Indexing Biographies and Other Stories of Human Lives

Hazel K. Bell (4th edn, Liverpool University Press, 2020), 150pp, £14.95 (pbk/ebook)
ISBN 978 1789 621 62 4 (pbk), ISBN 978 1789 627 45 9 (ebook)

Reviewed by Paula Clarke Bain


Buy this book

As an Advanced Professional Member of both the CIEP and the Society of Indexers (SI), now doing most of my work in indexing, I am glad to review Hazel K. Bell’s Indexing Biographies and Other Stories of Human Lives in its updated fourth edition. The book focuses on indexes in autobiographies, biographies, life stories, memoirs and other narrative texts. Hazel K. Bell is an experienced indexer and past editor of The Indexer journal. Her years of indexing, research and writing are evident in this comprehensive guide.

Book indexing is not easy, and life stories can be a challenge to index well. Bell states that such materials in the humanities are ‘soft texts’ in narrative form about people, personal lives and relationships. Often the indexer must become an ‘interpreter’ of this text.

Much advice is included, outstanding indexes discussed (such as those on Charles Dickens, Samuel Johnson and Samuel Pepys, and Wheatley Medal winners) and guidance given on index evaluation. Notable biography indexers are quoted, including SI members and the ‘prince among indexers’ Douglas Matthews.

Impartiality and language use are key concerns. Indexers should be neutral, but some indexes seem critical of their subjects. Biographies may contain sensitive material for those named in them. The ‘Washington read’ is mentioned – checking for references to oneself in an index and only reading those pages of the book. Bell acknowledges our linguistic limitations and the importance of correct terminology: ‘our language is not value-free’.

A major issue is how to handle the main and minor characters. The primary subject (or ‘metatopic’) can require many entries, with different options for presenting these, including themes or ‘prime subheads’ (e.g. character, health, opinions). Conversely, minor figures may come and go without doing much of significance. Undifferentiated ‘strings of locators’ are usually inadvisable but here they may be the best option.

Alphabetisation, design and typography are covered, for example run-on/set-out (indented) subheadings and alphabetical/chronological/page number order. Alphabetical subentries can be problematic in biography indexes, hence the unfortunately oft-seen case of the main character’s death being listed shortly after birth and before their education, relationships and works.

Names may seem simple to index, but they can be tricky for incomplete names, name changes, nicknames and pseudonyms. Bell reminds us that the index is a working tool for the user, so the indexer must consider where the reader will look, adding double postings and cross-references.

The final chapter on fiction indexes is perhaps my favourite. Novels usually have no index, but some famed instances include Virginia Woolf’s Orlando and J.R.R. Tolkien’s The Lord of the Rings. Bell has indexed five A.S. Byatt novels – the ‘Frederica Quartet’ and Possession – and these indexes are available online. I should add a disclaimer that I get a mention for my blog writing on comedy book indexes, from which Bell includes the spoof memoir indexes of Alan Partridge and Steven Toast, where the humour continues to the back of the book. Much more on fiction indexing is to be found in Bell’s earlier Indexers and Indexes in Fact and Fiction.

There is a detailed references section, an admirable 13-page index (of course) and further reading lists for related articles in The Indexer, which has a free online archive dating back to 1958 (last five years’ subscription only). I like that the joy of the job is conveyed. Indexing is likened to a word game or jigsaw puzzle; it is most satisfying to figure out how to make it work. Throughout, Bell encourages the indexer’s judgement to find the right solution for each text rather than apply standard rules uncritically. As with editing and proofreading, it all depends on the book.

Indexing Biographies should appeal to indexers, authors, editors, publishing professionals and lovers of life histories. In this fine new edition, Hazel K. Bell has kindly shared her considerable insight into all that goes into making a great biography index.

Reviews of other related skills guides All book reviews