Copyright

When to Use the Index vs. Table of Contents

SONYA SHELTON, Amy Troolin
  • Author
    SONYA SHELTON

    Sonya Shelton has taught English, Math, and Social Studies to elementary and middle school students since 2016. She has a Bachelor of Arts-Psychology degree from the University of Notre Dame and a Master of Arts-Teaching degree from Montclair State University. Additionally, she holds a Teaching Certificate with a Special Education endorsement and is a Google Certified Educator.

  • Instructor
    Amy Troolin

    Amy has MA degrees in History, English, and Theology. She has taught college English and religious education classes and currently works as a freelance writer.

Explore index vs. table of contents. Learn the definitions of an index and a table of contents in a book, identify their purposes, and examine their differences. Updated: 02/23/2022

What Is an Index in a Book?

There are many types of books such as chapter books, graphic novels, and picture books. The various types of books are referred to as genres. Each type of book can usually be identified by the elements or features that are found inside and outside of it. Nonfiction texts are the type of books or articles that cover real-life topics and include facts and data that the author has researched. A feature that can help the reader identify a book as nonfiction and informational is the index. So, what is the index in a book? The index is an alphabetical list of words, phrases, or topics mentioned in the book. This list is added to the end of the book. The page numbers where each item can be located in the book are also included in the index.

Purpose of an Index

Just like an index finger points to an object, so does the index at the back of the book, point to the page numbers where certain information can be found. The index page is labeled and also listed in the table of contents. The index is a very helpful element for a reader needing to research information or answer a question about a subject discussed in the book.


An index points to the page number where information can be found in a book.

Black and white clipart of a finger pointing up and to the right


Types of items listed in the index of a book:

  • Keywords
  • Major topics
  • Names of significant people and places discussed in the book
  • Page numbers where each item is located

Using the index section of a nonfiction, informational book is something like doing a Google search. Prior to reading the book, a reader can search the index for a particular topic in alphabetical order, note the page number, and flip directly to that page to find the topic. If the reader has completed the book and can't remember the details or page number of a certain major topic, again they can view the index page at the back of the book to find the information and refresh their memory. For example, if a reader has finished reading a book about the ocean but can't remember how deep the Atlantic Ocean is, the index can be a useful tool. The reader can go to the index, search for Atlantic Ocean in alphabetical order, and review all the pages listed for that topic to research the information.

Indexes & Tables of Contents

You look down at the worksheet in front of you and groan. Your latest English lesson doesn't seem like much fun. Your teacher has assigned you a book about the Civil War, an informational text, she said, one that presents a set of facts about a topic. Your job is to analyze the book's index and table of contents and answer the questions on the worksheet.

First, you need to know exactly what indexes and tables of contents are. In fact, the first two questions on your worksheet ask you to provide definitions.

An index is found at the back of a book. It alphabetically lists all the major topics, events, people, and places discussed in the book and provides page numbers that direct you to each reference. Indexes can get quite specific and often run for several pages.

A table of contents isn't quite as detailed as an index. It focuses on the overall structure of a book. A table of contents appears in the front of a book and provides a list of all the book's elements, including prologues, prefaces, introductions, chapters, notes, bibliographies, and indexes. A book's table of contents also gives a page number for each element so readers can find their way around easily.

Indexes and tables of contents are useful tools to help you navigate a book and find information quickly, easily, and efficiently.

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What Is a Table of Contents in a Book?

The table of contents in a book is the outline of what information is contained in the book and how that information is structured. So, where is the table of contents in a book? It is found at the front of the book and lists the page number where each element (section) of the book can be located.


The Table of Contents page is labeled and lists the sections of the book by page number and in order.

Image of table of contents from a 20th-century book.


Purpose of a Table of Contents

The table of contents is a helpful book element found at the front of the book that reveals all the sections in the book in order, by page number.

Contents and contain are related words and this information may be a useful reminder for the purpose of this feature. The table of contents as a book feature has a broader use across the genres and is often used in novels, chapter books, and nonfiction texts as well.

Types of items listed in a table of contents:

  • Foreword
  • Chapter titles
  • Page number where each section begins
  • Index
  • Glossary
  • Epilogue
  • Bibliography
  • All elements (parts) contained in the book

Using the Index

Okay, now that you've got the definitions down, let's move on. The next section of your worksheet asks you a set of questions about the index of your book.

You survey the index and notice that it contains several pages of small print with lots of names of people, places, battles, events, and topics. Some entries have subtopics beneath them. Under 'Army, Union,' for instance, you see subtopics like mobilization, organization, and discipline.

Your first question asks, 'Where in the book would you find information about the Battle of Gettysburg?' You turn to the 'B' section, hoping to see an entry for 'Battle of Gettysburg.' Uh-oh. It's not there. Now what? You decide to try the 'G' section, and there it is 'Gettysburg, battle of' on pages 150-170. Congratulations! You've learned something important about selecting a keyword. Index entries are usually listed under the most important word in a phrase.

You turn to the next question: 'What kinds of information does the book contain about John C. Fremont?' You look up 'Fremont, John C.', remembering that people are listed under their last names, and discover subtopics that provide information about Fremont's time in California, his commands in Missouri and West Virginia, and his presidential bid. Got it!

Question #3 asks, 'Where would you find information about Ulysses S. Grant's participation in the capture of Fort Donelson?' Using what you've learned from the last two questions, you look up 'Fort Donelson.' The index lists several pages that discuss Fort Donelson, but there's nothing specifically about General Grant. You decide to look up 'Grant, Ulysses S.' to cover all your bases, and sure enough, you find a subtopic under the entry that says, 'Capture of Fort Donelson' and points you to pages 110-111. Now you see that sometimes you have to look up more than one entry to find the information you need.

Using the Table of Contents

You still aren't finished with your assignment, however. The last few questions on the worksheet ask you to examine the book's table of contents. You turn to the front of the book and do a quick survey.

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Video Transcript

Indexes & Tables of Contents

You look down at the worksheet in front of you and groan. Your latest English lesson doesn't seem like much fun. Your teacher has assigned you a book about the Civil War, an informational text, she said, one that presents a set of facts about a topic. Your job is to analyze the book's index and table of contents and answer the questions on the worksheet.

First, you need to know exactly what indexes and tables of contents are. In fact, the first two questions on your worksheet ask you to provide definitions.

An index is found at the back of a book. It alphabetically lists all the major topics, events, people, and places discussed in the book and provides page numbers that direct you to each reference. Indexes can get quite specific and often run for several pages.

A table of contents isn't quite as detailed as an index. It focuses on the overall structure of a book. A table of contents appears in the front of a book and provides a list of all the book's elements, including prologues, prefaces, introductions, chapters, notes, bibliographies, and indexes. A book's table of contents also gives a page number for each element so readers can find their way around easily.

Indexes and tables of contents are useful tools to help you navigate a book and find information quickly, easily, and efficiently.

Using the Index

Okay, now that you've got the definitions down, let's move on. The next section of your worksheet asks you a set of questions about the index of your book.

You survey the index and notice that it contains several pages of small print with lots of names of people, places, battles, events, and topics. Some entries have subtopics beneath them. Under 'Army, Union,' for instance, you see subtopics like mobilization, organization, and discipline.

Your first question asks, 'Where in the book would you find information about the Battle of Gettysburg?' You turn to the 'B' section, hoping to see an entry for 'Battle of Gettysburg.' Uh-oh. It's not there. Now what? You decide to try the 'G' section, and there it is 'Gettysburg, battle of' on pages 150-170. Congratulations! You've learned something important about selecting a keyword. Index entries are usually listed under the most important word in a phrase.

You turn to the next question: 'What kinds of information does the book contain about John C. Fremont?' You look up 'Fremont, John C.', remembering that people are listed under their last names, and discover subtopics that provide information about Fremont's time in California, his commands in Missouri and West Virginia, and his presidential bid. Got it!

Question #3 asks, 'Where would you find information about Ulysses S. Grant's participation in the capture of Fort Donelson?' Using what you've learned from the last two questions, you look up 'Fort Donelson.' The index lists several pages that discuss Fort Donelson, but there's nothing specifically about General Grant. You decide to look up 'Grant, Ulysses S.' to cover all your bases, and sure enough, you find a subtopic under the entry that says, 'Capture of Fort Donelson' and points you to pages 110-111. Now you see that sometimes you have to look up more than one entry to find the information you need.

Using the Table of Contents

You still aren't finished with your assignment, however. The last few questions on the worksheet ask you to examine the book's table of contents. You turn to the front of the book and do a quick survey.

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Frequently Asked Questions

Where is an index in a book?

The index can be found at the back of a book. The types of books that normally include an index are nonfiction research/informational texts.

How do you write an index for a book?

If writing an index for a book, first identify the key words, major subtopics, and names of significant people and places discussed in the book. Next, make an alphabetical list of these items. Lastly, search and record the page number where each item from the alphabetical list is mentioned in the book.

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