Memo to railroad authors: honor the index

Posted by Kevin Keefe
on Monday, February 13, 2017

In my nearly 30 years working in the Kalmbach offices, my colleagues Rob McGonigal and Dave Ingles got used to my various rants. Trust me, there were a million of them. Judging by the reaction I got from Rob and Dave, most of them were promptly and wisely dismissed.

But if there was one thing that consistently got me worked up — and often got them to nod in agreement — was the frequent exclusion of indexes in many railroad books.

That might seem trivial, but when your job includes a lot of research on tight deadlines, there’s nothing more maddening than knowing that Book A or Book B has that one fact, that one essential detail to make a story complete, and you can’t find it. I wish I had a dollar for each time I walked out of one of America’s great railroad libraries empty handed.

I got to thinking about this recently when I read an impressive new book called The Rusty Dusty: Great Northern’s Wenatchee-Oroville Branch, by Mac McCulloch and John E. Langlot. I reviewed the book in the latest issue of Classic Trains, now in the mail to subscribers. This GN branch in north-central Washington is way beyond my usual turf, but I still got drawn into the book because of its excellent writing, high production standards, and incredibly thorough maps.

I was also pleased to see it has an excellent index. That simple little move by the authors immediately elevates the book from one that announces “Insiders Only” to one that can be appreciated and used by anyone.

So I tip my hat to Messrs. McCulloch and Langlot. When I needed to know how long the “Rusty Dusty” was (138 miles) or what sort of diesels worked the line (the RS2 was a mainstay) or what it took to support perishable traffic (a lot!), the authors were there to help me.

To be fair, I should clarify that not all publishers skip out on the index. Most of the larger commercial publishers who dabble in railroad books include them as a matter of course. And for the several university presses who’ve thrived in the railroad market in recent years, an index is a given.

But too many popular and potentially useful books continue to be short-changed. And why? An index is not all that difficult or time-consuming to produce. For some narrow railroad topics, it probably requires no more than two or three pages.

Besides, working on an index can be fun.

I know whereof I speak, having done my share of indexes for Trains over the years. When I first came to work at 1027 N. Seventh Street, Dave Ingles was editor-in-chief, and all too happy to give his new low man the thankless task of doing the annual index. I couldn’t blame him. He’d been saddled with it for years.

I quickly discovered it was a lot of work, partly, I admit, because I let it go until a few weeks before deadline, necessitating a lot of midnight oil in the office, working on our cumbersome mainframe Atex editorial system.

But once I got into the work, I actually enjoyed it. Building an index takes discipline. It forces you to think about the relationships of various aspects of editorial content, and how they can feed off each other. The Classic Trains and Trains indexes are especially comprehensive, with most stories showing up at the very least under the headline, the author’s name, and the subject railroad, if not a whole lot more.

When I was done each year, I had a fresh appreciation for all the work we’d put into the previous year’s 12 issues. Even old information seemed new again. I also took satisfaction in knowing that somewhere down the line, a reader was going to really use this.

I find it incredible that the railroad book market continues to be vital enough to produce scores of new books each year. It’s a testimonial not only to the compelling nature of railroading itself but also to the remarkable dedication of countless authors and publishers, none of whom is getting rich at it. This is a collegial business, so I wouldn’t single anyone out for criticism.

But please, authors and publishers, do future generations of readers and researchers a huge favor. Give your books the lasting value they deserve. Include an index.


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