The Volokh Conspiracy

Mostly law professors | Sometimes contrarian | Often libertarian | Always independent

Readers Really Like Indexes

For now, at least, they serve a purpose.


Earlier today, I solicited comments about the value of book indexes. The responses were overwhelming: readers like them!

Here are a smattering of the emails:

Regarding book indexes, I still use them, especially for academic books and textbooks. Those books are typically the ones I am least likely to use in electronic form. Physical still beats electronic for the rapid sort of flipping back and forth I find myself doing. And an electronic index is imperfect for the same reasons indexes are still done by a real person–a simple word search may not return relevant information I can find with an index. So I am pro-index.

I don't generally use an index upon reading a book for the 1st time if I'm reading it cover to cover. However, if a book is really good or thoughtful, I will often keep the book as a reference.  In utilizing a book as a reference this is when an index is most useful due to the fact that I'm sometimes likely to forget where some significant passages or discussions are located.

I use them all the time, in fact, when I read books for professional purposes, and sometimes even for entertainment purposes. In several respects, they are more efficient than simple searching for a word in an e-book (e.g. – the index can give you a page range and sometimes can distinguish insignificant casual references from more in-depth discussion). And, obviously, they are essential if you are using a print book, rather than e-book. Many people still prefer the former. I myself do, for most professional purposes.

Before reading a book, I "preview" it by reading the covers, reading the Table of Contents, reading any Foreword and/or Introduction, and scanning through the index.  By previewing it, I get an idea of who the author is (if I'm not already familiar with him/her), and where the author's argument is going.  It also tells me whether I want to read just certain chapters, read the whole book, or not waste time reading it at all. I like indexes because they help to tell me what subjects are important to an author, who they mention and how often, and sometimes the breadth of research the author has done.

I still like physical books, and even on a kindle the search feature can be annoying, but you make a reasonable point about the reduced value of indexing now. If search gets good enough to replace what I described above, maybe your argument about expense and paper will carry the day.

And this quote is a gem:

"Sir Frederick Pollock used to say that a man who would publish a book without an index ought to be banished ten miles beyond Hell where the Devil himself could not go because of the stinging nettles." Roscoe Pound, Book Review, An Introduction to Legal Reasoning. by Edward H. Levi. Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 1949. Pp.74. $2.00, 60 Yale L.J. 193, 200 (1951)

The wisdom of the crowds has spoken.