on names

This week I am indexing an historical biography on a woman of importance in the late 1800s and early 1900s. I feel, a little, like I’m studying for a high-school history class (for me that is a huge perk of being an indexer, I love learning about people, places, and concepts I’d otherwise have no or little introduction to).

name tagThe book is pretty name-heavy. In the case of this current project, the author stated that he wanted all names in the text included in the index, so I am obliging that request. If I hadn’t received such specific instruction, however, there would have been some choices to be made on whom to include in the index, and who was simply a passing mention.

If you are the author of a biographical or historical book, or one of any genre that includes many names, you will likely be asked by your indexer if you have a preference on determining which people are important enough to be indexed. When I put it that way, it seems like a daunting task, right?

Here are a few things I talk about with my clients when we discuss names in a name-heavy book:

  1. Usually you will not want every name indexed. If for no other reason than inclusion of each person will likely make the index too large and run the risk of being confusing for readers.
  1. People who are passing mentions usually do not need to be included in the index. Consider, for example, a reader that finds Shakespeare, William in the index, turns Hw-shakespeareto the appropriate page only to find: “Smith enjoyed reading Shakespeare during his college years.” This information gives no substance to the reader and only leaves them frustrated. The same goes for epigraphs. I find these hints at the theme of the coming text to be useful and enlightening, but they usually provide no new information and need not be indexed.
  1. Sometimes indexing most names, including passing mentions, can be worth-while to the marketing of the book. Last year I indexed a cookbook about a resort town in Mexico that included many stories of the people who have had homes in the resort over the last fifty years. This book will likely sell mostly entirely to folks who lived or visited the resort. To check the index and find your name, or that of a relative or friend, could be the difference between a sale and someone walking away. Realize, though, that books of this nature are a rarity.
  1. I fully understand the desire to include a person of importance in your field, especially in scholarly works. I’d encourage you to provide such a list to your indexer. I once indexed a book on sales marketing. I had glossed over a name that was mentioned twice in the book, but in both instances with no information I found necessary to index. After the author first read through the index, he emailed me very upset that I had not included the name of a very important woman in the marketing world. I explained my decision not to include her, leading the author to realize he hadn’t written nearly enough about a person he was trying to impress. It was a very enlightening conversation for both of us. He was able to remedy the omission with a quick added paragraph that didn’t change the pagination of the book (thank goodness, because that would be a whole different conversation that we can talk about at another time).

In the end, the best practice is to trust your indexer. Most of us have trained for these situations, read the authoritative books on when to index and when not to, and have years of experience backing us up.

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