Publishers’ Pathetic Misunderstanding of Indices

I’ve been wondering why so many academic and other nonfiction books have recently been showing up without indexes. Apparently the geniuses of publishing have been telling people that indexing is obsolete in a search engine world. Running a search will find the page number, ergo, no problem. You may imagine my annoyance.

An index is not primarily a tool for finding page numbers on which topics are mentioned. Rather, it is meant to inform you that some topic is available in that book.

(Said topic is probably not labeled or mentioned in the same exact way in the text, particularly in books where the indexes helpfully annotate oblique references by the author. This is also why you sometimes see extremely detailed and cross-referenced tables of contents taking the place of indexes, particularly in poetry compilations, songbooks, and old hymnals.)

Cross-referencing is important, especially when one topic connects closely to another. So is good alphabetization (I know it should go without saying, but it doesn’t), and a logical choice of labels for the topics which people might think to look up.

Basically, an index is a database providing more intuitive, swift, thorough use of a book’s information, starting by informing you of which topics are available at all. It’s not a poor man’s search engine. Search engine makers dream of achieving the same accuracy and ease of use of a really well-indexed book.

Now, I suppose that if nobody buys books any more, and if you are going to search for topics entirely through the cloud, you might be able to find what you want. But if you can’t remember what something or someone is called, it’s hard to run a search except in the most oblique and frustrating ways. (Especially within a single book one has not yet read.) Indexes are great for this.

Also, if you are interested in, say, a specific Biblical passage or sourcework quote, and if very similar passages are quoted throughout a book, you will want to find out not just if the source is quoted or referenced, but whether the specific passage is there, and how many times, and in what context. If quotes consist of, say, a single word like “slings”, and the book also discusses handheld weaponry of ancient times, you won’t be able to search by “slings and arrows” with much effect. If you’re looking for Rev. 3:8, and the book only cites Rev. 3:7-9 or even Rev. 3:3.7.9, a search engine won’t find that, either. Biblical translations vary a lot and are quoted and referenced in various non-literal ways, which is why the chapter and verse citation method was invented in the first place.

So if you’re studying the Fathers or a theologian, the book usually includes a huge index of Scriptural citations in back. To do otherwise would be madness.

I could go on, but I’m sure you can think of other uses for good indices.

Now, it’s possible that in the future, indexes for ebooks will be built in some different way which enables quicker browsing and searching. But right now, the good old index in the back with links is badly needed.

I suppose the most efficient thing to do would be just to tag every paragraph with a unique anchor id tag, and then link back to that whenever you needed. People used to number their paragraphs in the old days; it wouldn’t be that different.

Sigh. I hate to get all angry in these posts all the time. But it just seems like a lot of people who are paid to think about these things, refuse to think. They tell people to do things every which way, and then they’re all surprised when it makes it harder to find stuff when they want it.

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