What does an Indexer do?

Mary McMahon
Mary McMahon

An indexer organizes information and creates an index which can be used to locate that information. Every time someone opens a nonfiction book and flips to the index to look something up, she or he is taking advantage of this person's hard work. Indexers can index books, magazine articles, and other types of publications. They may also provide abstraction and databasing services, depending on their skill sets and the areas in which they work.

Cookbooks typically contain indexes of ingredients.
Cookbooks typically contain indexes of ingredients.

Conventionally, authors are responsible for their own indexing. This is a highly specialized skill, however, and most authors are not up to the task, preferring to refer the job to an indexer. Indexers commonly work as freelancers, doing work on a job by job basis. Some may work for publishing companies, with large publishing houses maintaining a staff of indexers. The advantage to working as part of a staff is steady employment along with access to style guidelines which can be helpful when developing an index.

Although computer programs can try to create an index for a book, it usually takes the skills of an indexer to do the job right. Computers are very good at concordance, in which the computer identifies where specific words or phrases appear, and some are intelligent enough to determine how relevant an appearance is, but computers can still make mistakes.

An indexer reads through a book, receiving proofs which include final page numbers. He or she takes notes of key phrases and words and where they appear to start building an index. Working as an indexer is tricky, because he or she must think about the needs of an audience, determining what kind of terms people might want to look up.

To do the job effectively, the indexer must think about where people might look for a term; with a cookbook, for example, someone who wants a recipe for carrot cake might look for either "cake, carrot" or "carrot cake," and the indexer needs to decide what would be most appropriate. He or she also needs to have consistent style. In other words, if "cake, carrot" is being used, than any cake entry in the index would be formatted this way: "cake, chocolate," "cake, marble," "cake, angel food," and so forth.

The finished index is submitted to the publisher, and it is added to the finished publication so that it can be printed and distributed. The document is also usually reviewed to confirm that it will work with the publication and be appropriate for the audience. The author, for example, might scan it to make sure that key topics are covered in the index. In a book about nutrition, for example, one might expect to be able to find terms like "calories," "diet," "nutritional values," and so forth in the index.

Indexers can receive training through indexing certification classes and seminars. Some community colleges and technical schools also offer this type of training. Membership in a professional organization is open to people with demonstrated skills, and can be useful for people who would like to build professional careers in this field.

Mary McMahon
Mary McMahon

Ever since she began contributing to the site several years ago, Mary has embraced the exciting challenge of being a wiseGEEK researcher and writer. Mary has a liberal arts degree from Goddard College and spends her free time reading, cooking, and exploring the great outdoors.

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