanings. In addition, there’s the connotation (implied meaning) as well as the denotation (explicit meaning) of a word.

Term consistency in an index is an art which involves making choices such as these:

(1) Should the indexer list synonymous terms separately in the index and make See also cross-references between (or among) the closely related terms?

(2) Or should the indexer choose one term only for purposes of indexing and make See cross-references to that term from the term(s) not used in the index.

Term consistency is a subset of vocabulary control which in turn is a subset of quality control in indexing. Term consistency is important to the author for several reasons that I’ll cover in this and the next three posts about indexing. We begin with the issue of how much expertise in the terminology of a specific subject an indexer needs to create a competent index.

Term consistency and choosing an indexer

Indexers debate the issue of whether or not we should have any subject expertise in order to index a book. As “first readers” of the books we index there is a feeling by some indexers that if we can’t understand it, neither will the audience.

While that’s true in a lot of cases, it isn’t always. This response assumes that the audience will be the same for all books. And that isn’t true.

Demographic factors, such as age, educational background, work experience, cultural and national origins, knowledge of the subject of the book, and the reader’s reason for wanting to know what’s in the book can all affect the ability of readers to make use of our indexes.

If the indexer does not share enough traits in common with your book’s audience or at least know something about your audience, your index may not be quite as useful to your audience as it could be.

When to choose an indexer with special expertise

The problem for an indexer is that it is sometimes difficult to know if we do have enough expertise to index a book until we’ve read the book. And then it’s a bit too late! But usually we have some sense of our own limitations.

For example, I would never agree to do an advanced medical textbook for students. I just don’t know medical terminology well enough to see the relationships among terms used for diagnosing diseases, discussing treatments, or the tools that doctors and nurses use.

In a similar vein, I agreed to become the indexer for very technical economics books published by a think tank in Michigan because I have a Master’s degree in economics from one of the best colleges in the US.

When I said, “yes,” the editor thanked me at length. He then told me, “Our last indexer just indexed words. She didn’t have a clue about what the words really meant.”

When to compromise about expertise

Sometimes it’s just a truism that no one can know as much about a subject as the author or authors of a book.

For example, for years I indexed the Black Music Research Journal (BMRJ) for Columbia College in Chicago. My qualifications were extensive experience and training in music and music appreciation, I also had a bit of knowledge of cross-cultural experiences from being a womens studies librarian for several years.

But the Black Music Research Journal is an amazing compendium of information about African culture as it has spread throughout the world with the “diaspora” of black people in previous centuries. Politics, geography, history, anthropology, literature, religion… you name it, these articles covered all those subjects and more in addition to music from every part of the world. I doubt there is any one person who excels in all of these fields.

Yet, I did wonder often whether not being an African-American meant I was missing a lot of important things in the Journal. I comfort myself with the knowledge that my predecessor appeared to be absolutely oblivious of the existence of women in black music.

I introduced a number of headings to the BMRJ index related to black and non-black women that this indexer had simply not even seen. He even failed to index the women who were major subjects of some of the articles!

When to not worry about term consistency

Indexers usually have a college background. For most trade books aimed at a general audience you don’t really have to worry about whether the indexer will understand the terminology of your book.

In addition, indexers are quick learners. We can easily pick up the terminology in a new subject area. We will also do research outside of the book if necessary, but most of us prefer not to have to do this – it takes time, and for us, time is money

Also, some fields are just so broad and so full of individual discovery that an indexer will do well to just to know that basics about indexing that field.

For example, if you have created a cookbook of American cuisine, the important thing you want to know from the indexer, (besides whether they like food!) is whether they know the traditional means by which cookbook indexes are to be structured.

Beyond that, every cookbook indexer usually learns something new when we index a cookbook. That’s because knowing how one chef does things is no guarantee we’ll know how any other chef works.

Surprises and learning about new things are one of the benefits that make us become indexers in the first place.

Three tips for finding your indexer

(1) Make sure you identify who the audience or audiences are for your book. Let the indexer know the details about who you believe will want to read your book. If you have a primary audience and a secondary one, mention that too. This information will help an indexer gauge our ability to index your book.

(2) Help the indexer decide if we can index your book by offering to send us a few pages if we say they might be interested in working on your book. Do this so we can see what we may be getting into. If you haven’t finished writing your book, describe it and ask us if we think we would have the right background to do it.

(3) Don’t assume an indexer will have mentioned everything about their background in a directory of indexers or on their web site on LinkedIn! Indexers often have varied subject interests, many of which we lacked the space to mention or we just didn’t think of it as something an author might write about!

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To learn more about Marketing Your Book to Libraries: An Insider’s Guide for Authors please click here.


Marketing Your Book to Libraries Marketing Your Books to Libraries: An Insider's Guide for Authors by former librarian Nancy K. Humphreys includes: 
  • How to tell what kind of library to target
  • Types of librarians and books they order
  • Strategies to get past the "gatekeepers" who influence librarians
  • Right ways to approach librarians most likely to order your book

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