REVIEW of Hans H. Wellisch. Indexing from A to Z. 2nd ed. New York, Dublin: H.W. Wilson, 1996. xxix, 569 pp. $45. 0 8242 0882 X.


Hans Wellisch, Professor emeritus at the College of Library and Information Services of the University of Maryland, holds a Wilson Award for Excellence in Indexing, has written many books and articles on indexing and information work, and is a former President of the American Society of Indexers. Most fittingly was he greeted on the platform of that Society's 25th anniversary conference as `the dean of indexers'.

If Wellisch be dean of an invisible college of indexers, this volume may be taken to constitute the basic syllabus. Its 98 essays cover all aspects of indexing: the basic, such as adjectives, capitalization, cross-references; the specialist (legal texts, medical texts, newspapers); the business aspects (contracts, copyright, costing); the more recherché (ampersand, bad breaks, the continuum of verbal texts).

So wide a range might seem too much for a single pen competently to cover; but scrupulous acknowledgement of discussion and consultation with thirty colleagues, and a 19-page bibliography pointing to further consideration of the many topics treated, show this to represent a consensus of professional opinion leading on to deeper particular studies.

Yet the final judgments are all the distinguished author's own, vigorously expressed. Where he differs from traditional practice or from other authorities, he states their views, then offers his opposition. He sternly takes issue with the Chicago manual of style over the alphabetization of prepositions (page 389); deplores the `pervasive influence' of Library of Congress subject headings regarding its treatment of prepositional phrases (p. 377); deprecates `the addition of the plural endings in parentheses' to a singular form as a heading - e.g., dog(s), antibody(ies) - `should never be applied in an index (though some textbooks allow or even recommend it) ... clumsy, unsightly' (p. 431); insists that the second locator of a sequence should always be shown in full rather than `lopping off one or two digits' (that is, always as the full 597-599, no abbreviated form allowable [p. 278]: a minority view). On one issue he allows a change of mind since the first edition (the treatment of and in subheadings [p. x]).

However, not mere individual predelictions are promoted here. Wellisch is a firm believer in the necessity for the establishment and maintenance of standards: `If more indexers would abide by the provisions of standards, there would be far fewer flawed and outright bad indexes, and many a debate on the merits or otherwise of a particular indexing practice, often generating more heat than light, could be laid to rest' (pp. 449-50). He advocates best standard indexing practice against other possibly antagonistic parties: `the provisions of standards may even be rejected in the realms of printing and publishing, which are among the most conservative enterprises in modern society ... some are reluctant to abandon letter-by-letter filing, which is particularly unsuitable for indexes' (p. xxvi); `Many publishers have a house style that governs the way a book and its index are designed and printed. ... deviations from good indexing and printing practices may occur' (p. 164); `Strict alphabetization of every word in a heading or subheading, long or short, "important" or "unimportant", is the only sensible procedure, and indexers should insist on it (even though a struggle over this issue with ossified editors may, alas, often end in defeat)' (p. 391).

Wellisch writes that indexing `transforms the original text into a homologous but functionally different structure'. His own text here, in the first instance arranged alphabetically by topic/title of the essays, in the spirit of an index, is likewise transformed in several ways into other structures offering different access points and routes. A classified list regroups the sections under 11 main topics. Then, the introduction suggests a course for students entering the invisible college, to start with `The indexing process' and `Indexing techniques', proceeding to `Personal names' or `Place names', then `Cross-references', and so progressively on. Throughout the sections, cross-references lead onwards to related issues. And, of course, there is the directional aspect of the book's own 45-page index, which serves both as immaculate finding aid and exemplar, the author/indexer having there ingeniously illustrated `as many indexing problems as possible'.

The style throughout is a delight: lively reading, cogently argued, drily witty, sometimes rising to high comedy, as in the section on `The Three Stooges: KWIC, KWAC and KWOC', or the account of `The Big Mac Battle'. Examples of all indexing points are plentifully offered, and there are useful and fascinating figures and tables, such as features of the indexes of the continuum of verbal texts, and comparison of indexing times using cards versus a computer. Pertinent quotations from literature (Goethe, Molière, Rabelais) enrich the argument. The author advises us of `occasional digressions on historical and linguistic matters'; these, most knowledgeable, bring a desirable perspective, enabling such sensible judgments as, `Books, articles, and other documents are created by human minds, and addressed to and intended to be understood by other human minds ... The keys to finding information in documents should also be forged by human minds ... Indexing is a mental process ... based on understanding the meaning of a text ... Human indexers ... are in no danger of being eliminated by computers' (pp. 53, 43).

This second edition of the volume first published in 1991 has been enlarged by 90 pages, expanding sections and adding seven new ones (including those on automatic indexing, indexing languages, and legal and medical texts), and increasing the number of examples and references. It has also been revised to accommodate changes in terminology and in rules and standards pertaining to indexing (particularly the American National Standard NISO Z39.4 and the International Standard ISO 999, on the committees for both of which Wellisch himself sat, and the 14th edition of the Chicago manual of style), and to cover further technical developments and media. Care is taken to deal with both UK and US practice, and in the indexing of all formats, including books, periodicals, nonbook media, databases and hypertext.

At once an encyclopaedic reference source, and the distilled personal testimony of a master teacher and indexer who cares deeply about correct and elegant indexing.


-- Review by Hazel K. Bell in Journal of Documentation Vol. 53 No. 1 January 1997, 93-95