Reflections on Authorship and Indexing

© 1995 Nancy C. Mulvany

This article was originally published in The Indexer, "Guest Editorial: Reflections on Authorship and Indexing", October 1995.


We all come to indexing from some other background. I don’t know of anyone who grew up aspiring to be an indexer. The diverse backgrounds of indexers contribute to the eclectic and interesting nature of our profession. Our backgrounds define much of our perspective about indexing. For me, writing is the consistent theme in my background. I have written for various types of newspapers, ranging from my high school paper to community papers. I have written feature articles for magazines, software reviews for computer publications, portions of a policy and procedure manual for a university, and technical pieces for academic journals. I have always considered myself a writer. Even when I had non-writing jobs, I was still a writer. During the six months when I wrote a novel, I earned my money as a writer who worked with a house painting crew.

When I began indexing, I felt that I was learning yet another type of writing. It was different than writing a news story, a technical report, a novel, or ad copy; but it was still writing. It was a difficult form of writing to learn. No longer did I have the advantage of explaining myself with complete sentences and paragraphs. It was necessary to learn precision and organize concepts in an unambiguous manner through the careful choice of succinct words and phrases. My sense of language and usage is more acute due to years of index writing.

The interpretation of text for an index is not unlike the process of sifting through hours of transcribed interviews and research materials gathered for a feature story. In both situations, it is necessary to pull the important topics out and make them explicit. Despite strong urges to the contrary, it is not acceptable to alter the comments of persons interviewed for stories. So too in an index, we must remain true to the text and compose indexes that are true to the text. Like a feature story, we are compelled to design a document that presents the facts in a way that is understandable to the readers. This requires judgment, selectivity, and sensitivity. A good writer never loses sight of the audience. The writing, whatever type it may be, exists only to be read. We write for readers.

Of course, it came as a great surprise to me that other writers did not consider an index to be a form of writing. Unfortunately, the prevailing public perception of indexers seems to be derived from characters like Dulcie in Barbara Pym’s No Fond Return of Love. "But there is more satisfaction in scrubbing a floor or digging a garden, Dulcie thought. One seems nearer to the heart of things doing menial tasks than in making the most perfect index." In the same book two other characters refer to indexing as "terribly boring," a "dreary job."

‘Yes, it’s a dreary job — one I simply can’t imagine you ever having to do.’ He smiled.

‘But somebody has to.’

‘Yes, somebody has to. But there are people trained to do such things.’

‘Like performing seals’

Boring, tedious, unsatisfying work — this is a common perception of indexers’ work. I do not find others describing investigative reporting or the writing of a novel this way. Other types of writers are often perceived as engaged in glamorous and exciting work.

Far more shocking to me was the discovery that many indexers do not consider themselves writers. Most of our clients do not consider us writers. Witness the countless number of indexes published without contracts, without assignment of rights, without naming the author. This is our tradition. With the exception of indexes, none of my published writings lack attribution. Every article and book identifies me as the author. They are my writings and I take responsibility for them. This means, of course, that I accept both praise and blame. People may disagree with me. At the very least I try to be thoughtful in anticipation of having to defend myself in the future.

Although there are exceptions, most index authors are anonymous. I fear that this anonymity cloaks a lack of accountability and respect. If the index author were identified at the beginning of every published index I imagine we would see an increase in index quality. If editors realized that they were dealing with authored works, undoubtedly indexers would be given the same editorial control over their work as that accorded to other writers.

Many years ago I was negotiating an indexing contract with a magazine publisher. The managing editor asked that I include material in the index that I felt did not belong in an index. We wrangled over this matter for quite a while. Finally, I said that if he insisted on including the material in the index, I would insist that there be no byline for me. I did not want my name or my company’s name associated with the index. An author not wanting a byline — he knew what that meant, he dealt with writers day in day out. It was the clearest indication to him of how strongly I felt. He acquiesced and dropped the request.

In the United States, the concept of "original works of authorship" is central to our copyright law. Authored indexes are entitled to copyright registration (1). Originality can easily be demonstrated by comparing indexes to the same material written by different indexers. Each index will be original and unique. Copyright law falls under the larger umbrella of intellectual property law. Property is the operative word here; this index is mine, my property. The sense of "mine"—I wrote it, I sold it, I’m responsible for it—this is what is lacking when we do not consider ourselves authors.

When we fail to embrace authorship we open a Pandora’s box. Out jumps Indexicon: The Only Fully Automatic Indexer promising that "with just a click of the mouse, you create back-of-the-book indexes," and you can "produce professional quality indexes at a rate of up to 50 pages per minute" (2). Hot on the heels of Indexicon is the almost final revision of the U.S. standard on indexes (NISO Z39.4-199x), a standard that, unlike its British and international counterparts, levels the playing field; KWIC lists, nondisplayed "indexes", faceted lists, and indexes written by humans are all elevated (or demoted) to the same level of discussion. In addition, services flourish that scan printed indexes, without a thought about copyright violation, so that they can be manipulated electronically.

Equally disturbing to me is the languidness I sense in the profession. Unlike other writers who vigorously negotiate contracts and assignment of rights, we indexers are more likely to either work without a contract or sign whatever is presented to us. Unlike other writers who wrestle with their editors over changes in their work, we indexers are more likely to not even be involved in the editing of our work. There is a feeling that if we "cause too much trouble" we can be easily replaced. Among ourselves we gripe about how our work is undervalued, but we are afraid to demand higher payment from clients. Many of us lack that pride of authorship so common in other writers. We allow our work to be published without attribution and abdicate all editorial control. If indexers are not writers, then what are we?

If we don’t change our direction, we’ll get where we’re headed.


1. Mulvany, Nancy C. ‘Copyright for indexes, revisited’, ASI Newsletter, November/December 1991, 11-13.

2. Mulvany, Nancy and Milstead, Jessica. ‘Indexicon, the only fully automatic indexer: a review’, Key Words 2 (5) SEP/OCT 1994, 1, 17-23.

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