Serials Indexing: A Brief Overview

**crossposted at Literature Review for Library Techs**


Booth (2-3) defines an index as “an organized (usually alphabetical) sequence of entries, each of which can lead a user to the desired information within a document, or to the required document within a collection.  Indexing is the process of creating – or, as some indexers prefer to say, compiling or writing – the index.”

Pieces of information in just about any format can be indexed, be they monographs, serials, bibliographies, audiovisual formats, directories, or bibliographies.  This paper will focus on one particular type of indexing, serials indexing.   A serial is an item within any format where several discrete parts are organized under one title.  Examples include periodicals, journals, magazines, newspapers, committee minutes, yearbooks, regular directories, and annual reports.

Booth (14) points out that there are several intellectual features within an index.  They are:

  • All relevant text should be given suitable, balanced coverage in the index.
  • All the significant references to topics likely to be of interest to the anticipated user should be represented by headings that:
    • Are concise
    • Are meaningful
    • Are likely to be looked for by users )(including synonymous terms that do not necessarily appear in the document)
    • Lead to the correct place in the document
  • Cross references should be included, where helpful, to link conceptually related terms.
  • A clear introduction should explain (where necessary) coverage, arrangement and typographical conventions used.

Boot’s presentational features (16) include:

  • Alphabetical order should be consistent within an index – there are different methods of arranging headings that consist of more than one word.
  • Subheadings should be arranged in an order suitable for the purpose
  • Locators should be present in a consistent form — there are different ways of showing a page range (a continuing sequence of text from one page to another).
  • Overall layout, punctuation and style should be consistent, including the indention of subentries
  • Entries for the different letters of the alphabet (As, Bs) should be separated by spacing.


Indexing a serial is different from a monograph in a number of ways (Cleveland and Cleveland, 34).  Whereas a book is considered thematically consistent across its content, a serial will cover discrete topics within larger subject areas (Booth, 199).  This will define the way topical information is drawn from the various parts of the serial to determine headings in the index.  Furthermore, the serials indexer, much more than the book indexer, will attempt to represent general themes, including an overall subject and perhaps between 4 and 20 topics, as opposed to looking for specific instances of subject representation within sentences, paragraphs, and pages (Booth, 202-203). That said, a periodicals index can contain both general and specific headings (Brown and Jermey, 76).  They will primarily seek to glean headings from the title, abstract, and introduction (Browne and Jermey, 53-54), but not to the exclusion of other parts of the work.

Weaver states that there are four types of journal indexes (16).  They are:

  • A database covering many different journals
  • An index designed from scratch for a journal that has never been indexed
  • An index in progress, one that was started by  one indexer and that is being continued by another indexer.
  • A cumulative index for a journal that is either still being published or that has ceased publication.

Let’s start from the top of the item.  The words in a title may be used for an index, but only when the title reflects the content or message of the article (Booth, 203).  It is wise to check the spelling in the title to ensure that the spelling on the subject is consistent across authors.  It is also helpful to ensure that there are cross-references so that synonyms are captured in the index.

Words and ideas from the abstract can be used as well, provided that it is a competently written abstract that accurately conveys the themes of the article (Booth, 205).

Using words and ideas from the text of the article is a better way to represent the theme of the article in the index (Browne and Jermey, 28).  The best places in the article to find thematically related ideas are near the beginning, such as the introduction,  and also toward the end, where the results and subsequent discussion may take place.

It is probably ideal if there is a thesaurus or other controlled vocabulary list from which to identify the correct index terms (Booth, 206).  That would remove all doubt as to which terms, and which spelling of said terms, to use for the index.  If a controlled vocabulary list is used, it is a good idea to provide the reader with information about the list.

Some journals and articles provide author-supplied keywords (Booth, 2007)(Browne and Jermey, 14).  These can be helpful for indexing, with the caveat that the indexer should not rely on these keywords for a full range of headings.  The author may not know enough about indexing to allow for such a comprehensive list, and to manage cross references, variant spellings, and synonyms.

Where any term is provided, there may be a locator that indicates where in the text the term may be found (Booth, 107-117).  Locators often take the form of page numbers.  In the case of an index of serials, they may take the form of citations, including volume numbers and dates (Booth, 207-217).

As in other indexes, cross-references are important.  They provide additional information to a given entry that might be helpful to the reader.  Examples of these could be explaining different meanings of a given term, and providing a locator to said term (Booth, 118).  Another example could be references to terms that are conceptually related to the term in question. In the case of serials, it is advisable, according to Booth, to provide entries for all authors when there is more than one (214).

Browne and Jermey discuss the indexing of journals and magazines as a whole.  In this case, what is indexed is merely a citation of the article, rather than a page or paragraph (147).  As well, there are multiple authors in a volume and a variety of content types.  As the index builds over time, current year’s index is integrated into the cumulative index.  Indexes to a continuing journal or a journal volume are usually arranged by subject or author, though they can be also organized by title.


Indexing is an important means of organizing information.  It is also quite complex.  My intention here was to provide a brief overview of one type of indexing.  Nevertheless, I think, at a very basic level, it is quite sequential as well.  Keywords, titles, abstracts, the text, and controlled vocabulary lists are all parts of the work from which index terms can be derived.  In a collection of journals, or volumes of a journal, the index will usually be organized by author or subject.


Booth, Pat. F. Indexing: The Manual of Good Practice.  Munich: Saur, 2001.

Browne, Glenda, and Jon Jermey.  The Indexing Companion.  Cambridge, Australia: Cambridge, 2007.

Clevelanf, Donald B. and Ana D. Cleveland.  Indexing and Abstracting.  2nd ed.  Libraries Unlimited: Englewood, Colorado, 1990.

Weaver, Carolyn G.. “The Gist of Journal Indexing”.” Key Words 10.1 (2002): 16-22. Library Literature & Information Science Full Text (H.W. Wilson). Web. 8 Nov. 2012.


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