Biography Progress Report #26: What’s in an Index?

Year of Ann Dvorak: Day 218

Working with the University Press of Kentucky has been fantastic. They provided editorial guidance early on, which helped get me pointed in the right direction for the duration of writing the book. Since turning in the finished manuscript, they paired me with an awesome copy editor, allowed me to make significant last minute changes based on newly obtained materials, and assigned the book to talented designers for the cover and interior. The one thing they did not provide was an indexer.

I am not sure if putting the burden of the index on the author is traditional or a new development in the world of publishing. I knew early on that this was going to be my responsibility, and had been dreading it for months. Sure, I had the option of hiring someone, but generally don’t have a spare $3,000 for such things. Fortunately, making my living as a librarian means I hang out with other librarians, and one of my closest friends happens to be a cataloger. For those of you not familiar with the profession, there are many different paths librarians can follow in their careers and not everyone can be a cataloger. I certainly never could. I don’t have the patience and attention span to analyze an item, describe it, and assigned one, or many, classifications to it. As it turns out, a person with a mindset for cataloging, is also well suited for compiling an index.

Back when I was first grumbling about the impending task of indexing the Ann Dvorak book, my cataloger friend, Kim, said she would help me. “Helping” me has actually translated into doing the whole thing, and I now feel as if I owe Kim a life debt even though she frequently thanks me for letting her tackle the index. I have had many people asked why I just can’t have some sort of computer software do it. I suppose I could have, though the publisher discouraged it because these software programs do not catch everything and sometimes make spelling corrections which are not necessary.

Yesterday, Kim sent me the index she has been compiling the past two weeks which is now about 90% complete.  It is truly a document of beauty and made me realize another reason why it’s really necessary to employ a human for this task. While a computer might be able to compile word repetitions, it’s not going to be able to identify concepts and cross-referencing. Ideas like Ann’s relationship with her mother, failed writing projects, attitudes towards film roles, etc are not going to be conceptualized by a machine, nor will a computer be able to cross-reference film titles or personal names that have been changed. I recently looked at a film bio published last year with an index that appeared to have been compiled with a software program. It was noticeably minimal and not particularly useful. Maybe this in-depth sort of indexing is not important to everyone, especially in this day of keyword searching, but as a researcher and a librarian, I still find a finely crafted index to be of value and am proud to have one included in my book.

So, this November when Ann Dvorak, Hollywood’s Forgotten Rebel is unleashed on the world, be sure to thumb through the impressive index and give a silent word of thanks to Kim, the librarian who put it together.

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4 Responses to “Biography Progress Report #26: What’s in an Index?”

  1. Cliff Aliperti says:

    I’m actually thrilled to hear how comprehensive your index is going to be! I’ve read some good film books that wind up never getting picked up again because there’s no index. It’s an essential part of the book for me after that first read, if I ever have hopes of finding that special bit of info again!

  2. admin says:

    Thanks Cliff, and I agree 100%! When I saw the preliminary draft yesterday, I got a bit weepy eyed.

  3. Mike says:

    When picking up a biography of a film star, I usually go to the index first, to look up some name/movie/incident/relationship that I had always wanted more information about. A part of me says “don’t do this”, you’ll enjoy the book more if you just read from start to finish. But I generally give in to my impulses. I know I’ll be tempted to rush to the “Scarface” & “Three on a Match” pages.

    Even in the days of the internet and easy access to information, it’s still nice to have a personal library on subjects of interest (like old movies) that provides reference material after watching a film. A well prepared index obviously makes this task easier.

    Tell Kim thanks.

    The life of a librarian certainly sounds fascinating. And a little romantic, too, if ya love being around books.

  4. admin says:

    Thanks Mike. Kim will be thrilled to know her index will be appreciated!

    Being a librarian does have its fascinating moments, but after working in an urban library for 8 years the romanticism was left behind in library school.

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