Daniel Francis

Reading the National Narrative

Indexing for Dummies

Dec 5, 2013


Much of last week I spent preparing an index for my latest book, an illustrated history of prohibition in Canada titled Closing Time: Prohibition, Rum-runners and Border Wars. It will appear next autumn from my friends at Stanton, Atkins and Dosil. Indexing is pretty much the last job before the manuscript goes off to the printer.

Given that indexing, while necessary, is also finicky, time-consuming and boring, most writers have someone else do it for them. But I have always done my own, eschewing even the use of one of the new-fangled computer programs that do the job in minutes. I seem to get some satisfaction from giving the text one last close reading.

My method reminds me of stories I have read of how James Murray and his squad of helpers put together the original Oxford 
English Dictionary, pigeonholing each word definition on a slip of paper in a large iron scriptorium. When Murrary embarked on the project in 1879 the publishers thought it should take ten years to complete. Five years later he had reached the word "ant." As my index grows longer I begin to imagine how he felt.

I too employ small slips of paper on which I write the word to be indexed and the different page references. As I proceed, the papers litter my desk like confetti outside a church wedding. Every once in a while I organize the slips into alphabetical piles and then, eventually, into one giant pile, from aardvark to zygote, which I then type into my computer.

One benefit of this primitive system is that it allows me to pick up those final errors that have slipped through the cracks of repeated readings of the proofs. I discover to my dismay that Mrs. Smith has become Mrs. Smyth on page 48, or that John A. Macdonald has acquired a capital D in chapter three.

Small potatoes to be sure, but all part of the process.