Using Lists in an Index

by Nancy Humphreys on March 20, 2014

One of the first things an indexer learns is that a list is not an index.

This fact was tested in 1991 by a Supreme Court case, Feist Publications v  Rural Telephone  Service. Feist, a competitor of a Kansas telephone directory was sued by the phone company. The phone company alleged that it had copyright rights to the information in their directory. The Supreme Court ruled otherwise.

US Copyright law does not give writers the right to own facts; it only allows us to protect our particular expression of ideas. The phone directory case was not as sensational as today’s cases over patenting of human genes, but it was very important to the profession of indexing.

The judge ruled that “White Pages,” i.e., the phone directories that list only facts, e.g., names, addresses, and phone numbers could not be copyrighted. The Yellow Pages were another story. Even though they also contain a lot of factual details, Yellow Pages are an example of a subject index, a copyrightable work of art.

Does this mean a “names” or “author” index in the back of a book can’t be copyrighted? No, it doesn’t.

A names index in a book is a “derivative work of art”. An author index depends on the existence of the book for its very raison d’être. Telephone White Pages, on the other hand, are simply a stand-alone list of personal names and phone numbers.

Why the distaste for lists in an index?

The association of the word “lists” with the word “facts” is a bit unfortunate. Lists can include much more than plain facts.

For example, there is a list writing exercise popularized by Natalie Goldberg. Participants in a writing group begin by creating lists of things they free-associate with a topic the group chooses. These kinds of lists stimulate a lot of “recall” and discussion among the writers in a “wild mind” writing group.

But what about using lists of personal names, places, or things in an index, particularly lists of subheadings under a main heading?

First of all, to fully do its job, an index usually needs subheadings. Dan Poynter, an “expert” on self-publishing, brags about writing his own index and urges authors to do the same. One look at Poynter’s index during a talk he gave to a writers group was enough to send two indexers into paroxysms of laughter.

I know because one elf them was me. The other was Nancy Mulvany, author of Indexing Books, the only guide devoted to teaching indexers the art and business of indexing. Dan Poynter’s index was nothing but a list of single-word main headings. It needed subheadings.

Subheadings separate broad topics into narrower aspects, and they also can.bring together, in one place, discussions of a specific topic that are scattered throughout the book.

Uses for lists of subheadings in subject indexes

(1) Allows readers to find names of people, places, or things they know will be found in the book.

Example – A complete chronological list of “national conferences” (by year and location) held by NAMI, The National Association of Black Musicians, in its 100-year history of the organization.

(2) Emphasizes the importance of the topic in a main heading.

Example – A list of names of all Nazi “concentration camps” and s a separate list of all “death camps” in Germany and elsewhere during World War II in The Encyclopedia of the Holocaust (4 volumes)

(3) Enables users of the book to spot opportunities that aren’t in that book.

Example – A complete list of existing locations of BNI chapters in Givers Gain a manual for members of BNI, a business networking organization that encourages formation of new chapters here in the US and abroad.

Lists as main headings

Lists in indexes don’t have to be limited to subheadings. Lists of proper names,  events, or things can also be included as main headings in an index.

For example, in the editions of the CNE and CNA Novell Networking Guides that I reviewed for IDG Publishing, specific protocols for computer networking were each listed together as main headings in the index. These protocols all started with the same set of letters followed by different numbers, so they formed a numerical list of adjacent headings in the index.

These protocols were all discussed within the same page range of the book. The protocols might have been condensed into one heading.

However, this list of protocols reflected to some degree all three of the reasons discussed above for using a list in an index.

These protocols were essential for CNA/CNE test-takers to know. The list made each protocol easy to find. And it showed which protocols weren’t important enough for the test to be included in these guides.

OK, a list is not an index. But a list can help an index. Consider carefully what a list or lists might do for your indexes.


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

Learn more »

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