Indexing: Back When, Right Now, Some Day

Indexing – what we did in the past, what we’re doing now and what we will do in the future – is being discussed a lot these days. In case you missed some of the more recent items (which I did what with moving across the oceans, getting married and trying to keep up with all the paperwork related to both), I thought a round up was in order.

Back When: Sometimes it’s about the days gone by – which very frequently  involved indexers noodling on the same sort of things I noodle on today. Such as, the increasingly (worryingly) blank spot where indexes used to be. This is an issue that never goes away. Even ‘back in the day’  – the day in this case being January 4, 1902 – it was a concern as you can see from this piece from in the New York Times that stated:

“To say that every book that needs an index ought to have an Index may seem superfluous, but that it is not so is shown by the frequent publication by some of our best publishers of works which are almost useless from the absence of a proper key to their treasury of facts.  (If you’d like to read the whole thing, it is available in the New York Times online archives – one of my favorite places to spend time online in PDF form.)

Right Now: A slightly more currently piece on indexing (more current in this case being 110 years more current) appeared in the Chronicle of Higher Education (@chronicle) a few months ago – a 3 part series by Carol Saller (aka The Subversive Copy Editor  – @SubvCopyEd) and I have to say, it’s like someone was reading my mind.

Book Indexing, Part 1: Is a Computer the Right Person for the Job?: “Back-of-the-book indexing is much misunderstood, which I know from having to argue at cocktail parties that it cannot be done adequately, let alone well, by a computer. (Yes, unfortunately, that’s what passes for cocktail-party banter in my neighborhood.)” Mine too. Or it would if I’d been to any cocktail parties lately.  But the point is “Yes, indexers USE computers but computers are indexing tools, not indexers themselves. If what you want is a concordance, that’s a different matter… but we’re talking about indexing. A different thing all together. Concordances show the location of words in the text while indexes show that but are really about directing readers via the relationship between words and – importantly – concepts as well. Concepts don’t factor at all in a concordance.

Book Indexing, Part 2: Infinite Loops and Easter Eggs:  “Many readers are unaware of the mischief book indexers get up to…” Let us NEVER speak of that! Oh… she meant indexing mischief. A very amusing collection of indexing “Easter eggs”and it reminded me of one of my favorite indexing stories – this one relating to the late Gore Vidal. As you may (or may not know), Gore Vidal and Norman Mailer had a rather – well, tetchy relationship. Vidal had a new book coming out and he knew that Mailer would look himself up in the index before looking at anything else. So Vidal left a message of sorts where he knew Mailer would see it right away. The index entry for Normal Mailer read simply “”Mailer, Norman: Hi, Norm.” Quite aaprt from Easter eggs and “hidden in plain sight” messages – indexing IS fun. There are almost always entries that make me smile if not out right laugh – even the most serious of books.

Book Indexing, Part 3: Tips for Do-It-Yourselfers: “To gauge your own aptitude, you might look at the indexing chapter of The Chicago Manual of Style. If it freaks you out, well, that might tell you something.” There are times that the indexing chapter still freaks me out. These days I find it rather compforting. Having moved to the UK where indexes are a tad different. Not a LOT different but… well, you know how they drive on the other side of the road here? Still a car, still operates the same way – just in a slightly different space? Like that.

Some Day: The ongoing and ever broadening conversation (sometimes debate) on the future of publishing – the impact of the eBook, self-publishing, size and demographic of the reading population, the closure of so many libraries and slashing of budgets at so many others –  includes a sub-conversation about indexes. Are they a necessity or a luxury book pricing cannot withstand? For myself, I think for some books they ARE necessary and to try and justify leaving an index out based solely on the impact it would have on the price of the book is VERY SMALL THINKING indeed. The question of how to best index eBooks – well, that’s a whole post on its own but I absolutely agree that Search Can’t Replace a High-Quality Index).

Now that we are (mostly) unpacked and things are returning to normal after a crazy but fantastic bi-locational, transatlantic year – I promise I’ll get back to updating more frequently. Goodness knows I have enough to say 🙂



Plus ça change, plus c’est la même index

At some time or another, most jobs have to adapt (change, evolve, etc.) in order to survive. Indexing is no exception. I do know a few indexers who still work primarily in cards but no longer can they deliver their work to clients in anything other than electronic form. Most of us use specialized indexing software but that’s pure mechanics. The thought and craft that goes into the index, the decisions made about what to cross-reference, where to split into sub-headers, which word is the right one to use – this is all still done the old-fashioned way. By thinking in light of experience.

I’ve been asked more and more how the rise of ebooks will impact indexers. Will indexing go the way of the dodo bird? Will it now be done entirely by computers? The answer is no and no.

  • Extinction is not an option. Some types of books will always need an index. The format of the index in these books may change – it may not be a list in the back (not sure where the back of an ebook is, anyway). But there will always be a need for the “information map” an index provides.
  • 100% Computer generated. Still, not happening. A concordance can be done entirely by computers. An index cannot. At least, not until you can create a computer that can read and understand as well as see. I know, I know – I say that all the time. Call me a broken record but it remains as true today as it was the first time I said it.

I’m not the only one thinking about these things lately. I came across What About the Worthy Indexer? just today. Indexing is already morphing in the ways touched upon in the article and skills used in indexing can be (and are being) applied to other projects and other mediums (information mapping of digital archives comes to mind).

On an amusing end note, I found this hilarious index (entries like: Monks, as less sociable than priests; “Painting, giants of uninteresting) and must agree with one of the commenters, “It’s a rare index that doesn’t need a book.” But this may well be one of them.

Indexing, Frequently Asked Questions About

One of the more exciting moments for me every time I go through UK border control is that moment when I am filling out the landing card and it asks for occupation. Experience tells me that ‘Jill of All Digital Marketing Trades’ is not only likely to result in raised eyebrows but in delays since it comes dangerously close to a joke and people working immigration at airports have been trained to frown on jokes, viewing them as not only not funny but as suspect. Either that or those people were chosen for that job because they naturally view jokes as not only not funny but as suspect.

Either way, what we are left with is the fact that when asked on the landing card for occupation you should put down something definitive and relatively recognizable. So I will, depending on my mood and what projects I am working on at the time, put down anything from ‘writer’ to ‘marketing manager to ‘project manager.’ One thing I don’t put down any more is ‘indexer.’ This isn’t because I have stopped indexing – far from it – but because whenever I put down ‘indexer’ it leads to almost as many questions and delays as I get with ‘Jill of All Digital Marketing Trades.’

It doesn’t just happen in airports. Almost any time I tell people I am an indexer, eyebrows are raised and/or knitted, questions are asked and heads are shaken. It is an unknown to most people – and to some, such as the man I sat next to on my way to Rome a few year back, a myth (“I knew indexers were out there. I’ve just never seen one. Like unicorns.“)

Nope, we are real. We are not many in number but we are out there.  And as a public service to everyone (and in an attempt to save some time next time I have to get through Heathrow), I thought I’d answer some of the questions I frequently get about indexing. It won’t help, as it’s unlikely this page would come to their attention. But it will make me feel better – and you, dear readers, might find it useful or interesting.

Indexer? What’s that?

That’s the person who creates the index in the back of books. You know, that usually alphabetical list of entries somewhere near the bibliography or end notes. If eyebrows are still knit at this point, I clarify “non-fiction books” to see if that helps. Sometimes it does. Other times (“You mean you have to read those books? God, that sounds tedious.“), I despair of humanity.

Someone does that? Isn’t it done by computer?

No it isn’t done by computer. It is done on a computer. Or with index cards – yes, that’s why they are called that – if you are feeling VERY old fashioned and have all day. A computer can give you a list of what page(s) where various words appear (which is not an index but a concordance) but since computers see as opposed to read, computers can’t index concepts.

Here’s an example I’ve given to people. Let’s say you were indexing a biography about – oh, I don’t know – Bill Clinton. Obviously, if you only wanted a list of pages where Chelsea Clinton is mentioned, that would be easy enough to generate automatically. The computer would just search for terms you specify like her name or the word ‘daughter,’ etc. But the computer wouldn’t be able to generate a list of pages where the book addresses the father-daughter relationship between Bill and Chelsea. It might get some of them depending on the search terms you give it but there are times when a concept is being addressed tangentially or indirectly, by implication that the computer won’t understand. So if you want to ensure that the index entry ‘Clinton, William Jefferson, daughter’s relationship with’ is as complete as possible, the book must be read and indexed by a human.

OK, so it’s a human and not a machine. So how does the indexer go about – you know – actually indexing?

Indexers are an independent breed and everyone has their own specific way of working but broadly speaking, this is what happens. The indexer works from page proofs for the book (fairly finalized layouts of the actual pages as they will appear including page numbers). This means the indexing is among the last stages of book production. The indexer reads the page proofs, marking items for inclusion and entering (see, the computer does have a role after all) the headers and sub-headers (with page locators) into whatever indexing software they favor. Please don’t start me on indexing with MS Word. We’ll be here all day. The result is a rough index that will be edited for structure and consistency, then formatted to meet the project specifications. The indexer then proofreads the index and, finding everything in order, submits it to the client.

Is an index really necessary?

I suppose that I ought to say “it depends on the type of books” and strictly speaking that’s true but listen, if you were going on a road trip – someplace you’d never been before or taking a route you’d never taken, would you go without asking directions, taking a map or GPS? No, so why would you wade in to particular books – again, we’re talking about non-fiction here – without an index. Histories, cookbooks, textbooks, reference books, current events, manuals, etc. Indexes are not luxury items in books like this (as I have said before). They are vital to the usability (and re-usability) of such books. One of the first things a potential buyer (an individual or buyer for a bookstore or library) does when deciding between this book and that is to look at the index. Titles without any index are often dismissed as not being nearly as valuable to them as one that includes this vital navigational tool. The absence of an index, or inclusion of a bad one, has been the focus of scathing comments by book reviewers and readers.

And a note to publishers: yes, I know. I know we don’t live in a world where readership is expanding (anyone planning to use to Kindle argument here should take a deep breath and hold it because that is another discussion).   I know the only way to make more money in publishing it to spend less and that paper is expensive. I know that by eliminating that additional signature of paper, you can ensure the price point of the book is a whole level lower but you’re also ensuring that the book’s usefulness is a whole level lower as well.

So who are these indexers?

The index might be taken on wholly – logistics, cost and effort – by the publisher but responsibility (read: cost) for the index often falls to the author even if the publisher handles the logistics of getting it done. That said, authors aren’t generally the ones who do the actual indexing and an indexer is hired by the publisher, and the fee is deducted from the money due the author. I’ll wait while you digest the relative unfairness of that. I digested it years ago, so I understand you may need a moment.

Isn’t the author the obvious person to index the book? Why incur additional costs by using an indexer?

There are, of course, advantages and disadvantages to being the person closest to the work in question. Yes, there is a cost saving aspect to the author-created index. More money = more better, as they say.

The author also has a deep understanding of their subject area, the vocabulary of their fields, and the audience they are writing for. They are, after all that time writing it,  the person closest to the text itself and that can be a plus when trying to remember what pages or chapter contain that last mention of a topic. On the down side, that closeness over an extended period of time can result in burn-out. You may feel you never want to see those pages ever again (at least until they are bound and ready for signing).

Another issue worth examining is the difference between being the author and being a reader. They are two very different creatures and each has a different relationship to the book in front of them. The index is a tool for the reader and should be written from the point of view of someone who is looking for ways into the text. The author-created index is often written the other way around―from the inside out. This is perfectly natural considering the time and effort that went into the text. But it’s not right for readers, who are coming to the text and working their way in or – in the case of revisiting the text = coming to it with different purposes at different times.

None of that is to say the author can’t do a perfectly decent or even outstanding job as an indexer. It’s just some of the reasons that they very often aren’t the ones doing the indexing.

I could go on and on about indexing – and I will most likely to do so in the future. But I thought a few explanations were in order since the number of eyebrows raised and knitted of late had grown exponentially. If you are interested in finding out more about indexing, get in touch. Indexers don’t bite. You’ll be fine 🙂

Wherefore Art Thou, Index

Don’t worry. This is not a post about Boris Johnson as so many of those on my personal blog are. Well, in a tangential way it is about Boris but only because it is one of Boris’ books in front of me this morning. My beef at the moment is books that should have indexes that don’t.

Friends_BorisFriends, Voters, Countrymen has no index.

This is very annoying. Not only for the people who will turn immediately to the back pages to see if they are in there, but also annoying because despite a rather breezy tone, the book does touch on actual issues, references specific events and people. It would be nice – when trying to get back to those pages – to be able to look them up in an index. If it were only this one instance, it would be a mere fly in the ointment of life but I’m brushing up against this vast emptiness where an index should be more and more lately (can one brush up against a void?). Friends, Voters, Countrymen – as much as I am enjoying it (and I am, immensely – make no mistake) has become the straw that broke the camel’s back.

This indexlessness is a sign, in my opinion of an increasing problem in the world of non-fiction. Production schedules have been shortened as the whole process is being nickel and dimed within an inch of its life. The publishers have already done all they can for the bottom line by eliminating payroll entries (known to the rest of us as human beings or employees) and these slash and burn budget improvements have meant fewer eyes on the page. I can’t be the only one noticing the distinct rise in missed errors. The proofreading stage of production is all but lost in this rush to save time, pages and thus money. The fact that the majority of the public may not notice is another subject for another time. So they’ve fired half the staff, they’ve eliminated checking. What comes next? The indexing – which entails paying someone and can mean the addition of a whole extra signature of paper – is then classified by bean counters to be a luxury item. I suppose the bright side of not having an index is that you can’t find spelling errors in something that isn’t there.

But it’s all wrong, wrong, wrong! If you render your product error-riddled and useless (or nigh onto useless) why should anyone buy the damned thing? Now, that said – I am not blaming Boris or indeed any other author of such things. I think if given a choice, they would CHOOSE to have indexes. Certainly the editors should know better. This particular title isn’t THAT long so perhaps they thought it wasn’t strictly necessary. I could thumb through it if I had to – but should I have to?

I feel certain that if approached on this, Boris would agree that indexes = good while lack of indexes = bad. And lest you think I am ranting about this because I myself AM an indexer and am worried about this trend impacting me personally. No, I am not in a “where will my next job come from” frenzy. Plenty to do. No, I am in an aggravated consumer frenzy, created by a weekend of bookstore browsing and growing belief that more and more of the people involved in the process of getting the books from the author’s brain to the bookshelf are NOT readers themselves, don’t know what the readers expect or want – and worse, don’t much care.

Don’t think for a moment however that this is solely a British problem (though this book in hand IS a British title). Though to be sure, I’m not a fan of British indexes on the whole – having re-keyed any number of them for the American editions. No, this sidelining of indexes is transatlantic. It should be brought to someone’s attention – but I’m not sure whose. There is no publishing czar, no print matter overlord, no rules of engagement for shaping the relationship of reader to page.

OK, I’m done. I’m going to go work on an index to assure myself a) that I am earning my paycheck and b) that there will be indexes out there to keep this madness at bay.