A Nonfiction Book Without an Index Is Like a Town Without Addresses

A Nonfiction Book Without an Index Is Like a Town Without Addresses

Imagine trying to find folks in a town without addresses. Sure, you could work your way through the town in an orderly manner and, at the end, have a reasonably good chance of finding who you want. But what about visitors to the town finding the folks they need?

And when you come upon a town, wouldn’t it be nice to know if the person you seek actually lives in this town?

An index provides the addresses to the information in a nonfiction book. Works of fiction do not need indexes. In fact, many people believe that there is too much reader interpretation to lock a work of fiction into the concrete structure of an index.

A nonfiction piece, however, has a great many threads of information woven throughout the text that need to be gathered into index entries so that every one can be found by the person who needs that information. An index is a roadmap. It’s more than an alphabetical list of major words; it’s a web of connections and relationships made visible in cross-reference relationships among the main entries (See and See also connectors) and in the subentries under the main entries.

Even online, searchable information is indexed for faster access to specific material. Faster? Using an index is faster than a search? Yes: Bloomberg BNA did a usability study with law students to compare the success rates of conducting research using an online index versus running online text searches. The students performed a series of research tasks in an online database. For half the tasks, they used full text searches; for the other half they used the online index.

Index users had an 86 percent success rate while text searchers had only a 23 percent success rate.


  • Using an index saves time over a full-text search.
  • Each index heading provides a subject overview, allowing “serendipity” searching within entries.
  • Researchers find exactly the information they need, even when a specific term isn’t used.
  • The human-built index entries carry the indexer’s information analysis in their wording.

Now imagine a nonfiction print book without an index. You don’t even have full-text search available. Information that cannot be found is information that cannot be used.

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