Society of Indexers conference 2023

The Society of Indexers (SI) 2023 conference was their first in-person conference after the Covid-19 pandemic, so it naturally attracted a group of indexers who were eager to (re)connect with their colleagues after waiting four years. There were multiple newer indexers who became aware of the profession and/or started their training during lockdown, so it was interesting to meet both student indexers and experienced ones. Most of the participants came from the SI’s homebase, the UK, but the conference also attracted ICRIS representatives and society members travelling from the Netherlands, Switzerland, and even Canada.


This year’s conference was hosted in Leeds. Eline van der Veken, another NIN member, and I travelled from the Netherlands to attend the conference, so we were pleased with the additional pre-conference options on the day before the (one-day) conference. Ruth Ellis’ guided walking tour of the city centre was an indispensable part of the experience for me, allowing me to get a sense of the history of the city. I even heard multiple local indexers proclaim that they had no idea of the richness of Leeds’ history before they heard Ruth’s stories. Monday night’s dinner at Indian restaurant Nawaab was lovely as well. There were significantly more indexers present than there were at the walk, so it was a great opportunity for socializing and enjoying great food.

Arrival and opening

The actual conference happened on the next day. The venue, The Terrace, is located on the fifth floor of a luxurious and conveniently located office space. We were treated to fresh fruit, big mugs of coffee and tea, a fridge full of fizzy drinks (which, Ruth reminded us, have been invented in Leeds), multiple offices, and a nice outdoor area where we could enjoy our lunch in the sun. It was a perfect setting for the day. As people trickled into the venue, we were handed our name tags, pens and folders featuring the SI logo, and some cards that we could use to write down information about the people that we met. Melanie Gee encouraged everyone to talk to four people they had never met yet, claiming that the cards have magic powers that allow even introverts to find the courage to step up to someone we don’t know. Talking to new people and finding out about their indexing interests and experience was a lovely way of starting the day, and I was able to connect some faces to names I had seen online.

The conference was opened by honorary SI president Sam Leith, who joined us via Zoom. In his short talk, he emphasized the importance of the SI in setting a gold standard for indexing, while also mentioning importance of conferences, which are both great ways to socialize and keep up to date with indexing standards.

Client Carousel

Afterwards, Tanya Izzard, Nicola King, Melanie, and Ruth led 20-minute group discussions in a “Client Carousel,” in which we discussed working for academic authors, academic publishers, trade publishers, and book packagers (or “pre-press suppliers”). Participants were asked to step out of their comfort zones and go to two discussions that discussed clients that they were not yet familiar with. Melanie’s presentation on packagers/pre-press suppliers was very popular. Many of us admitted that we were hesitant to work with them because of the low pay that they offer. Melanie, however, pointed out that many indexers do work for them, and that there are some benefits from being in their email lists; most important of which is the steady stream of work that they offer you. An important takeaway from this discussion was that negotiating on price usually doesn’t work (but there are a few cases where colleagues managed to get a better price), but negotiating on a larger timescale usually works. Packagers are usually not aware of best indexing practice and don’t want to argue with authors, so you can expect having to make correction that are “unusual and go against your training”.

Academic publishers, Nicola argued, work very differently. They allow you to write your own index, oftentimes offering minimal or no style restrictions. They appreciate receiving queries and follow up with good answers. Furthermore, they offer a generous timescale from the start. Nicola shared a useful list of the different kinds of academic publishers, as well as specific publishers and the types of documents that typically require indexes. We discussed emailing them and introducing ourselves and letting them know that we were available for work. An advantage of working with publishers and packagers is that they offer repeat work, the lack of which is the biggest disadvantage of working for authors.

Editing an index

For the second session, we split up into two different groups. I signed up for “Editing an Index,” led by Nicola. In an intimate group consisting of thirteen indexers with different levels of experience, we talked about the editing process and shared what strategies worked best for us. Unsurprisingly, none of us was able to do all the editing while going through our first pass of the book, but the amount of time we spend on the editing process differs from person to person. It was interesting to hear tips and tricks that multiple indexers already apply. In other ways, our indexing processes differed from each other. Some are likely to ignore terms that they think are unnecessary and later realize that they should have added them to the index. Others pick up everything and delete what wasn’t important at the end. Nicola said that she doesn’t remove entries at all, but rather labels them in SKY (indexing software) and doesn’t generate that label in the index output. When the author asks for those terms to be included, the only thing she has to do to make all the entries reappear is remove the label. We had interesting discussions about adding the names of living persons that want to see themselves in the index, adding notes-to-self, a specific case study from one of Nicola’s projects, and continued statements. In the end we did an exercise editing an existing index; it was interesting to see the different mistakes that we found, as well as the different solutions that we came up with.

Different text formats

Session three, “Indexing Different Formats,” consisted of three 20-minute presentations on indexing specific kinds of texts. Melanie started off with talking about her experience indexing The Letters of Seamus Heaney, an immense project with significant time and space restraints. Melanie admitted that she had to learn how to index a collection of letters while also having to emulate the style of another index that belonged to a similar book. She was expected to create multiple indexes and settled on working on the index of works in the evenings, which was something she never had to do before. Even though the project caused her a lot of stress, she would gladly do it all over again. After the talk, participants could have a look at Melanie’s index and compare it to the index she was asked to emulate.

Afterwards, Sue Goodman talked about indexing heavily illustrated books and gave some useful tips on how to tackle them. She talked about the many different types of illustrations, as well as the importance of differentiating between two illustrations that have the same title but that are actually two versions of the same work. She also advised to use the page number of the caption for the locator instead of the illustration itself. Sue also talked about creating main headings for larger topics, such as “pendants” in a book on jewellery, and the option of arranging biographical information chronologically instead of alphabetically.

Closing off this session was Ruth talking about indexing children’s books. Indexers of children’s books should know what’s expected from their target audience, Ruth argued. In the UK’s national curriculum, there is a specific mention of children having to learn how to use indexes. Readers in years 3 and 4 (who are between the ages of 7 and 9) “should be shown how to use contents pages and indexes to locate information,” according to the curriculum. We as indexers have to make our indexes appropriate for their age and education levels. Ruth suggested multiple ways to achieve this, for example by using “’doing’ words” instead of nouns (e.g. “running” instead of “legs” or “sports”); double-posting instead of cross-referencing; refraining from using subheadings for the smallest children; and using the page numbers in full instead of conflating them (e.g. 124–125 instead of 124–5). Interestingly, while talking about page ranges, Ruth suggested that some children might find it difficult to understand the meaning of dashes, but still advised against using different constructions such as “20 to 21”. “They are at the age where they need to start learning,” she argued, and we shouldn’t teach them something they will have to relearn once they get a little bit older. Ruth also talked about which terms to use. We should use “naughty words” like “poo” and “farts,” which are terms that kids will definitely look up. Deciding on the right words becomes trickier when handling sensitive subject matter and inclusive language issues. “Hearing loss” is more sensitive than “deafness,” but kids will most likely look up deafness. The same is true for indexing concepts related to identity (such as race, gender, and sexuality) and concepts like slavery/enslavement. The decision depends on the age group, the publisher’s requirements, and the terms that the author uses.

Your own indexing company

Session four featured three different parallel options. I went to a session called “New Horizons: a seminar for students and new professionals,” led by Lyndsay Marshall. Lyndsay shared a wealth of information on starting out your indexing business, presenting fundamental and sometimes surprising information about where to find resources. We discussed topics such as responding to enquiries (e.g. preparing quotations, estimating how long a project will take), marketing (e.g. targeted marketing, speculative emails, and setting up your brand), networking, and more. There were several students who benefitted from this presentation, on one hand because of Lyndsay’s excellent material, and on the other because of the experienced indexers who chimed in to offer their own pieces of advice. Among the pieces of advice that Lyndsay offered were using online resources; looking up editors in the acknowledgement section in books on Amazon; and replying quickly when offered a job. At the end all participants were handed a four-page document listing even more valuable resources for new indexers.

Continuing professional development

The final session was all about continuing professional development (CPD). Melanie, who chaired this session, explained that professional development does not stop after submitting your final assignment for the training course. While indexers do get experience by indexing, they can just as easily “fall into bad habits”. In order for Society members to keep adhering to the highest standards, there are many different ways of maintaining your professional development, scoring CPD points that can lead to a Fellowship grade along the way. There were prerecorded messages from Nic Nicholas, who talked about the Self-Evaluation Exercise, which requires you to evaluate one of your own published indexes and demonstrate that you can look at it critically, and Mary Coe, who shared some insights about writing for The Indexer. We ended the session by writing down on our ideas about CPD opportunities on index cards, which Melanie later read out to the group.

Closing off

After the conference, many of us went for drinks at the Editor’s Draught pub across the street, and dinner at the Whitehall Restaurant afterwards. Both places were easily accessible and provided us with wonderful food and drinks. They were also lovely opportunities to talk to indexers you still had not met yet, as well as some spouses. The evening was a great conclusion of a conference that, though short, was able to offer many different pieces of indexing information and, most importantly, many different opportunities for connecting with colleagues and friends.