From Flock Beds to Professionalism: A history of index-makers

by Hazel K Bell (Hatfield: HKB Press, 2008): 348pp, 49.00 (hbk), ISBN 978 0 9552503 4 7; 978 1 58456 228 3.

Reviewed by Ann Kingdom

Special discount for SfEP members

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The intriguing title of this celebration derives from Alexander Pope's reference to 'the gentleman … in the flock bed, my Index-maker'. With a self-imposed cut-off date of 1995, defined as the end of 'print-only' indexing, this book is firmly rooted in the past, reflecting Hazel Bell's fascination not only with the history of indexing, but more particularly with the range of individuals who have produced indexes over several centuries – the 'index-makers'.

'Self-imposed obscurity'

Part 1, 'Developing techniques, training and traits', is a brief but useful history of indexing (including an interesting discussion of techniques and working methods), setting the context for the profiles of the 65 'lone workers' featured in Part 2, which makes up over two-thirds of the book. Helping to counteract what David Crystal describes in his preface as the 'self-imposed obscurity' of these individuals, these short biographies (mostly one to two pages) give us fascinating glimpses into the lives of a selection of 'index-makers'.

International in scope, these range from the 15th-century Florentine lawyer Bernardo Machiavelli and 17th-century diarist Samuel Pepys to around a dozen current members of the Society of Indexers (SI), not forgetting, of course, SfEP's own far-sighted founder and 'champion of the freelancer' – Norma Whitcombe.

Extraordinary range

Although there is no indication of the criteria used for selecting those featured, the fact that many of these biographies first appeared (either in part or in their entirety) in The Indexer suggests that their ready availability was an important factor. Much of this book is essentially repackaging already published material.

The 'index-makers' featured are men and (more recently, of course) women of many parts, often demonstrating both great scholarship and considerable energy. Coming to indexing from an extraordinary range of backgrounds and combining it with many other careers, surprisingly few fit the Barbara Pym image of the genteel spinster-librarian. Many were not professional indexers as we now understand the term; they were gifted amateurs, self-taught, and indexing their own or other scholarly works. As today, they were rarely formally acknowledged and are seldom remembered for their indexing achievements. Did you know about Nietzsche's skills as an indexer, for example? I didn't, before reading this book.

Sanitised

After a brief account of the short-lived Index Society, brain-child of H B Wheatley (the 'father of British indexing'), the 70-odd pages of Part 3, 'Banding Together', are largely devoted to a chronology of the SI and the overseas groups that eventually grew into separate societies. Beginning her indexing career only seven years after SI was established, and having edited The Indexer for 18 years, Hazel Bell would seem to be well qualified to write this. However, this is the least satisfactory part of the book; it feels like the sanitised, 'official' story. By drawing so heavily on previously published material, especially from The Indexer, it fails to really capture the true flavour of how a dedicated band of volunteers transformed the embryonic society into a professional organisation.

Nevertheless, for anyone interested in the development of professions associated with publishing, it is a useful compendium of information in convenient book form. And for SfEP members it illuminates the context in which a society for editors and proofreaders became a serious possibility. It was at the SI's 1988 conference that Norma Whitcombe first got together another group of dedicated volunteers to establish what was to become the SfEP, and within a few years the two societies were renting an office together and sharing a salaried administrator.

Comprehensive but inconsistent

Finally, in a book about indexing, one must of course mention the index! As one would expect, this is pretty comprehensive, but I found the mixture of alphabetical and chronological arrangement of subheadings slightly confusing. And in addition to the misnaming of the SfEP, there did appear to be a number of other inconsistencies.

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