Category Archives: 2017

Passing mentions – when you don’t have to index everything

As a Society of Indexers trained indexer I work under the tenets of BS ISO 999:1996 Information and documentation — Guidelines for the content, organisation and presentation of indexes. This states, among other things, that the function of an index is to provide the user with an efficient means of tracing information. The indexer should therefore: a) identify and locate relevant information within the material being indexed; b) discriminate between information on a subject and passing mention of a subject; c) exclude passing mention of subjects that offer nothing significant to the potential user.

Passing mentions are an item or concept mentioned incidentally in the text but lacking worthwhile information about the item or concept itself. Mere mentions of the existence of something that does not provide at least one fact should be avoided in an index. Generally I try not include locators where no substantial information is provided.

Passing mentions typically fall into four main types:

  • examples (Many marsupials, including possums and bilbies, are nocturnal – entry would be marsupials or nocturnal animals, not possums or bilbies),
  • lists of things or people (the group subject is the entry if it needs one)
  • asides (as my predecessor, Dr Jones, might have done – no entry for Jones)
  • scene setting may include passing mentions that are not followed up with what follows.

In the age of Big Data and ctrl+f searches it can seem quaint and outdated in that as an indexer I have to try and assume the role of reader and what they might be looking for and make judgements. But that’s the advantage of having a human being do the job, not a computer. However, I also have to ensure the terms used are appropriate and will

  • quickly establish the presence or absence of information on a specific subject in an unfamiliar work [the new reader or browser],
  • quickly retrieve information on a remembered item in a known or partially known work [someone who has already read all or part].

The first will let someone know if the book is worth reading, the second helps them find things when they return to it.

So I try to find relevant information, concentrating on the ‘aboutness’ of each section, and generate ways of readers finding material they might want. Indexing is an art, and as such every indexer will without doubt produce a slightly different take on any particular text, they might choose different ways of saying things, they might select different pages. But each would produce a usable index.


The Society of Indexers is celebrating its diamond anniversary in 2017 and designated 30 March as the first National Indexing Day to raise awareness of this essential profession.

The Society has seen many changes in book production and indexing methods during that time. Gone are index cards, going out are paper prints and highlighter pens, in are specialised software packages, coming in are e-pub books with linked indexes. I wonder what the next 60 years will bring?

Media coverage included an article by Society of Indexers President Sam Leith which explains a lot about what indexers do – see here. And the following week there was a podcast by Sam and Dennis Duncan discussing the history of indexing. Listen here.

Here’s a Storify of the coverage we got – National Indexing Day.

National indexing day



Current Archaeology Book of the Year

Voting recently took place for the 2017 Current Archaeology awards, including the Book of the Year. The winner was Images of the Ice Age (Paul Bahn) – this book has an index that the publisher owns up to, but I can’t see it or any reviews of it.

So, what of the indexes in the other books? Might considering the usefulness of the index have helped voters decide the best book?

Celts: art and identity (Julia Farley and Fraser Hunter) – there is an index, and it has been described as “workable” – which might be damning it with faint praise. I haven’t seen this book, so can’t comment further.

St Kilda: the last and outmost isle (Angela Gannon and George Geddes) – also listed for a British Archaeological Award – I can’t find whether this book has an index or not, or a reviewer who has commented on it.

Bog Bodies Uncovered (Miranda Aldhouse-Green) – a reviewer on GoodReads said the index was “nice”. But that’s all I can find.

The Home Front in Britain 1914-1918  (C Appleby, W Cocroft, J Schofield) – Council for British Archaeology Handbook. But I can’t find any reference to this book having an index.

Ritual in Early Bronze Age Grave Goods (Ann Woodward and John Hunter) This is book is ordered by item type and there is an index of grave groups and objects studied in detail, which is in itself very detailed.

Hidden Histories: a spotters guide to the British landscape (Mary-Ann Ochota) Seems to contain an index of places, as the book is arranged by theme there may have been no need for anything more. The index was prepared by a Society of Indexers member.

A Tale of the Axe: how the Neolithic revolution transformed Britain (David Miles) This book has an index, but that’s pretty much all I can say. An indexer has told me that the index was “good, helpful, and well constructed”. So that’s OK then.

So, what do we learn from this review? Not much I am sad to say. The books in question are not generally available to ‘look inside’ on Amazon, and the publishers don’t make much of the indexes as a selling point. Also, the reviews I found seem slightly shy of mentioning the index. Maybe this was because of space constraints, or possibly because the reviewers only know a good index by the fact it wasn’t bad. The index probably wouldn’t have made or broken the chances of any of these books succeeding in the Current Archaeology awards, however, the absence of an index, or a poor index can impact on the chances of a user making full use of the information contained in the book.