Why indexing matters

I’m a huge fan of indexes, especially to magazines (aka serials, or journals), and it frustrates me quite a bit when I find useful journals that don’t have indexes to them. Here’s why.

The most important reason, most definitely, is because an index makes old issues of a magazine useful and accessible. Generally, a person receives and (hopefully) reads a particular issue. After that, the issue is stored, and eventually recycled.

(Or, perhaps, left at the local public library, if it’s not too old. I’m writing this in my local public library, and I have several recent issues of magazines to drop off in the ‘magazine exchange’ area. But the library has an understandable rule that no magazine left here be more than six months old. If that rule weren’t in place, the magazine area would be overrun with decade-old copies of magazines that no one wants, and the library would be left with the work of sorting through and recycling them all.)

When a library receives a magazine, it gets stored on shelves for a while. In niche areas like maritime history, it will likely eventually be sent to an off-site storage facility, as well. If there’s no guide to finding what’s in a given issue, then there’s basically no chance of finding anything in any particular issue. Consider a library catalog’s entry for, say, American Heritage magazine. Published for over 60 years, its subject coverage is represented in bibliographic data by basically a dozen words – and a third are in French, and two thirds of the remaining ones are duplicated. The only unique English words are “United States History Civilization Periodicals”. But with hundreds of thousands of pages in those 60 years, there’s an enormous wealth of information. Which is why they publish their own index to their magazine. Now, all those hundreds of thousands of pages are accessible to anyone with access to the index.

Maritime history publications would do well to make note of this, and to consider how their data is accessed when it’s more than a few issues old. Organizations that publish quality indexes to their resources, and then make that information as available as possible, are to be commended. As one specific example, consider the San Diego Maritime Museum’s publication, Mains’l Haul. Not only do they publish a current index to their journal, they make that publication freely available online. This is so vitally important, and should be aggressively emulated by every maritime history organization, regardless of their size.

People will be seeking articles from the entire run of Mains’l Haul for decades to come, because they take the time to make an index available to all. While it may cost money to do this (though some institutions are able to take advantage of volunteer indexers), I think it’s easy to see ways that that money will be returned in spades, and for decades to come, as people discover that past articles mention something of interest to them, and publishers of such works can then offer reprint services for those articles at reasonable fees, essentially indefinitely.

If a researcher doesn’t know that a person or a vessel is mentioned in a past article, they will not put that publication to use, and that’s a loss to the publisher, to the article’s author – whose work would be useful but won’t be found – and to history in general.

I’d like to make two additional comments:

First, don’t rely on a commercial abstract and indexing service to do this for you; while it’s great to get one’s content indexed in large databases, they will provide, at best, only a cursory summary of each article. They will not be sufficient for someone seeking a mention of a person, ship, or location that’s mentioned in, but not central to, a given article.

Second, a listing of the articles in an issue is NOT an index. (I’m looking at you.) It’s a list of article titles, and nothing more. While I suppose it’s better than nothing, it misses infinite opportunities to guide researchers to the incredible wealth of information that’s contained in a quality scholarly publication.

Please, magazine publishers: index, Index, INDEX! And if you’re really forward-thinking, make the index available for free, to anyone. Put it online as a pdf, as a searchable database, and as a text file that anyone can download and use elsewhere. What you lose in the cost of creating and distributing the index, you’ll more than make up in revenue from providing reprints and back issues, and (perhaps more importantly) in promoting and displaying the importance, value, and reputation, of the journal in question.

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