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Indexing Biographies and Other Stories of Human Lives
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Success Stories

edited by Hazel K Bell

ISBN 1 871577 29 2
Society of Indexers, 2004 (3rd ed)
106pp, paperback
Retail price 17.50

Open Book

Review by Deborah Fisher 

A specialist work calls for a specialist publisher, both because of the nature of the work itself and because of the nature of its market. The Society of Indexers probably does not expect a huge readership for the somewhat quaintly-titled Indexing Biographies and Other Stores of Human Lives. It does, however, feel that the rules, or guidelines, for this type of indexing need to be made widely available to those who have the job of compiling indexes (which may be a labour of love, a professional vocation or, as in my case, a necessity). What better option, then, then for the Society of Indexers to publish it themselves.

Indexing is an art, or maybe a science, which most people take for granted. Those who have never attempted it will nevertheless know the frustration of searching in vain through an index for a fact or name they know is somewhere in the text of the book. An indexer seeks to make the information easy to find without replicating the contents of the book or hiding the sought-after entry among a mass of superfluous terms.

That this is the third edition of the book proves not only that a guide to the craft of indexing biographies is needed, but that this guide sometimes needs updating. One may hope that it also means that previous editions have sold out, which would put the Society of Indexers one up on most specialist publishers.

Hazel Bell does her usual conscientious job of covering everything you need to know about indexing biographies but were afraid to ask – or maybe never thought of asking. Chapter titles such as "The perils of partiality" and "Mighty main characters" indicate how her treatment of the subject matter is made more memorable and more interesting as well as informative. This is no dry-as-dust textbook or set of rules, but a comprehensive, yet sometimes quite personal, overview. Examples from Bell’s own indexing career are used to illustrate the kind of dilemmas an indexer may come up against, as well as ideas on how to handle them.

Let’s face it, no one who is not faced, or does not expect ever to be faced, with the task of compiling an index will pick up this book. Yet the boom in self-publishing, especially of autobiographies, means that more people than ever may find themselves faced with that task. An index can be created by computer, but the best indexes are compiled by human beings who know exactly what they are doing – hence there are actually prizes to be won for indexing. If you are reading this review, you may well be in the independent publishing game. If so, I urge you to invest.