Essay: Back of the Book, or How I Explain My Profession

It’s the same reaction most every time I tell someone I am an indexer.

Blank stare.

“You know, the thing at the end of a book,” I offer helpfully.
Then, a light goes off.

“Oh, I thought a computer did that.”

We take books, the miracle of their existence, for granted. But we also take individual parts of the book for granted as well; that is, if we ever give them much thought to begin with. I am referring in particular to the humble index. Now I admit that being an indexer is not exactly the most glamorous profession in the world but it is a profession nevertheless created by someone and not just words that miraculously appear in columns on a page.

It is easy to say what an index is not. An index is definitely not a concordance, which simply refers to an alphabetical list of every word in a text. Rather, an index, at its most elemental, makes it easier for the reader to find things. It’s subjective. It’s a judgment call. Think of it as the equivalent of browsing in your favorite bookshop: you may not know what you’re looking for but you’ll know it when you see it.

And now Dennis Duncan, a lecturer of English at University College London, has written a history of the modest little thing we call an index. Duncan’s book with its playful and perfectly indexical title, Index, A History of the: A Bookish Adventure from Medieval Manuscripts to the Digital Age, has received a lot of ink lately, a pleasant surprise given its seemingly arcane subject matter. But maybe it shouldn’t be surprising since book reviewers love writing about their profession in much the same way that, say, the Academy Awards loves raining praise and honors down on movies about Hollywood, from The Artist, which won the Best Picture award in 2011 to, more recently, Once Upon a Time…in Hollywood in 2019, which earned Brad Pitt the Best Supporting Actor prize. Still, for an indexer like myself, it is reassuring to see reviews in such major publications as the New York Times Book Review and the New Yorker.

Of course, plenty of books have been published on specific aspects of books and the book trade such as H. J. Jackson’s Marginalia: Readers Writing in Books and at two least two books on the footnote, Anthony Grafton’s The Footnote: A Curious History and Chuck Zerby’s The Devil’s Details: A History of Footnotes and in 2022, Johanna Drucker published a history of the alphabet, Inventing the Alphabet: The Origins of Letters from Antiquity to the Present (full disclosure: I indexed the latter) but, as far as I can tell, this is the first commercial book on the history of the index.

Duncan’s book is a joy to read even if you are not an indexer. As Duncan notes, the index “is one of those inventions that are so successful…that they can often become invisible.” But, as he also notes, the index has a rich pedigree: it is nearly 800 years old, he asserts, and the precursor to what we now know as the search engine (hello, Google!).

Duncan follows the history of the index from 13th-century monasteries in Europe to 21st-century Silicon Valley. The story of the index, he adds, is the story of information science as well as the history of reading “in microcosm.” His entertaining book touches on the scroll, a roll of parchment for writing on; the codex, a sheaf of papers considered the historical ancestor of the modern book; and the introduction of the movable type printing press by Johannes Gutenberg around 1450 and William Caxton’s printing press in England in 1476. He also discusses the emergence of the page number and before that—way before that—the history of the alphabet.

The subject matter may sound dry but Duncan’s book is as delightful as anything written by Mary “Comma Queen” Norris (Between You & Me: Confessions of a Comma Queen) or Lynne Truss (Eats, Shoots & Leaves: The Zero Tolerance Approach to Punctuation). According to Duncan, in its earlier incarnation the index was about more than just presenting a list of words and names. It could also be the literary way to settle scores: indices would feature jabs at various enemies, real or imagined. To cite one example, he mentions books where indices were weaponized to attack political opponents, such as the case between Whigs and Tories in 18th century Britain. Nowadays, readers will often go straight to the index to see if their name appears in it. It’s the equivalent, Duncan slyly notes, of Googling ourselves.

Of course, we don’t really read indices—not in their entirety at least. “We use them, refer to them, dip into them,” says Duncan. But if you do happen to read through an index, you will often be able to see the entire framework of the book you have in your hands. As one writer told me, “There’s something incredibly intimate about [an] index and what it reflects back at the author. So many judgments rest behind each entry.” Another said, “All those things I have been carrying around in my head are now down on paper.”

Robot or Human?

But do we really need people to create indices? Can’t an index be “outsourced” to computers?

To answer that question, Duncan includes two indices at the back of the book: one created by a commercial software program and the other by a flesh-and-blood human being, Paula Clarke Bain, a member of the Society of Indexing. The society was founded in Britain in 1957, and is the oldest of the professional indexing organizations (the American society was founded in 1968). Duncan suggests a human-created index is the difference between a fast food snack and a meal at an upscale restaurant, between, let’s say, a pit-stop at McDonald’s versus a leisurely dinner at Alinea. I mean no criticism of Duncan when I say that Bain’s index is one of the highlights of the book. Her index (her initials appear in brackets) is full of joyful surprises and moments of hilarity.

drudgery, of indexing [how dare you—PCB]
human indexers, superiority of


veneration of [and quite right too]
Society of Indexers
[Hi colleagues!—PCB]

And my favorite, the last entry:

Z, z, z ‘And so to bed’ [PCB]

“Like the Learned Pig”

Among the other fun details in this book—and there are plenty of them—are references to “literary indexers,” as Duncan calls them: authors who indexed their own books.

Virginia Woolf

On March 29, 1926, Virginia Woolf wrote to the English novelist and poet Vita Sackville-West: “If you had come in yesterday you would have seen me with the floor all strewn with little squares of paper, like the learned pig.”

Woolf was using “little squares of paper”—rather than index cards even though Carl Linnaeus, the father of taxonomy, had invented them some time in the mid-1760s––when she was creating the index for her novel, the feminist classic Orlando. Since it was a work of fiction—and most works of fiction are not indexed—it was intended to be a bit of a lark, a way to cool off her mind after the difficulty of writing her 1927 masterwork To the Lighthouse. A decade earlier, in 1917, Woolf and her husband, Leonard, had bought a printing press and established their own publishing house, the Hogarth Press. The index entries in Orlando are succinct and straightforward, consisting of proper names but with one prominent exception, the playful entry for Woolf’s cross-dressing protagonist:

Orlando, appearance as a boy, 15; writes his first play, 16; visits Queen at Whitehall, 24…

Or, further on in the entry:

…becomes a woman, 137; with the gipsies, 140-152; returns to England, 152; lawsuits, 168; Archduke Harry, 179; in London society, 192; entertains the wits, 208; and Mr. Pope, 212…

In one short entry, Woolf manages to summarize a life and with a narrative arc no less.
Alas, Woolf’s other index was less enjoyable. After finishing the index for her 1940 biography of painter and critic Roger Fry, she wrote in her diary entry of June 11, 1940: “My Index sent off—so thats the very final full stop to all that drudgery.”

A Secret Society

I have created hundreds of indices over the years, most for university presses and many for the University of Chicago Press. I like the anonymity of being an indexer. It’s as if I’m a member of a secret literary society, my identity known only to the author and my editor. This is not to say that I have not been officially recognized every now and then. I have. Once a very generous author invited me to his book party, which was held at the Capital Grille in Streeterville. That was a first.

Another time I attended a book party at the upstairs room at the Hopleaf Bar in Andersonville to celebrate the release of The Oxford Companion to Beer. The editor, Garrett Oliver, the beer author and brewmaster at Brooklyn Brewery, didn’t even know I was his indexer (not unusual at the bigger publishing houses). When I introduced myself, he seemed genuinely pleased to meet me. He even signed his autograph in my copy of the book—on the index page, of course.

The Chicago Manual of Style encourages wording that is “concise and logical” and recommends that terms be chosen according to “the author’s usage.” Although most entries I create are impartial and even-handed (I try not to editorialize or insert an opinion that is contrary to that of the author), sometimes humor creeps in, when appropriate. A book on statistics that I indexed, for example, included a few silly entries (“Snerd, Mortimer” or, my favorite, “ass, yours, getting it lost, techniques for”) but that reflected the style and personality of the author.

The author-indexer relationship is a temporary partnership. It is—or can be—collaborative and as personal as the relationship that exists between author and editor. Some authors have strong feelings about what should be included in their index; others barely have an opinion. In essence, the indexer is the conduit between author and reader.

Creating an index also requires deep reading, “active reading,” says Duncan. The end result provides not just context but interpretation. One author felt like I was reading her mind. Another insisted that collaborating on the index was the most exciting part of the entire publishing process. The index can capture the breadth of a book or, as one author told me, “a kind of anatomy of the book as a whole.” My favorite remark, though, was from Alison Pearlman, author of Smart Casual: The Transformation of Gourmet Restaurant Style in America, who found the indexing process “so complex that, if I tried it, I’d probably end up with my head on fire, launching myself through a window.” Moreover, she was kind enough to send me a Christmas surprise as a thank you for my “hard work”: a box of delicious cookies from the Momofuku Milk Bar in New York.

You can orderHere then let us toast to the under-sung, the neglected, the invisible indexer. Who knows? You might even be friends—or related to one of them—without even realizing it.

You can buy or order Index, A History of the from your favorite bookseller or from the publisher

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June Sawyers
June Sawyers

June Sawyers has published more than 25 books. Her work has appeared in the Chicago Tribune, New City, San Francisco Chronicle, and Stagebill. She teaches at the Newberry Library and is the founder of the arts group, the Phantom Collective.

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