Why an Interdisciplinary Book Needs an Interdisciplinary Index

Jun 16, 2021Publications

Originally published at Ideas on Fire, June 16, 2021

An index is the map that lets readers navigate a book and ultimately use it in their own work. A scholarly book in any field benefits enormously from having a great index. But for interdisciplinary books in particular, a great index isn’t just “nice to have”—it’s imperative.

As they are designed to speak to diverse audiences and have real-world impacts beyond the academy, interdisciplinary books need strong indexes to achieve those goals. Here’s why.

Interdisciplinary audiences bring diverse knowledges

The supreme pleasure of interdisciplinary scholarship—indeed why we do it at all—is the fact that diversity makes ideas smarter. Interdisciplinary scholars immerse themselves in diverse conversations and literatures to research their topics. They familiarize themselves with how different scholarly fields and communities conceptualize certain events or concepts and then allow those different frameworks to shape specific research questions and objects of analysis.

Interdisciplinary readers do the same thing when they pick up a book to read. Such readers bring with them diverse backgrounds, knowledges, and expertise. For an interdisciplinary book to actually work, it must speak clearly to those varied readers—in their own languages. An interdisciplinary index helps a book do this.

Such an index provides multiple entry points for readers, rather than assuming they all are approaching the text with the same questions. For instance, some readers will want to know about the book’s methodology while others will look through the index to see how deeply the author has engaged issues of race, sexuality, and/or gender. Entries and subentries should provide answers for both.

Highlighting an author’s unique contributions

A great index should showcase what makes a book special and celebrate the hard work the author put into creating it.

Interdisciplinary scholarship requires a lot more labor than traditional scholarship, especially in terms of translation. That authorial labor should be apparent in the index.

Additionally, interdisciplinary scholars of all identities face constant demands to justify their work (“is this really gender studies if it is so much about race?” “I’m not sure this should count as ethnography,” “these methods seem too mixed for history”). Scholars who are queer, women, disabled, first-generation, trans, and/or of color face even more skepticism, often being accused of producing “mesearch” and facing much higher barriers to academic success.

Such scholars deserve to have their research valued, cited, and taken seriously. A great interdisciplinary index helps significantly with this. By touting the book’s critical interventions and breath of knowledge production, such an index supports the author’s career and the political interventions that author wants their work to make in the world.

Indexes as accessibility tools

Indexes enable readers to traverse a book, find what they need, and discover new connections. How the index presents information can make this easier or harder.

If an indexer assumes that all readers share the same knowledge base and terminology, their index can exclude those who approach the book from different angles or with different goals. Such exclusion can make a reader pass that book over, even if the content itself does offer what they’re looking for—after all, who wants to stick with a text when its index (incorrectly) announces that text is not for you?

Although this is an issue for all books, interdisciplinary books face this more intensely. For instance, many interdisciplinary books are taught in undergraduate and graduate classrooms in a variety of departments. Students need to be able to find what they need in the book to use it in their work. For an undergraduate, that might mean writing a response paper or organizing a group presentation. For a graduate student, that might mean finalizing their dissertation methodology or studying for their qualifying exams.

A great index will speak to both of these types of students in a language they understand. This might mean including both technical terms like “carceral ableism,” “interstitial hermeneutics,” and “transformative justice“—which will be immediately identifiable to experts in specific fields—alongside more general concepts like “racism,” “queerness,” and “activism”—which will be more accessible to folks who are newer to these ideas and fields. Clever cross references allow these entries to speak to each other and demonstrate how the author’s argument and analysis bring these all together.

Citation and signal boosting are political

As Christen A. Smith, Dána-Ain Davis, and Sameena Mulla point out on the most recent episode of Imagine Otherwise, who we cite and and how we cite them is deeply political. Drawing on their work with the Cite Black Women collective and the most recent special issue of Feminist Anthropology, they explain that to form true community, authors need to engage deeply with the ideas of marginalized scholars, not just name drop in a tokenistic fashion.

Interdisciplinary indexers know how to highlight this and help readers discover those ideas as well. A great interdisciplinary index goes beyond just listing the scholars cited in the book by also recognizing and including the key concepts and interventions that shaped the author’s thinking, drawing connections across diverse fields. In this way, an index can help build community and political networks.

Tala Khanmalek has noted that such community building through citation, which happens both in the author’s text and in the index, recognizes intellectual and affective labor. It also strengthens transgenerational genealogies, challenging the capitalist ideology of individualism that too often plagues academia. How one writes the index for a book thus directly affects the work that book can do in the world.

Strong interdisciplinary indexers also know to index concepts that scholars invent, which helps those scholars track their citations across texts. This is crucial when it comes to hiring, tenure review, and promotion, as scholars need to be able to make the case that their research has traveled through the world and made a powerful impact. In this way, indexers can help authors (even those whose books they don’t work on) in this important career process.

Interdisciplinary indexes as a commitment to social change

As all of these examples show, both interdisciplinary scholarship and interdisciplinary indexes are inherently political. They seek to transform the world for the better, drawing on diverse fields, ideas, and methodologies to meet that goal. A great index can help an author make an impact not just in a narrow academic discipline but in the broader social worlds that we all traverse.

As you might imagine, a fantastic interdisciplinary index like this requires an indexer who really gets what the author is trying to do and also really gets what the readers of the book are looking for. Such indexers are immersed in the ideas and politics of the book in question, beyond a single project. For those who are committed to interdisciplinarity as a political as well as intellectual endeavor, indexes are one key way we can shape the worlds we want.

You might be interested in