What practices will help me with good index term selection?

Term selection is a key factor that determines the quality and usability of an index. Good index terms are clear, concise, intuitive, meaningful, and accurate. But what practices will help you achieve these qualities in your indexing work?

In his article for The Indexer, Zhang Qiyu (indexer consultant and information management professor, Nanjing Institute of Politics Shanghai) dives deep into term selection, exploring what term selection means, how to identify what is and what is not indexable, and matters such as structure and design of the index. In the article, he identifies several key practices that will help you select terms for a useful and effective index.

1. Always keep user needs top of mind

Consider what is relevant to the text’s audience and how they might search for what they need. For example, does the term reflect current usage? Would a synonym or variant form be more intuitive for index users?

2. Be familiar with the subject area

Understanding the text and its purpose helps you select terms that appropriately reflect the contents and are suitable for the audience.

3. Reflect topics from the text alone

Do not add information to the index that is not in the text. Where possible, index terms should be identical to the text’s terms. However, at times you may need to use variants or alternative terms if more useful to index users.

4. Include both explicit and implicit topics

Consider the text from different angles. Are there significant unspoken meanings and relationships within the text that would be useful or illuminating for index users?

5. Make connections within the index structure

Using double-postings and cross-references among the terms creates multiple access points to information. These elements can assist a wider variety of users and reveal meaningful interconnections.

6. Eliminate clutter

The greater the range of items in the index, the more useful it will be for different users. However, index terms must lead to information that is substantive and relevant to the text’s subject, purpose, and audience. Indexing topics that are irrelevant or only mentioned in passing will obstruct efficient searching.

Read Zhang Qiyu’s full article for free in The Indexer: The International Journal of Indexing (Vol. 27, No. 3) at liverpooluniversitypress.co.uk/doi/10.3828/indexer.2009.32

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