Indexes: Still Necessary in the Age of E-Books

One of the challenges for legal librarians is making sure that library users get the most out of the resources available to them. There is an incredible amount of legal information available, but if a researcher cannot find the information he or she needs, the information might as well not exist. Fortunately there are a number of tools out there to make the process easier. On a wider level, these tools include library catalogues and bibliographies, and on a narrower level these tools include tables of contents and indexes.

A good index can be worth its weight in gold, helping readers to quickly find information they are looking for. Unfortunately, the indexes of law books are sometimes treated as an alphabetized version of the table of contents which they most definitely are not. Nancy Mulvany states in her excellent book on indexing:

“An index is not a concordance, a list of all the words that appear in a document. … An index is not a more elaborate version of the table of contents. Neither is the index simply an outline of the book.”

An index is a finding tool. While the table of contents shows users how a book is laid out, the index allows users to pinpoint the location of a specific subject in a book. In situations where a subject may be referred to by multiple terms, the index should include these synonyms. Legal researchers tend to deal with very specific areas of law; if it is not immediately apparent from the table of contents where these areas are found in the book, the index saves the researcher from having to read through all the possibilities. An index also makes it obvious if a subject is discussed in multiple sections of the book and which section deals with the subject in the most detail. For example, a reference to a range of pages generally indicates a greater depth of treatment than does a reference to just a single page.

Legal texts differ from other types of book in that they generally include both a subject index and more specialized indexes such as tables of cases and legislation. If a researcher is looking for commentary on a specific case or piece of legislation, these specialized indexes are extremely helpful.

It is sometimes assumed that a book that is being read on an electronic device does not need an index, as readers can use the search function instead. Although word search is a useful tool, it does not replace the index, since it fails to distinguish between irrelevant mentions of a word (e.g. “this chapter will not discuss SEARCHTERM”) and lengthy discussion of the subject. If a book is published both in print and electronically, the design of the eBook index tends to be based on its print counterpart with additional functionality, such as hypertext links, being added. Too literal a conversion of the print index can reduce the index’s usefulness; for example, some index conventions like the two- or three-column format are much harder to read on a computer.

It can be tempting for publishers to speed through the preparation of an index since it is the final step of the book editing process. At this point the book has been completely edited and the pages have been laid out. Any delays in the writing and editing process will reduce the time allocated to the indexer which in turn may result in a reduction in the quality of the index. Ideally the indexer should have enough time to fully understand the material and ask the author for clarifications as necessary.

Factors that can affect the quality of the index include how knowledgeable the indexer is about the subject matter and if there are multiple authors; in a book where chapters are written by different people, different terminology may be used by each author, making the indexer’s job harder. Another challenge for indexers is designing the index for the appropriate level of reader: will the book be read by people who are unfamiliar with the subject, experts, or – more challengingly – both?

There have been experiments in automated indexing, but these have not been as successful in producing indexes as those produced by humans. Human indexers are still better at understanding how readers look for information, and how the various terms used relate to each other.

A poor index (or no index at all) impedes the research process. Giving the increasing number of e-books out there, publishers may think that they can omit the index as it is no longer necessary, but, as has been mentioned above, this is not the case. The index remains a valuable tool for researchers no matter what the format of the publication.

Further Reading

Nancy C. Mulvany, Indexing books, 2nd ed. (Chicago : University of Chicago Press, 2005).


  1. David Collier-Brown

    I’ve found indexes far superior to search, as one indexes by concept, and a test-string search will miss everything that isn’t spelled identically to the original.

    A good index in an e-book is a collection of links, some of which may have been found by a search, but the majority of the indexing process that produces it is entirely non-technical: it’s a mental search for meaning.

  2. Anjali Dandekar

    Thanks Susannah.

    I love Indexes, I find them so useful. I remember, showing students many uses of indexes while doing a training session in the law libraries. However these days, one spends less time on indexes. I feel a great tool which gets used less frequently. I also liked David’s comments.

  3. Great walk-through discussion about indexing, but I’m not sure I would be so confident to conclude “publishers may think that they can omit the index as it is no longer necessary, but, as has been mentioned above, this is not the case.” You have demonstrated how an index is useful. This does not prove that it is necessary. Many things (saucers, tie-clips, double monitors) can be useful, but are not necessarily… well, necessary.
    Also, they are really not perceived as necessary by many, many users. As mentioned they are used less frequently, and search is certainly an alternative (even if not an optimal one).
    The critical factor comes down to costs. The average cost of production for a scholarly monograph (I appreciate this is not necessarily the legal industry) is $30,659 (see page 19) and direct editorial/non-print production costs (including indexing) comprise the lion’s share of this: $10,850.

  4. My experience indicates that expert indexing is crucial. Within my own electronic publishing activities, we created much better searching by putting indices back in, having removed them under the mistaken view that electronic content is self-indexing. It isn’t.
    I find that some publishers don’t have indices prepared to save cost, to cover for the fact that authors don’t always want to do them themselves and they no longer have the skills, inside and out of house, to do them. Worse, some publishers, not intimate with the needs and standards of good law publishing, just have no means by which to measure the importance and functions of legal indexing, in those occasional cases where lunatics have taken over asylums.

  5. Geneviève Gélinas

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  6. I agree with Nate. Usefulness is one thing; it’s not really debatable.

    The question is: Are there enough customers lining up to purchase products featuring indices at a price superior than (at least) their production cost?

  7. I make e-books sometimes. They are usually fiction, but I have made one (small) non-fiction that needed a name index. The advantage to an e-book name index is the link can take you straight to the instance in the text (no more reading a whole page to find the reference) and because there were variations on the names I could link directly to each variation (remember all those times when a see reference in an index left you wondering about the context? Solved). The variations in the index itself would still refer to the main term but can also link to the varied instance in the text and help understanding by showing how each was used. I can’t speak for any other type of indexing but I can say that name indexes in e-books can be much more useful for the reader.

  8. I know I’m not alone in considering whether or not there’s an index when deciding on a book purchase; the absence of a back-of-the-book index signals an inferior production, in my view.

    A more subtle point is the information conveyed to a potential reader by the content of an index. Note several commenters at the following discussion who observed that people often peruse indexes in order to decide whether or not to purchase:

    Some say an index is an example of metadata:
    I would call a back-of-the-book index an example of metadata of extreme granularity.

    For further argument in favour of the index, see:

    As an aside, I (in my capacity as a legal editor at CLEBC) have noticed with curiosity that litigators tend to refer to a book’s (or a chapter’s) table of contents as its “index”. It finally dawned on me that the reason for this is likely the fact that “index” is the name given to that page of an application record that immediately follows the title page of an application record, pursuant to B.C. Supreme Court Civil Rule 8-1(15)(b)(ii)!