Book review: Indexing Names

This review appeared in the Winter 2012 issue of Bulletin, the Indexing Society of Canada’s newsletter.

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“It’s just a name index. It should be pretty straightforward.”

How many times have we heard that from a client—or even said it to ourselves? In Indexing Names (published for the ASI by Information Today), editor Noeline Bridge and her authoritative team of contributors dispel the myth that name indexing is easy, and they deftly show how multi-faceted and nuanced names can be.

Divided into four parts, the book tackles name indexing from a variety of angles. The first part offers guidelines based on nationality and ethnicity; it features chapters on languages commonly seen in English text, such as French and German, as well as less prominent languages, including Hmong and Te Reo Māori. The second part of the book addresses name indexing by genre, including biographies and art books. In the third part the authors look at particular issues such as fictional, corporate, and geographic names. The book’s final part offers readers resources, including a detailed chapter by Janet Russell about how to interpret an entry in the Library of Congress Authorities.

The book’s first section provides eye-opening historical and cultural context that helps explain why names in a particular language are structured the way they are—and what that means to indexers. Discerning between a tribal affiliation and a surname that has evolved from a patronymic may seem like hair splitting, but the book’s contributors convincingly show why these distinctions are important; running throughout the text of Indexing Names is an emphasis on the need to respect not only the author but also the culture of the work’s subject matter. Thus, although Indexing Names does help indexers solve immediate problems—such as identifying where to break a name with multiple prefixes—its raison d’être is much more profound. Its unwillingness to prescribe one right approach is perhaps the book’s greatest strength.

In her introduction, Bridge underscores the many considerations in name indexing, and Sherry L. Smith echoes this theme as she takes the reader through her thought process, giving indexers a method or system to apply rather than just a set of rules to follow. Seth Maislin follows with a fascinating exercise in analyzing how we recognize a name as a name; through it he shows how challenging it is to create a computer program that will perform automated name indexing—further evidence that indexing names isn’t as easy as some may think.

Indexing Names is vast in its coverage, and each chapter is detailed and comprehensive. However, despite (naturally) having a thorough index, the book could benefit from a few features to improve usability and navigation. A table of contents at the start of each chapter, for example, would allow readers to find specific issues by heading. And although many of the chapters, in the first section in particular, address parallel topics, they aren’t structured in a parallel way. This lack of homogeneity means that the voices of individual contributors can shine through the text, but it also means readers must relearn how to find what they’re looking for with each chapter. This is particularly true for the format in which similar information is presented—sometimes in tables and sometimes as indented paragraphs, for example. Occasionally titles or URLs of important resources are buried in narrative paragraphs, making quick identification and retrieval more difficult.

These minor issues are certainly not enough to keep me from recommending Indexing Names. For anyone working in the genres of biography, history, or genealogy, this book is a must-have. You don’t need to read it cover to cover for it to be a useful tool, but to get the most out of the book, you’d be advised to read through relevant chapters, highlighter in hand, before embarking on a project. I would love to see this book one day become an online resource, both for searchability and extensibility. Within the confines of a physical book, an important resource such as Indexing Names can’t be as exhaustive as users might like, whereas if the book inspired an indexer to create a chapter on Russian names, say, a dynamic web resource could easily support this kind of addition.

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