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  • Writer's pictureMelanie Gee

What's it all about? Indexing the metatopic

If you’re not a book indexer, you’d be surprised at how much careful thought needs to go into how we handle the main topic of a book in its index. We call this main topic the metatopic and indexers don't always agree about it. I’ll outline some of the areas of contention, and some practical strategies I have found to be helpful.


"Just leave it out!" arguments against providing an index heading for the main topic

1. We would create an index within an index

Sometimes indexers worry about getting carried away: if we create an index heading for the main topic of the book (e.g. ‘women’s football’ for a book about the history of women’s football) will we feel compelled to index the whole book as a long string of subheadings under that one heading, thus providing an ‘index within an index’? Because, obviously, the whole book (or almost all of it) will be arguably ‘about’ that topic?

This argument appears compelling: it is better to have nothing under the main topic of the book, rather than everything, surely? Indexers do have techniques at our disposal to find a happy medium, however.

2. The main topic is too broad

Consider a 500 page book about the history of Wales. Would you expect to see ‘Wales’ as a heading in the index? Probably not. It just feels too broad a concept. But this is subjective. In fact, sometimes readers might try to look up broad concepts like this in an index, if they don’t know where else to start.

Which brings us to….


"No-put it in!" arguments in favour of providing an index heading for the main topic

1. Readers do look up index headings for the main topic

What little empirical research has been conducted into how readers use book indexes, has found that readers do look up index headings for the main topic, especially if:

  • they are new to the subject (so don’t know more specific/specialised words to look up)

  • they are struggling to find what they are looking for elsewhere in the index (if they can’t find the specific term they are looking for, they will go broader, eventually landing on the broadest headings of all)

2. Main topic index headings can help if you feel a bit lost

We can help readers understand the structure of the rest of the index by providing navigational information within the heading for the main topic – more on this below.

What could/should be included in an index heading for the main topic?

The more I have thought about it (and I have thought about it a lot), the more I have concluded that it is worth including something in an index heading for the main topic of the book. And yes, it is possible to do this without getting too carried away. Here are some categories of information that I might include in a metatopic heading in an index to a straightforward book:

  • Information about the main topic per se Sometimes the main topic of the book will be discussed by the author in general terms – typically, in an introductory chapter or section. It might be explicitly defined, or its relationship to other important concepts might be articulated, for example. The metatopic heading is the best place to capture this information (you can have subheadings such as ‘definition’, ‘conceptualisation’, etc.).

  • Other information that is hard to formulate as a main heading in its own right Sometimes the book might describe the historical development of the main topic. Whilst specific features of that development could and should be indexed as their own index headings, it might be useful to provide broad subheadings under the metatopic (e.g. ‘woodland management: nineteenth century’; ‘woodland management: twentieth century’ etc.).

  • ‘Table of Contents’ style information and cross-references The index should be complementary to the book’s Table of Contents: it doesn’t need to replicate it. Textbooks typically include very detailed breakdowns of their subject coverage in their Tables of Contents. Some books, however, do not include meaningful chapter/section titles, and for these books the index is the only way the reader can understand the structure of the book. In these circumstances it is useful to provide a lot of navigational information in the metatopic heading, pointing out (via cross-references) other important headings in the index (i.e. other important subjects in the book).

  • Other information that sits well under the main topic heading Sometimes I also include other information as subheadings under the main topic heading, even though it is provided elsewhere in the index, with identical page numbers (indexers call these double entries). This is an area that I pay particular attention to when I edit my index at the end: I check whether I might have got too carried away and whether some subheadings could be removed or merged. I also check there is overall index coherence. This is the most subjective category, and what I choose include or leave out will ‘feel right’ for the book, to me, but a different indexer would undoubtedly tackle it differently – we all do, and that’s fine.


Applying my own judgement

Do I include all the above information categories against/under the main topic headings for every book index I create? No, I don’t. But I always think carefully about which approach to indexing the metatopic would best serve the readers, and use my own judgement. In books where the reader might need a little bit more of a helping hand, the metatopic index heading can help provide it.


of course, it's more complicated than this....

I have presented an over-simplified argument here. Did you notice I referred to ‘an index to a straightforward book’, above? Often books have more than one main topic, and these main topics might be closely intertwined, or they might be quite distinct from one another. Sometimes it is impossible to capture the main topic of the book (even when there is only one of them) as a single index heading – the metatopic might map to several index headings. The categories I have outlined above still work in these situations, however: they might just be scattered over several index headings, and you will need to think carefully about assisting the reader to find their way between them.

Want to know more?

If your curiosity has been piqued, you will find much more about indexing the metatopic(s) of a book in two articles on 'Metatopic Musings' I wrote for The Indexer: The International Journal of Indexing. (See my Publications). In the first, I describe the results of surveys of UK and US indexers to compare their indexing practices. In the second, I present a fuller account of the arguments summarised in this blog, with examples from my own indexes (not all of them relating to ‘straightforward books’). I also strongly recommend you find a copy of Facing the Text by Do Mi Stauber, where the concept of the metatopic was first explored.

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