Review by Sarah Bidigare (October 4, 2000)

The Art of Indexing

Although Larry Bonura's The Art of Indexing was published in 1994, I began reading it with the hope of gaining a concise overview of the principles of indexing books, which I could then apply to the indexing of web sites.

I quickly discovered that it focuses specifically on indexing technical documentation. Despite the narrow focus, many of the techniques and recommendations that Bonura describes are tried and true indexing practices that can be adapted to indexing on the Web.

Bonura explains that the primary purpose of any index is to lead the reader to a specific topic, and that the index should enable the reader to find topics according to their way of thinking. This purpose translates directly into the Web environment. For example, a site index should list topics using the terminology appropriate to the audience of that web site.

Bonura makes an important point that the best indexes are created manually. One of the drawbacks to many web sites is their complete dependence on automated tools for indexing content. Automated tools can facilitate the process of indexing, but cannot replace the understanding and experience of human indexers in determining the subjects that will direct users to the information they need.

For example, on a gardening web site that sells Echinacea plants, an automated tool will not know that users might describe the same plant as Coneflowers. However, a human indexer would know to index this information under both terms or with a reference between the two terms, providing the user the ability to find the item using either term.

If you are considering indexing for the Web, The Art of Indexing may be helpful but should not serve as your only source for learning about the fundamental principles for indexing books. Instead, I would recommend a variety of resources. A few examples to consider include:

Quotes from the Text

"An index directs the reader to a specific topic. That is the primary task of any index. It should enable the reader to find topics according to the reader's way of thinking - it's perfectly okay to include non-technical words and phrases in indexes." (p. 6)

"Indexing is a complex decision process involving perceptual discrimination, concept formation, and problem solving." (p.10)

"An incomplete index is almost as useless as no index. Completeness is indispensable. Include every major topic discussed in the document. Cross-reference necessary terms. Give the reader all the means to find a topic." (p. 22)

"A good index has the following characteristics:

  • Accuracy
  • Depth of indexing
  • Conciseness
  • Cross-referencing
  • Logical headings" (p.26)
"The key to developing a good index is to list topics in the same manner in which the reader will attempt to find them." (p. 46)

"Indexing utilities are not a replacement for a professional indexer." (p. 100)

"A good index makes access easier, and that is the main purpose of the index. And indexing for online documents is exactly the same as for hard copy!" (p. 150)

"To create the best indexes, it must be done manually, not generated by a computer or through full-text search." (p. 150)