A good index guides the reader

Penny at podium_croppedYesterday, Alicia Crane Williams wrote about the steps she takes when indexing the Early New England Families Study Project, showing the extensive work that makes it possible for us to find ancestors in database searches. But what if you’re not creating a database, but writing a book instead?

In the course of your research, have you ever picked up a family history and, to your dismay, found no index? With this experience in mind, if you are writing a family history, you must have an index for your work—at the very least an every-name index.

The guiding principle for indexing is to help the reader find a precise person. Whereas a database allows you to narrow your search according to certain criteria, a print index doesn’t. So how can you apply that guiding principle when indexing a printed work? Two key things will help, one involving indexing people who have the same name, and one involving the indexing of married women.

An index helps the reader find the right person

Indexing people with the same name. If your ancestors carry certain given names throughout generations, you’ll want to help your reader find the right person with a particular name. The easiest way to do so is to include generational numbers, if you’re using them. Taking examples from my husband’s ancestry, I would index his two Daniel Ladds and handful of Nathaniel Ladds like this:








If you’re not using generational numbers, consider using a birthdate (or death date, if the birthdate is unknown) or some other identifier. For the Daniels and Nathaniels:


Daniel (d. 1693)

Daniel (b. 1717)

Nathaniel (b. 1651)

Nathaniel (b. 1745)

Nathaniel (b. 1774)

Nathaniel (b. 1794)

Indexing married women. As I mentioned in a previous post on the topic, you must index women under every surname they have ever had. My husband’s history, for example, will include his late mother, Ella Mabel (Clark) (Stratton) (Yourch) Corke, who was widowed three times. Someone who knew Ella under only one of these surnames will want to find every instance of her mention in the book. Thus she will appear in the index four times. In alphabetical order, they would be as follows:

Clark, Ella Mabel

Corke, Ella Mabel (Clark) (Stratton) (Yourch)

Stratton, Ella Mabel (Clark)

Yourch, Ella Mabel (Clark) (Stratton)

Under each entry, I would list every page where Ella appears, even if she is not listed with that particular surname on that page. Doing so will add to the work of indexing, and make it tedious. But it will be a great boon to the reader—which brings me back to the guiding principle: helping the reader find a specific person.

Do you have specific questions about indexing we can address in Vita Brevis? List them in the comments, and we’ll make every effort to answer them in future posts. Or, for more complete information about indexing, see NEHGS’s Portable Genealogist on the topic, or consult our Guide to Genealogical Writing.

About Penny Stratton

A veteran of the book publishing industry, Penny Stratton retired as NEHGS Publishing Director in June 2016; she continues to consult with the Society on publications projects. Among the more than 65 titles she managed at NEHGS are The Great Migration Directory, Elements of Genealogical Analysis, Genealogist’s Handbook for New England Research, and the award-winning Descendants of Judge John Lowell of Newburyport, Massachusetts. She has written for American Ancestors magazine and is a regular poster on Vita Brevis. With Henry B. Hoff, Penny is coauthor of Guide to Genealogical Writing: How to Write and Publish Your Family History; she is also the author of several Portable Genealogists on writing and publishing topics.

18 thoughts on “A good index guides the reader

  1. What is the best program to use for indexing when writing a book? Would it be WORD? And if so, can you give an example or instructions on how this is done. Any points welcomed. Donna TILLINGHAST Casey

  2. When I read the how to create an index in Microsoft Word, it seemed so complex I didn’t even try. Your post on the organization of information is certainly useful, but how does one even start? I need step one.

  3. Thanks u so much with those examples. That does make it easier 4 me to read as well as how to put my families in place. I already figured I needed to add all the female last names because of many marriages in my families. In order 4 me to know them and future of others to figure out who they r.

  4. Great article- thanks, Penny!

    Would a married name that ended in divorce and then remarriage (to someone else) be treated similarly as your MIL’s? I have seen the divorced name included in [ ] in the listing in some sources, rather than ( ). What if they remarried the first spouse after taking back the maiden name, or marrying someone else?

    For a woman who married a cousin and then had the same married name as her maiden name, should it be noted somehow in the index that it was her maiden name as well? I suppose she would be found either way so it likely does not matter.

  5. Penny, when I was working the desk at NEHGS in the Ice Ages, someone called and explained that he had written a three-volume, so many pages, genealogy, and asked if should he index it! As I talked with him, I realized he just wanted me to say no. “The people are all in order in the book!” he declared.

  6. It seems from the comments that at least one followup posting should follow to address what software is best for indexing, and maybe a guide that would answer specific questions. Thanks for your post.

  7. When I wrote “From Schoolboy to Soldier: The Correspondence and Journals of Edward Stanley Abbot,” my great uncle, the task of indexing the volume was overwhelming. I hired a professional indexer. It was not as expensive as I thought it would be and simplified the job greatly. She had programs to help her and protocols for dealing with varied types of items to be indexed. Of course, I still had to review her draft.

  8. I made a start at indexing a journal I had transcribed using Word but found it overwhelming because the names were repeated repeatedly throughout the journal. I now think I could have managed it if I had kept the pages the same as in the journal vs combining to fill a page. I really should have at least had an every name index as suggested at the beginning of this post. The journals and the printed transcription are now in the manuscript collection at NEHGS without an index as far as I know.

  9. I have compiled a 600-page genealogy for my maternal grandfather’s family. I made an index by adding the names in order by page to make a list which is then sorted and condensed; this allows (?) me to quickly update the list by page and then resort. There actually are four indexes: name, place, photos in the book and a list of all family photos that I have by family member.

  10. If your material is readily available in electronic format, an index is useful (e.g. for browsing) but not as valuable as the ability to make computerized searches. Traditional “hard copy” materials do need indices. Go electronic!

    1. Penny, also back in the Ice Ages when I was involved with NEHGS, my husband wrote a DOS indexing program that we used for the cumulative index to the Register, and many books. Newer computers were making it difficult to use, but recently, thanks to a free program called Dos Box, we were able to adapt it and it’s working better than ever for me – does the multiple maiden/married names automatically, and automatic repetition of surnames and first names if applicable (though not page numbers), and sorts, concatenating the relevant page numbers.. It’s too involved to offer to a newcomer, but anybody who is able to program at all should be able to write something that would work better than Word. Some people may remember another similar program written by a young man in Rhode Island. Picton Press had one, too, but they are gone now.

    1. My wife and I wrote (actually edited and made a book) the letters from my great grandfather, Eugene Barton Wight — related to the Ladds — wrote in 1860 – 1864 to his parents. 212 pages with no index. It included mention of the “Life of Luther C. Ladd, the first martyr that fell a sacrifice to his country, in the city of Baltimore, on the 19th of April, 1861, while bravely defending the flag of the nation … ”

  11. I’ve been writing my “book” for about 2 years. The table of contents and the index are holding me up. I’m no where done but contemplating those two items make me shiver.

  12. I use Family Tree Maker which provides indices. I am not organized nor interested enough to do it. I’ll leave it to my granddaughter or grandson.

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