Career Strategies for Librarians
“Do You Actually Read the Entire Book?”: The Life of an Indexer
by Enid L. Zafran
The DC Chapter of the American Society of Indexers has a bumper sticker that says, “If you don’t tell your
kids about indexing, who will?” I assume that most likely your parents, like mine, fell down on their
duties in this regard. That explains why when I say I am an indexer, I have to add, “You know, the things
in the back of the book – I write them.” And the next question I get: “Do you actually read it, the whole
book?” Yes, that is right, I read it; that is the only way to produce a quality index.
How did you enter this profession?
I hold a master’s degree in library science in addition to a number of other degrees. When I lived in an
area of the country in the late 1970s where library jobs were scarce, I found a job at a local law
publishing company that considered my library background an asset for an indexer. I had not taken a
course in indexing when in library school, and I’m not even sure such a course was even offered. But I
took to indexing like a natural and received on-the-job training from some longtime in-house indexers.
Thus began a career spanning almost 30 years.
Some of the time I have worked in-house at various legal publishers and combined that with my own
business on the side. It is, in fact, the way that many professional indexers start out – by moonlighting in
addition to their regular jobs.
Can I fit indexing into my career plans?
In this article I want to talk about how indexing provides an alternative, as well as complementary, career
to those in the library and information science field. For those whose career encompasses the
organization of information, like cataloguers or taxonomists, or those who create maps of websites,
indexing skills will be easy to acquire. For those whose career focuses on the retrieval of information,
like reference librarians and database searchers, indexing is a good fit as they have
appreciated/criticized indexes for years and have insight into what makes an index useful.
A librarian may choose to index as a second job since indexers have flexible hours and can
accommodate another work schedule. I once worked with an indexer who had another job dealing with
lost luggage at an airport. I went to law school while working as an indexer. The flexibility allows for
many options. When on a maternity/paternity career break – as a stay-at-home parent during children’s
early years – indexing can provide income and some career continuity. Sometimes people start indexing
later in life as a prelude to retirement. And, of course, there are those like me who leave the traditional
librarian path and create a full-time, self-owned indexing business.
Where can I get training?
Even if you have taken an indexing class, you will need additional training. There are several indexing
courses offered via distance learning. In fact, the American Society of Indexers (ASI) will be conducting a
CD-based course starting in early 2006. These courses will teach you the basics: how to select terms,
types of cross-references, index styles, formats, etc. The next step is to work with an experienced
mentor. For indexing trainees, there is no real substitute for hands-on training. Publishers, packagers,
and authors who hire indexers look for training, experience, and subject expertise. This last trait comes
from education (like advanced degrees in a field) or on-the-job experience. For example, my specialty is
legal indexing since I also hold a J.D. and worked in law publishing for many years. However, I also
index in the fields of public policy, education, psychology, and art – all of which are of interest to me and
in which I have gained proficiency as I’ve done more and more on those topics.
How much can I make from indexing?
Indexers charge for their work in several different ways: by the hour, typically a range of $14-30 per hour;
by the page of material, typically a range of $2-4 per page; by index entry, typically a range of $0.30-0.60
per entry. They are hired directly by authors, by publishers (who deduct the cost of the index from the
author’s royalties), or by packagers (contractors who produce books for publishers and who use
indexers as subcontractors). Based on a salary survey conducted in 2004 by ASI, indexer income varies
from a few thousand dollars per year to over $100,000 per year. An indexer with five years of experience
who works solo and full-time (at least 40 hours a week) is likely to earn $40,000 gross revenue. Part-
timers’ income, of course, varies based on the number of hours worked.
Won’t the computer replace the indexer?
Years ago, it was predicted that computers would replace indexers. Not only has that proven untrue, but
the Web and the computer world have actually increased the need for indexing skills. Computers are
unable to think conceptually, and in the “soft” (non-scientific) realm, human indexing is still in high
demand. Furthermore, the creation of taxonomies requires analysis similar to what indexers do. While
many regard taxonomy as a new field, it is basically a new name for what indexers have done for
hundreds of years.
What do I need to start my indexing business?
When I started indexing, we actually used index cards. We wrote or typed out each entry, one per card.
Then we sorted the cards into alphabetical order to create the index. Today, indexers use specialized
software to help them reduce the tedious tasks of alphabetizing and validating. There are several types
of software on the market; you can find out more about them on the ASI website (www.asindexing.org).
Most likely the purchase of the software will present the largest start-up cost for an indexing business.
You need a PC (either Mac or Windows), a printer, and an Internet connection. To create the index files
that you send to your customers, you need to have Word or another word-processing program that will
produce files that publishers can work with. You will probably want to acquire some of the basic
indexing books on the market, and you will want to take a course either by distance learning or in
person. As in any business, you need to have a way to track expenses, compute taxes, and pay bills.
Those needs may make you buy software like Quicken.
A membership in ASI is essential so you can network with other indexers, advertise in ASI’s Indexer
Locator, receive educational newsletters, and attend local and national meetings.
Do you like what you do?
I love the life of an indexer. I am my own boss, work hours that I set, and can take my work with me when
I travel. Recently I moved away from a major urban area. I have always wanted to live at the beach, and
now I do. My business can be located anywhere and, thanks to the Internet, location is not an issue. I
get to read many interesting texts – in a typical year I may learn about Picasso, deaf education, African-
American writers, child psychology, and the political situation in Syria. I recommend indexing to those
who love to read, learn, organize, and control. For more on indexing, see the website of the American
Society of Indexers (www.asindexing.org) and its publications sold by Information Today, Inc. (http:
About the Author:
Enid L. Zafran holds a B.A. from Mount Holyoke College, and has a J.D. from Cleveland Marshall College
of Law, a Master’s of Library Science from the University of Kentucky, and a LL.M. in Labor Law from
Georgetown Law Center.
She runs her own indexing business, Indexing Partners LLC, and is located in Dewey Beach, Delaware.
She is immediate past president of the American Society of Indexers (ASI), and has published
numerous books and articles on indexing.
Article published Jan 2006
Disclaimer: The ideas expressed in LIScareer articles are those of their respective authors and do not
necessarily represent the views of the LIScareer editors.