Module 4: Indexing

Indexes are guides to the resources in your library and other libraries.

Finding Tools

Indexes are one example of a finding tool. They help to locate books, find information within books, and some can help locate information within magazines.

Many sources are arranged or accessed alphabetically by subject, and it is common to bypass the print index or online subject access altogether. For example, a print encyclopedia is frequently consulted by turning directly to an article rather than using the index. It’s important, however, not to overlook the index. Although there is an article in the World Book Encyclopedia on x-rays in the “X” volume, more information can be found in at least two dozen other articles! Indexes also will help you locate information when there is no separate article on the topic. For example, you can find a picture of a sea anemone in World Book only by using the index.


  1. The library catalog is an example of an index that helps locate books
  2. There are indexes online which help you locate parts of works, such as:
    • Reader’s Guide for Magazine Articles
    • Granger’s Index to Poetry for Poems in Collections
    • The Essay and General Literature Index for Chapters from Books
  3. There are also indexes for individual works. An example is the World Book Encyclopedia index.

Specific Terms, Synonyms, and Broader Terms

To use any index (including the catalog) effectively, follow these steps:

  1. Try looking up the most specific term first.
    • Ex: Daylight Savings Time – Try “daylight”
  2. Then try a synonym
    • Ex: Whose picture is on the $20 bill? If there is no entry under “paper money,” try “currency”
  3. Then try to broaden the search term
    • Ex: If you are looking for the speed of a lion and find nothing under “lion,” broaden to “animals”

Coping with Poor Indexes

Sometimes you will have to use an index which is poorly constructed. One common problem with indexes is broad subject headings with too many items under each subject heading. You face an inefficient search because you can’t go directly to the most specific heading. Some indexes don’t follow the usual conventions and will put items beginning with “the” in the “T’s”. Indexes in some older books use outdated or misleading terms. Sometimes it pays off to ignore the index altogether and rely on the table of contents and browsing.

Who Indexes the Web?

During the early years of the internet, many librarians took special interest in organizing online information by subject. These resources, known as web directories, attempted to review and categorize reliable websites by providing descriptions and links. Due to the ever-changing, evolving nature of the internet and, especially, its exponential rate of growth, these projects became too overwhelming to manage. Though no longer updated, several instances of these web directories exist online and may still serve as helpful places to start your search.

WWW Virtual Library
Though certainly not the largest, this is the oldest index of the web compiled by volunteers with different areas of expertise. Highly regarded as a reputable source of online information and still edited as of 2017.

Open Directory Project (DMOZ, or Directory Mozilla)
A relic of an old method of evaluating sites for content and then hand-categorizing them to the subject(s) they best matched. This site ceased operation in March 2017, and it’s now maintained by a different web index, the Curlie directory.

In an effort to integrate library materials with related websites, some libraries also attempted to organize their online resources and recommended websites by utilizing the Dewey Decimal System, though no library seems to do this anymore.

Other libraries maintain recommended resource pages as a way to help their patrons discern reliable websites. Sometimes existing as separate guides on a library’s website, they may also be integrated with a library’s subscription electronic databases.

Most librarians keep bookmarks and links to their favorite reliable online resources and are happy to share and learn from one another. What are some of your go-to reference websites?

Major Point: Indexes are finding tools that help you find whole works, parts within works, topics within an individual work, or quality websites.


Using the four reference books from the exercise on the Reference Sources page, do the following:

  1. Examine the subject headings or index terms used in the books.
  2. Are the books arranged by subject heading and is this reflected in the Table of Contents?
  3. Do they have indexes?
  4. Are the indexes easy to understand and use?
  5. How similar or different are the index terms or subject headings among the books, (i.e. do they use the same terms for the same topics)?
  6. Do you think that the terms used would be the terms your patrons would expect to find?