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.

Penny Stratton

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.View all posts by Penny Stratton