The art of indexing

Debbie Jacob  -
Debbie Jacob -

Debbie Jacob

THERE ARE literary gems – fiction and non-fiction– just waiting to be discovered at the NGC Bocas Lit Fest in Nalis, Port of Spain from April 25-28. Here, bookstores come to you with some of the best literature we have in the country. At the Nalis entrance, book vendors have tables with local literature – especially the books featured in this event.

You’ll find the three books up for the OCM Bocas Prize for the Caribbean literature finals: Hungry Ghosts by Kevin Jared Hosein (fiction); The Ferguson Report: An Erasure by Nicole Sealey (poetry) and How to Say Babylon by Safiya Sinclair (non-fiction). Discover Son of Grace by Vaneisa Baksh, a biography of cricketer Frank Worrell, and Against Toleration, a sweeping history of the Spiritual/Shouter Baptist and Shaker persecution in the Caribbean by Claudius Fergus.

If you’re an avid reader, a budding writer or someone who wants to explore the wonderful world of books but doesn’t know where to start, the NGC Bocas Lit Fest is the place to take the plunge. The workshops and panel discussions are always enjoyable and informative experiences. The more we are exposed to world-class literary events like this, the more we grow as readers and writers.

There’s so much to see at this literary festival, but there’s also something not so visible to discover and appreciate. While browsing at the book tables, check out one of the required features of non-fiction books: the index. Buried in the back of books, indexes are essential parts of non-fiction. Maybe it takes a non-fiction writer or librarian like me to get excited about this feature, but all readers, writers and scholars should appreciate an extensive index and understand its special place in a book.

Indexes are important entry points for readers. They show what subjects a book covers. Together, the entries in an index organise information in a book so that readers can pinpoint all the pages where each subject occurs. In that way, they offer multiple entry points and save time from reading an entire book when searching for information for research papers.

Reducing information from an entire book into an index is an important exercise in organisation. Indexes are vitally important to books in the Heritage Library, a closed reference library. Patrons can’t browse through books in a closed library. Only a librarian can access the special collection.

When I did an internship in library science at Nalis, my favourite experience was deep indexing books in the Heritage Library. Librarians in special libraries often add information to the electronic version of the general index of a catalogued book to cover topics that relate to a specific audience or place.

Indexes are one example of how individual creativity can trump technology. Well-written indexes are hand-crafted and can’t be written better with the digital tools at our fingertips. Index writing moves along at a turtle’s pace – they can take weeks to write – so it might seem tempting for a non-fiction writer to access an index-generating programme or hire a professional editor to do this work.

But good publishers strongly advise authors to write their own indexes. Publishers say no one knows your book better than you, so you’re the best person for the task.

There are many hidden lessons in those indexes, which many readers skip, skim through or take for granted. Mostly, they remind us that we shouldn’t jump to the conclusion that technology is always better or more reliable than our own creativity or organisational skills.

Indexes also teach an important lesson about modern education, which tends to push students to be tech-savvy and dependent – or at least over-reliant – on technology. Technology should assist us but not become a crutch, and we shouldn’t put blind faith in it.

Indexes depend on alphabetising, a skill that might seem unimportant if you’re dependent on your computer and don’t recognise the rules of alphabetising as a key organisational skill.

So when you visit the NGC Bocas Lit Fest and browse through all of those great books on display, flip to the back of non-fiction books and look at the indexes. They tell a story of what the author felt were important subjects to include in that book.

Those indexes might seem long, but they have condensed a whole book into its subjects. They’re a useful guide and time-saving device. Indexes are works of art. They take time and special care to create. In the world of books, think of indexes as the Waterford crystal standard of craftsmanship.


"The art of indexing"

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