Making the Most of Your Library

Part 7 -- Indexes

Copyright 1990, 1998 by Leigh Kimmel

Originally appeared in SF&FW Newsletter #130, July 1992

For permission to quote or reprint, contact Leigh Kimmel

This article originally appeared in Science Fiction & Fantasy Workshop Newsletter

Unlike the sources we have been discussing up to now, indexes do not provide the information itself, but rather provide access to it. Most of us are probably already familiar with at least one type of index already -- the index that is found at the back of a book. This provides page references for the occurrences of specific subject matter within the book in question. Similarly other indexes provide access to items in other types of material.

There are several kinds of indexes that are commonly used as reference tools. For the average user the most familiar type of index is the general periodical index such as the Reader's Guide, which is found in almost every public and academic library. These indexes permit the user to find articles on a given topic which were published in any of the large number of general-readership periodicals which are indexed.

Similar to these are the subject indexes such as Humanities Index and Library Literature which index the journals of a particular subject specialty such as the humanities or library science. These are usually very similar to the general periodical indexes, although they may have additional features that will be explained in the preface. Whenever doing research that will involve in-depth study, it is wise to find out if there is a specialized index for the discipline into which it falls.

A third kind of index is the anthology index such as Short Story Index and Play Index, which enable a person to discover which anthologies have published a short piece. These are particularly useful because items of less than book length frequently are incorporated into more than one anthology, and it would be very time-consuming to try to locate and examine every anthology in the library's collection in order to find a particular short story or poem.

An entirely different kind of index is the citation index such as Science Citation Index. Unlike the more familiar indexes, citation indexes are not concerned primarily with subject access. Instead they provide information on who is citing whom and who is being cited by whom in scholarly journals. Although such a tool may not seem particularly useful at first glance for our purposes, it can be used in ways that no other tool can be. For instance, a friend has sent you an article that has just the sort of information you need, but you would like some more articles on the same subject. You might be able to find articles by using a subject index, but that would involve guesswork as to just what subject terms the indexers have assigned to the article in hand. If the article you have is from a professional journal that is indexed in one of the citation indexes, a more direct approach is to see what articles have cited it, and what other articles have cited the same sources it cites. This is of course a development on the commonly-suggested technique of looking up the items cited in the bibliographies of the works you have found useful.

The final form of indexing system is the abstracting service. But unlike the subject indexes to which it is related, the abstracting service provides an abstract, or brief synopsis, of the article which it indexes as well as the place where it can be found. The abstract will enable the researcher to ascertain what the item in question contains before searching for it and thus determine whether it is really worthwhile to spend the time and effort in gaining the item. Well-known abstracting services include Historical Abstracts, America: History and Life and Library and Information Science Abstracts (LISA).

All the various forms of indexes have their uses for the researcher, and should not be overlooked in the search for information.

Copyright 1990, 1998 by Leigh Kimmel

For permission to quote or reprint, contact Leigh Kimmel

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