The Wheatley Medal was established in 1961 by the Society of Indexers and the then Library Association (now the Chartered Institute of Library and Information Professionals – CILIP) to recognise and encourage excellence in indexing. It was named after Henry Benjamin Wheatley (1838–1917), the founder of the short-lived Index Society (1877–1890) and author of several seminal texts on indexing. The aim was not merely to identify an index that was an efficient and competent finding aid, demonstrating clarity, comprehensiveness, effective choice of terms, headings and cross-references, avoidance of strings of undifferentiated page references, attractive layout and presentation, and general relevance and suitability to the text. These are qualities that all professional indexes should share. What the Wheatley judges were looking for was an outstanding index, one that stood out from the crowd, one with something special about it, and one in which the indexer had devised ingenious solutions to make the text as accessible as possible to the user. Inevitably, the winners were often complex multi-volume publications that posed particular challenges for the indexer.
Until 2003, the award was organised jointly with CILIP under the umbrella of the Institute’s Reference Awards, but following cutbacks at CILIP (and loss of sponsorship), the Society of Indexers took over the administration of the Wheatley Medal from 2005. Indexes were subsequently judged by a panel comprising not only indexers, and library/information professionals but also academics (representing index users). The winning indexer was announced at the Society’s annual conference and received a medal, a certificate and a cash prize. Certificates were also awarded to indexers whose work was commended or highly commended.
The award was discontinued after 2012. This was due to a combination of factors, including lack of resources, particular concern that many excellent indexes were not actually being submitted by publishers, authors or indexes, and a concern that highlighting outstanding indexes was not helping to raise awareness of the importance of good professional indexes to all non-fiction publications.