How I Index My Journals

I have written quite a bit about my journaling: the paradox of journaling; a year on paper; how my journal notebooks have changed over the years, and more. One thing I haven’t written about is how I go about indexing my journals. Since I’ve had at least one person ask about this, I thought it might be a useful post for others.

First, let me remind folks that the current incarnation of my journal began back in October 2017, after I’d read a piece in the Atlantic on Thoreau’s journals. A comment then led me to the journals of John Gadd, and his journals provided the model for my current journals. In that article, was this:

And each Christmas he sets aside two weeks to meticulously index that year’s diary – proudly claiming he can find anything within three minutes.

I was fascinated by the idea of indexing my journals to make it easier to find what I was looking for. Back when I was an Evernote Ambassador, I used to claim that I could find any note within a minute or two, and so the notion of doing this in a paper system intrigued me. Unfortunately, the article didn’t go into any detail as to how Gadd indexed his journals. I had to figure that out on my own.

The system that follows works pretty well for me. If I could start it all over, I might do a few things differently, and I’ll mention those things later on. One thing I’d be really curious about is if other folks have better ways of indexing their journals on paper. I realize that I could do this digitally, but part of the pleasure it being able to do this without electronics of any kind.

A few notes about my journal

For my index to make sense, you need to understand a few things about my journal. First, I number each entry in my journal sequentially, beginning from entry #1 in the first volume. The numbering is independent of the date, which is separate from the entry. The idea for indexing the entry as opposed to using a page number comes from what Isaac Asimov did with his Biographical Encyclopedia of Science and Technology. Tired of the tedious work of producing indexes keyed to galley page numbers, Asimov decided to number each entry in the book and key the index to the numbered entry rather than the page number. This suited me perfectly for my journals, because I knew they would span multiple volumes (9 as of this writing) and that way, I’d never have to refer to anything other than the unique entry number.

It is also important to note that there are generally four types of entries in my journal:

  1. A standard entry, summarizing the goings on (see #723 in the image below).
  2. A topical entry, usually titled, on some specific subject (see #28 in the image below).
  3. A book entry, which summarizes my thoughts on a book I’ve recently finished reading (see #917 in the image below).
  4. A “commonplace” entry, which has quote from things I’ve read with my own comments (see #725 in the image below).

Below are examples of each of these types of entries.

The type of entry has some bearing on how I decide what to include and leave out of my index.

Structure of my index

I use a Leuchtturm1917 notebook for my index. The index has two sections:

  1. Monthly line-a-day summaries
  2. Topical index

Monthly line-a-day summaries

A monthly line-a-day summary fits on a single page. It lists the month and year across the top and the dates going down the page. The idea for this model came from John Quincy Adams’s line-a-day entries in his diaries. (If you want a fun way to see an example of this each day, follow JQAdams_MHS on Twitter.) The image below shows a typically line-a-day page, with annotations that follow.

  1. The month and year.
  2. The dates, listed down the page. The “S”s represent Sundays.
  3. A typical entry.
  4. An entry with a reference to a journal entry (in this case, to entry 159).
  5. Days surrounded in blue are days that I am out of town, either with, or without the family.

These pages are extremely useful for finding something in the context of time. “When was it we went to Hershey, PA?” I I’m pretty sure it was in October or November 2017. I quick scan of the two pages will answer the question. The first 193 pages of the notebook are reserved for these monthly entries. Currently, they fill 48 pages, so there is plenty of room to grow.

Topical index

The remaining 50+ pages of the notebook are reserved for a topical index. There is a set of facing pages for each letter of the alphabet, as well as a # page for entries that begin with number. A topical index page looks like this:

Because of the varied nature of what I write and when I write it, there is no way to keep the entries on a given page in any type of order. So they are entered sequentially as I need them. The entries themselves consist of two parts:

  1. The topic
  2. The corresponding journal entry numbers that relate to the topic.

In the image above, for instance, you can see that “baseball” has six entry references; “boo-at-the-zoo” has two references. Parentheticals after the reference number provide some context. For instance, under the “books” entry, you’ll note a parenthetical indicating “unread” which means the entry has to do with unread books. Many of them have a “book” or “bk” which means it refers to a book summary that I wrote upon complete the book.

Process for indexing my journals

These days, I use the large, A4-sized Moleskine Art Collection notebooks for my journals. These have about 96 usable pages in each volume. Depending on my mood, a single volume can represent anywhere from 2-6 months worth of entries. Here is how I go about updating my index:

WhenWhat I do
Upon completing an entryReview the entry to see if there is anything worth adding to the topical index. If so, I try to add it as soon as I’ve completed writing the entry.
DailyWhen I finish writing in my journal for the day, I’ll do the line-a-day entry for that day, either immediately after finishing, or first thing the following morning.
Upon completing a volumeI’ll skim the monthly index for obvious items that should go into the topical index; if I have not already put them in, I’ll add them. I will then go through the full volume, checking to see if there is anything else I want to add to the topical index that I haven’t already added.

If I am good about keeping up the index more-or-less in realtime, then the final review of a volume usually takes about an hour. I prefer doing this in realtime (as opposed to John Gadd’s method of taking 2 weeks off at the end of the year because (a) it spreads out the work so that it is only a little effort each day, and (b) it makes the index immediately useful for current events.

How I choose what goes into the topical index

The topical index is the most difficult part. The completist in me wants to capture everything in the topical index, but that would be too time consuming. What I have done therefore, is to try to strike a balance between representativeness and practicality. I do this by asking myself a couple of questions:

  • Is this something that I have needed to search for in the past?
  • Is this something that I would have a fair chance of needing to look up in the future?

If the answer to either of these questions is “Yes”, then I include the item in the topical index.

This gets easier over time as I’ve gotten experience, both with adding items and searching for things. Also, as more topics get added, the likelihood is greater that it is already there in the index and I just have to add an entry number.

Lessons-learned

If anyone is thinking of modeling their own indexes on this, here are a few lessons I’ve taken from what I’ve done thus far. I might do these things a little differently if I were to do it all over.

  • Carefully consider how much space you’ll need for you topical index. In some instances, I feel like a 2-page spread is not enough. In other cases, 2-pages is too much (I don’t think I’d fill half a page with Q or X entries).
  • Separate people into their own index. People, especially immediate family members, have a lots of entries. I included them in the topical index, but in some cases, I could see their entries taking up one of the two pages available for the letter in question.
  • For topics you write about a lot, be sure to leave plenty of space in the index for entry numbers.

I’d be curious about how other people index their journals on paper like this. I know that this could also be done using text files, but I enjoy the process of manually writing these indexes, and having my little index book sitting among my journals. If you index your journals on paper, I’d love to know how you do it. If you are willing, let me know in the comments.

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One comment

  1. wow, what a brilliant idea, thank you very much for that. I always had problems with indexing via page numbers, because sometimes I attach pages to certain entries, then of course the page number is no longer correct – very time-consuming. But the idea of numbering the entries and including that numbering in the index is perfect for me, thank you!

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