Biography indexing: not a subject specialism

I maintain that biography is not a special subject for indexing. I will substantiate this assertion by defining what special subjects are.

Special subjects consist of bodies of lore - that's L O R E - of academic disciplines, established facts. They are provided with standardised terminology and formalized structure for their texts.

Biographies involve none of these. Biographies are just books about people, the lives they lead, their various activities and relationships, told in an author's own way. They are absolutely non-standardised.

The differences between the needs of readers of scientific and of literary texts - which I take to mean between academic disciplines, and the humanities - were outlined by Dr Edwin Holmstrom, in The Indexer in 1965.[1] He wrote:

"What makes it necessary for scientists to read books is ... the possibility of finding data, bits of knowledge, in those books ... a scientist reading a scientific book ... regards it rather as a kind of quarry from which he may be able to extract useful raw material ... this is quite a different motive from the one that animates the reader of a literary work, for instance a biography. He reads ... because he is interested in the theme of the book as a whole. ... This difference in outlook and purpose ought to be reflected in differences between the types of indexing proper to `literary' and `scientific' works."

Indeed it ought, and it is these differences that constitute the particular problems of indexing biographies. I will outline five of them.

First, let us consider terms.

Eric Coates, who was editor of the British Technology Index, recognized in 1966 that scientific literature:[2]

"Contains a greater number of concepts in toto and a far higher proportion of precisely defined concepts than does the literature of the humanities ... from the point of view of the battle between words and meanings, the scientific indexer gets off relatively lightly."

Quite. "Precisely defined concepts" can be matched to terms in the thesauri of the subject discipline. Computers can be programmed to recognize them and reassemble them in the index. Indexers of soft texts, as I chose to call narrative, humanity-based, non-specialist subject texts, select their entries by determining their degree of significance, not by matching them to a prescribed formula. The indexer of soft texts -- humanities, biographies -- is often dealing instead with personal relationships and emotions, and has to devise terms in which to express them that are unbiased, accurate, and likely to be sought by the reader. As Douglas Matthews puts it, he is `in a sense, an interpreter, not just a reporter of the text'.

Matthews himself gives a splendid example of such interpretative indexing, in his index to Laurence Olivier's autobiography, Confessions of an actor. This book includes Olivier's account of how he met Vivien Leigh, while he was still married to his first wife, Jill Esmond. The story runs through these selected lines occurring on pages 107-8:

"`I first set eyes upon the possessor of this wondrous unimagined beauty on the stage of the Ambassadors Theatre ... She possessed beautiful poise ... and ... an attraction of the most perturbing nature I had ever encountered ... she popped into my dressing-room and gave me a soft little kiss ... I soon began to feel sorry for Jill, and of course guilt ... Two years of furtive life, lying life ... we could not keep from touching each other, making love almost within Jill's vision.'"

No difficulty in deciding what entries to make in the index for Vivien Leigh for those two pages. But what of Jill Esmond? Those are the only references there to her; she does not appear at all in these pages. But her entry in the index cannot omit them; they impinge so greatly on her.

The penultimate subheading in the entry that Douglas contrived for Esmond, Jill, is

- "supplanted by Vivien Leigh"

That term does not appear in Oliver's writing. It derives purely from Douglas Matthew's analysis and interpretation of the text.

The second particular problem for indexing soft texts is the lack of a firm structural format; determing when to end a reference in a biography. Dry text books, manuals and instruction books, are frequently ready provided with paragraph headings, that not only serve as the fittest headings for the index, but even indicate where that heading ceases to apply -- at the next paragraph heading. Indexers of soft texts must work out the point of closure for each heading, when a character has left the scene of action, or a concept is no longer relevant.

Third problem -- length. Esmond de Beer wrote in 1956:[3]

"What generally differentiates ... scholarly editions of extensive literary or historical texts from the indexes of shorter and more everyday books is the far more frequent presence in them of long entries ... that bring together a large number of defined references under a single general heading."

These present the indexer of soft texts with the problem of sustained continuity, the constant development of characters and themes. Much subdivision and specification will become necessary. The compilation of such subheadings, G.V. Carey wrote, "calls for the indexer's highest skill of all".

To illustrate this highest skill, and also the subjective nature of such compilation, I will give you two different entries for the same narrative thread in one biography: that of Samuel PEPYS. This, recall, is told in the first person; the indexer is interpreting Pepys's own version of events for third parties. I will not read the text this time; the indexes make all clear.

In the index to H. B. Wheatley's 9-volume edition of Pepys diary, of 1914, we find:

Willet (Deb), Mrs. Pepys's new girl, arrives; taken to Brampton; Mrs Pepys is jealous of her; Pepys kisses her; combs Pepys's hair; her birthplace at Bristol; Mrs. Pepys catches Samuel embracing her; Pepys discharges her, and advises her never to see him again; her aunt.
Then, {alluded to} [ten lines of page numbers]

70 years later, the Wheatley award for 1983 went to Robert Latham for his index to his 11-volume edition of the diary. He gave `WILLET, Deb, companion to EP' (Elizabeth Pepys) a fuller, franker treatment divided into 4 paragraphs -APPEARANCE: AS EP'S COMPANION: P'S AFFAIR WITH: and SOCIAL.

under P'S AFFAIR WITH in Latham's index come -

P pleased with; EP jealous; P kisses; caresses; discovered by EP; her rage and P's guilt; P fears she must leave; is prevented from seeing; her confession; and dismissal; P searches for; EP threatens to slit her nose; P never to see again; ... sees in street; EP makes jealous scenes; threatens him with hot tongs; he meets by chance; ... winks at P in street; moves to Greenwich ...

Those are two quite different index entries for exactly the same text. But we cannot suggest that either is wrong: the first is endorsed by `the father of indexing', Wheatley himself; the second won the award bestowed in Wheatley's name! The devising of subheadings for biographies is a subjective, not standardised, matter.

Fourthly, there is the arrangement of these long sequences of subheadings. Computers can arrange them for indexers in alphabetical order or by page number. Neither is appropriate for indexes to biographies, where subheadings must be arranged chronologically or in some logical, ad hoc system, as in Latham's index to Pepys. A. S. Byatt writes, "The biographer, Jenny Uglow, speaks with pleasure of good chronological guides to lives, to be found within indexes, and the sheer unuseful irritation produced by rendering these subentries in alphabetical form -- beginning with `Aunt Amy's visit' not because it came early, but because it begins with A".[4] That is what relying on a computer to arrange subheadings in a biography will do for you. For the arrangement of their subheadings, indexers of biographies are denied this automatic aid to indexing.

And of course, for biographies, there is the problem of many minor mentions. Minor characters, relations or long-term friends or colleagues of the main character, may appear recurrently in the book, merely mentioned as constantly there in the background. The indexer must choose between omitting all these, giving them a false impression of significance by according them subheadings, or letting them honestly appear as an unqualified list of minor mentions - and be open to censure by index judges.

There has been much dispute on Index-L, the indexers' email discussion group, as to whether indexes are `compiled' or `written', as Nancy Mulvany asserts. I would say there is no doubt: indexes to dry texts, text books, special subjects, are compiled; indexes to soft texts, biographies, are written.

Finally, let me quote Richard Abel, `Measuring the value of books' in LOGOS:[5]

"Biographies and autobiographies, when composed, published and sold in keeping with the traditional canons of sound judgement, have been, and remain, among the crown jewels of the book trade."

And, despite these five most particular problems, they are great fun to index.


1. Holmstrom, J. Edwin. The indexing of scientific books. The Indexer 4 (4) Autumn 1965, 123-131.
2. Coates, E. J. Scientific and technical indexing. The Indexer 5 (1) Spring 1966, 27-34.
3. E. S. de Beer, `The larger index', The Journal of Documentation, March 1956, page 1.
4. A. S. Byatt. Foreword to Hazel K. Bell, Indexers and indexes in fact and fiction, British Library/University of Toronto Press, 2001
5. Richard Abel, `Measuring the value of books'. LOGOS 1, 1993, 36-44

by Hazel K. Bell, in Managing Information Vol. 8 No. 9 November, pp 64-5