The Book Index conference



The Society of Indexers’ (SI) diamond anniversary conference (see my last blog post here) immediately preceded Dennis Duncan’s two-day conference on the Book Index at the Centre for the Study of the Book at the Bodleian Libraries, Oxford, on 22–23 June 2017. This was planned so as to enable many SI members to attend both conferences. Dennis is a British Academy Postdoctoral Fellow at the Bodleian Centre for the Study of the Book and a Junior Research Fellow at Jesus College, Oxford. He was also one of the keynote speakers at the 2016 SI conference in Birmingham, where he spoke very entertainingly on the history of the satirical and weaponized index. A few SI members submitted papers to be part of Dennis’s conference and we were delighted to be included as a panel session on ‘Indexing Now’, alongside presentations from academics with a special interest in indexing. The timing of the conferences made for a really interesting delegate mix of index scholars and index writers.

The promotional material for the conference was itself great fun, with a striking poster (see above) and a programme with its own index and cedule (indexing slips) for delegates to complete.



Session 1: periodical indexes; indexing in China

After a welcome from Dennis Duncan, the first session began with a talk by James Mussell (University of Leeds). James spoke about the good and bad indexing of periodicals in the nineteenth century. The ‘Bad Indexer’ chapter in H.B. Wheatley’s How to Make an Index contains many examples of poor periodical indexing – ‘bad indexes are everywhere’ – as the cumulative index was often an inaccurate and inconsistent after-thought. James was followed by Liangyu Fu (University of Michigan) and Florence Hsia (University of Wisconsin-Madison) who both spoke about indexing in China. Liangyu focused on translations of Western science texts in the nineteenth century and their early Chinese indexes, which were often untranslatable and needing redesigning, and noted this as the emergence of modern indexing in China. Florence addressed the challenges involved in indexing of Sinographic texts and the problems of the adoption of lithography and the ‘four-corner method’ to represent the original woodblock print.


Session 2: philosophy and poetry

Session 2 was started by Florian Ehrensperger (University of British Columbia and SI member) speaking about the philosophers Ernst Cassirer and Martin Heidegger and their attitudes to their respective indexers, Gertrud Bing and Hildegaard Feick. Cassirer praised Bing’s index to The Individual and the Cosmos in Renaissance Philosophy, and wrote to tell her that it showed what was left out of the book as well as what was included. By contrast, Heidegger lectured on the ‘limitations and dangers of an index’ and refused to allow back-of-the-book indexes to his works. Feick’s index to Being and Time was eventually published as a standalone volume after revisions by Heidegger. Angela Carr (New School, New York) then presented her talk on the index as literary genre in modern and postmodern poetry. I loved the examples Angela gave of poet-authored indexes to works including Louis Zukofsky’s ‘A’, Alan Halsey’s Index to Shelley’s Death and Lisa Robertson’s Cinema of the Present. It is always good to see indexes used in creative and unusual ways.

Session 3: ‘Indexing Now’

After lunch, Session 3 (chaired by Dennis Duncan) was our ‘Indexing Now’ panel, made up of four current Executive Board members of the Society of Indexers – SI chair Ann Kingdom, Ann Hudson, Janice Rayment and myself – plus Pilar Wyman, International Representative of the American Society for Indexing (ASI). We each gave a brief introduction to ourselves and our indexing experience and then the floor was open to questions from the academics and indexers in the audience. Many topics came up for discussion, including:

  • why authors may not be the best indexers of their books (although some authors are very good indexers) – we indexers always keep alternative reader approaches in mind
  • the history of the Society of Indexers and the inaugural National Indexing Day (#indexday) on 30 March 2017, celebrating the SI’s diamond anniversary and raising the profile of indexing
  • the mutual support of being in the Society of Indexers, with our email lists, local groups and annual conference
  • indexer accreditation via the SI training course and the ‘Indexers Available’ directory
  • the subjectivity of indexers’ different styles and approaches, including our SI peer-review sessions, where each indexer writes an index to a short publication – each index may be equally valid, but they will all be slightly different
  • indexing software – what it can help us with (mostly speeding up alphabetizing and formatting issues to allow us to focus on the intellectual work) and what it can’t do (computers can’t read, so they can’t index)
  • gender balance – we had an all-female panel and the majority of SI members are women (both keynote speakers at this conference were also women)
  • ebooks and linked indexes and their room for considerable improvement
  • increasing publishers’ constraints on index length, budgets and timescales.

I think our panel went well and it was a really useful opportunity for indexers and academics to share information and learn from each other. I hope we gave a good overview of the current state of the indexing profession and also some insight into the mind of an indexer.

Session 4: medieval indexes and the Polychronicon

Kyle Conrau-Lewis (Yale University) began Session 4 with a talk on Juncta’s early fourteenth-century index to Valerius Maximus, noting how the ‘prejudicial indexer’ could adapt and reappropriate classical history for contemporary preachers, imposing moral exempla for a Christian readership. We indexers have ethical discussions about this kind of thing; the index is supposed to reflect the original tone of the text rather than the indexer’s opinion of it. James Freeman (Cambridge University) spoke next on Ranulph Higden’s medieval Polychronicon and how the various early indexes accompanying its different versions might have affected the reader’s access to and experience of the text. The first keynote by Emily Steiner (University of Pennsylvania) also focused on the Polychronicon, this time looking at John Trevisa’s English index. Emily’s talk was a delight, noting several entertaining and bawdy index entries which were the equivalent of our modern clickbait (the ‘Nethers’ entry springs to mind) and how Trevisa seems ‘not totally in control of his index’. Both James and Emily also showed some beautiful slides from the Polychronicon to accompany their talks.

That evening, we were fortunate enough that our drinks reception coincided with the launch and private view of the ‘Which Jane Austen?’ exhibition at the Weston Library, with opening speeches by curator Kathryn Sutherland and author Ali Smith.  The conference speakers had an entertaining dinner together too, including an ‘alphabetical gavotte’ part-way through to mix up the indexers and the academics. This led to an interesting mix of personalities and conversations, not to mention some hilarity.


Session 5: indexes, satirical and cognitive

The first session of the day was by Shef Rogers (University of Otago) on the eighteenth-century satirical index and how indexers were sometimes able to belittle and puncture the pretension and pomposity of the author. I particularly enjoyed this talk too as I do love a bit of indexing snark where the indexer has been able to get away with it. (I also have a special interest in modern-day comedy indexes, as seen elsewhere on my blog.) He was followed by Sean Silver (University of Michigan) speaking on John Locke and the cognitive index. Early on, Sean presented a slide of an index to his own talk, which was much appreciated by this crowd. This was a fascinating discussion of indexing being a ‘reweaving’ of the ideas of the text. Indexing is both an art and a craft.

Session 6: indexing America and legal commentaries

Philip Tromans (De Montfort University) spoke about Richard Hakluyt’s use of the index to promote English colonisation of America in the sixteenth century. The index was the paratext most deployed by Hakluyt, in his own works and translations, to present his personal views and colonial philosophy for the New World. Nikolaus Weichselbaumer (Johannes Gutenberg-University Mainz) then traced the early printed index to legal commentaries, which could be highly complex texts. These indexes first imitated those of the manuscript era but then gradually adapted to the particular demands of print.

Session 7: Pastorius, Herbert and closing keynote

Unfortunately, I had to miss the final afternoon of sessions but I was still following the #bookindex17 tweets with interest during my train ride home. Eve Houghton (Yale) gave the first talk on Francis Daniel Pastorius’s early modern handwritten index to his commonplace book and his eccentric use of an ‘Overmeasure’ section for revisions and expansion. Tom Clayton (Princeton) then spoke on the index to George Herbert’s The Temple, added in the 1656 edition by London printer Philemon Stephens at The Gilded Lion. I was amused to see Tom’s use of the physical manicule (digit pointer, i.e. his own finger) in slides shared from this talk. Ann Blair (Harvard) gave the closing keynote speech on ‘Indexing, liberal; Indexing, mechanical’. This included the invisible textual labour of indexers and the ‘humblebraggery’ of those who claimed to be working all night, by candlelight, and who saw indexing as a ‘drudgery’ beneath them: ‘This labor should be undertaken by…someone else with nothing to do.’

Thoughts, concluding

It was a real pleasure and honour to be part of the Book Index conference. It was so good to meet and hear the index scholars, share our views and learn from each other’s work. I believe there are plans to publish the papers as a conference proceedings book in the future, which would be a great record of the event. The Book Index exhibition, also curated by Dennis Duncan, is displayed at the Bodleian Library until 9 July and is well worth a look. Keep an eye on Dennis’s blog ‘Table of Discontents’ for his ongoing research work on the history of the English book index. You can also hear Dennis discussing the satirical index on a recent Radio 3 broadcast of ‘Free Thinking’ here (from 9 minutes in).

A Storify of the Book Index conference which collects all the #bookindex17 tweets is available here. (Storify compiled by SI member Ruth Ellis.)

And so that’s my conference season about done for the year. Roll on the 2018 SI conference (and overlapping SfEP conference) in Lancaster. See you there?


Paula Clarke Bain is a professional book indexer and editor. She likes comedy, books and indexes and really likes comedy book indexes. See more at her website at or on Twitter @PC_Bain.

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