Sep 02 2008

Freelance Indexing

Published by rachel at 9:06 am under alternative careers, marketing, networking, skills

by Debbie Olson

I am a freelance indexer and librarian living in Central New York. My work primarily involves book, periodical, and database indexing, but I also work as a freelance librarian providing services such as proxy research for clients at local libraries. I have an A.S. in business administration, a B.S. in economics, and a Master’s in Information and library studies with several years of reference and archival and manuscripts processing experience. I have transitioned from permanent to temporary to freelance work during this time.

Taking this final jump into freelance work has suited my personal work style and preferences. For the most part, I can choose my work hours anytime 24/7, which provides me with the flexibility to balance personal responsibilities and commitments more easily. I like the autonomy, flexibility of hours, and diversity of projects from a variety sources, especially appreciate the closure that comes from working project to project that you don’t always find in a traditional employee/employer relationship. The mobility of the work — both in terms of taking a project on the road and the fact that my client base does not need to change if I relocate — is also a plus. And establishing a variety of income streams now will continue to serve me well into “retirement” — in which I plan to remain professionally active.

My entry into Indexing

My interest in indexing began in the 1990s when I began doing research into issues affecting my local community. As I read through many pages of local government meeting minutes I realized how much easier an index would make the task, so I began to explore the field of indexing. Recognizing the income potential, I joined the American Society for Indexing (ASI), attended local chapter meetings, enrolled in the Basic Indexing class from the USDA Graduate School, reviewed indexing software, and completed several practice indexes on my own — including indexing a few years’ worth of the council meeting minutes I used during my research.

Not only have I learned that I enjoy the detail-oriented work indexing requires, but that I also have the discipline to work on my own on a day-to-day basis. Other traits I have found helpful include strong organizational skills and the ability to work with shifting priorities from day to day. Patience and persistence are absolutely necessary to manage slow periods and develop a client base. A love of learning and the ability to maintain a fresh perspective on how to approach and balance your overall personal and business goals are also important.

The nature of freelance indexing work

Most indexes are created using indexing software such as CINDEXTM, SKY, or MACREX, unless you are working with a database publisher and using their software via a Web portal. Rates are generally per page, per article, or by project, if large. Full-time indexers work approximately 20 billable hours per week. The remaining hours are spent taking care of administrative and clerical tasks, marketing, professional reading and involvement, and updating skills.  Marketing your services is a major component of the work. An extroverted person may have an easier time with this aspect, but don’t despair if you don’t fit this personality — your creativity will come into play and you will find ways that work for you.

Working from a home office at first seems quite isolated, but really is not. You are connecting with clients and publishers daily. You are maintaining and developing professional relationships with your indexing colleagues through participating in list discussions, attending workshops and conferences, or taking on an active role in professional organizations through serving on a committee or volunteering for other tasks. While most of this work is done via email,  you still communicate with a network of people on a daily basis. There may also be opportunities in your community to attend business and professional workshops or meet regularly with others who are self-employed, which will provide you with face-to-face time.

Getting started

My library background has served me well as an indexer.  The needs of the researcher/patron have translated well to the needs of the audience/reader.  Working with controlled vocabularies and metadata, and especially any computer skills, from developing and maintaining websites to using XML, will serve you well. Any experience in the publishing field, including editing and proofreading, is also beneficial, as indexers use these skills and may offer them in combination with indexing services.

If you are currently employed in a library you can begin to build contacts and establish relationships that will serve you in your freelance career. Surveying your current responsibilities will help you determine where you can apply indexing skills and/or adapt your current skills to the indexing field. Consider joining committees or organizations with cross-purposes between your library work and your interest in indexing; join organizations or discussion groups in your subject areas to keep abreast of trends and who is publishing.

Getting started in freelance indexing does not take a prescribed path. There is no one ultimate goal. Your investment, in terms of learning the skills of indexing and finding work, may be designed to fit your budget, your timeframe, your lifestyle, and your overall personal and professional goals. In today’s world we are looking to better balance our personal and professional lives; continual advances in technology offer us many more opportunities to do so. Freelance indexing work, alone or in combination with library work, is just one possibility. Most importantly, giving yourself permission to think about a freelance career and taking a few seemingly small steps now will eventually move you closer to realizing your goal.

Online resources for further information

The following indexing organizations will provide you with the basics of getting started and suggestions on how to get involved in the profession.

American Society for Indexing (ASI):
Australian and New Zealand Society of Indexers (ANZI):
Indexing Society of Canada/Société canadienne d’indexation:
Society of Indexers (UK):

Related organizations

American Society for Information Science & Technology (ASIS&T):
Editorial Freelancers Association (EFA):
Society for Technical Communication (STC):

Training and education

As far as indexer education and training, you can choose from workshops provided by indexing organizations, individual indexers, self-paced classes, or full semester classes from colleges and universities offering library degrees. These classes may be offered online, so you don’t necessarily have to live near a library-degree granting school. Here are just a few:

Graduate School of the USDA (taught by practicing professional indexers)
Basic Indexing:
Applied Indexing:
UC Berkeley Extension:
Simmons Graduate School of Library and Information Science (also provides classes on taxonomy development and web site indexing):

Additional resources

For a list of books in my professional library regarding the field and business of indexing and links to additional websites, including publisher indexing guidelines, visit:

My LibraryThing:
My tags:

Print resources for additional information

The following titles have been helpful in making my transition into freelance work:

Bates, Mary Ellen. Building & Running a Successful Research Business. Medford, NJ: Information Today, Inc., 2003.

Ditzler, Jinny S. Your Best Year Yet: Ten Questions for Making the Next Twelve Months Your Most Successful Ever. New York: Warner Books, 2000.

Dominguez, Joe & Vicki Robin. Your Money or Your Life: Transforming Your Relationship with Money and Achieving Financial Independence. New York, Viking, 1992.

Edwards, Paul & Sarah. Working From Home, 5th ed. New York: Jeremy P. Tarcher, 1999.

Everett, Melissa. Making a Living While Making a Difference, 2nd ed. Gabriola Island, B.C.: New Society Publishers, 1999.

Felsher, Murray. Working Alone: Making the Most of Self-Employment. New York: Berkeley Books, 1994.

Gordon, Rachel Singer. What’s the Alternative? Career Options for Librarians and Info Pros. Medford, NJ: Information Today, Inc., 2008.

Kamoroff, Bernard B. Small Time Operator: How to Start Your Own Business, Keep Your Books, Pay Your Taxes and Stay Out of Trouble! Laytonville & Willits, CA: Spring Bell Publishing, 2007.

Perlman, Janet, ed. Running an Indexing Business. Medford, NJ: Information Today, Inc. 2001.

Roberto, Katia and Jessamyn West. Revolting Librarians Redux: Radical Librarians Speak Out. Jefferson, NC: MacFarland & Company, Inc., 2003.

Visit Debbie Olson’s website at

3 Responses to “Freelance Indexing”

  1. [...] month’s Info Career Trends is themed around ‘alternative careers’ and includes an article on freelance indexing by Debbie Olson. I guess all cataloguers have thought about this at one time or another, so it’s good to read [...]

  2. April Michelle Davison 08 Sep 2008 at 11:47 am

    As a freelance editor and indexer, I see people who don’t necessarily value the work we freelancers do. People often think we have the life because we work from home and make our own schedules. I do love my profession very much, but the grass is greener from the other side.

    As a freelancer, I do not always know when or from where my next project will come. Though I technically make my own work schedule, I must accommodate my clients if I wish to receive future work. Sometimes this may mean working 10- or 12-hour days, late nights, or weekends, sometimes on a moment’s notice.

    Though I work from home, I find it difficult to separate my work time from my home time. I try to stop working when my husband comes home from work, but sometimes I find myself gravatating to my computer to check emails or look at a project.

    As a one-person business, I am not only the editor and indexer, but also the account, the marketer, the IT person, and anyone else who supports the work of a business.

    I enjoy being a freelancer and working from home, especially with the flexibility I will need with the December 2008 birth of my first child, but freelancing also brings the unstability of income and the increased expense of benefits that others take for granted and forget that we need as well.

  3. Dianaon 18 Mar 2009 at 10:44 pm

    Hello there!

    Thank you for all this great amount of information that you posted here. I am a librarian who studied in Costa Rica and also here in the US. I always enjoyed indexing and now with the birth of my first child I am thinking that this could be a good opportunity to start looking more seriously into this field and who knows I might be able to work from home then, (I am currently working at a library as a reference librarian.)

    Do you have any suggestions on how to get the foot on the door to start as a freelance indexer? Places to check? Things to do that are more effective than others, for example, going to a publishers conference rather than sending them letters with your information, things like that.

    Thanks again !