Tuesday, 29 November 2011

A Plea from Your Offensive Lineman

I'm going to out myself. I am an offensive line(wo)man.
Indexers are the offensive linemen of book publishing. No one notices their work until they screw up.

This is true. In the decade+ I've been specializing in book indexing, authors or editors have mentioned my work only three times. All in praise, mind you, but one was pretty grudging after the turd finally realized that I did know what the fuck I was doing with her preciousss.

This is not a job for prima donnas.

Recently, while googling around for something or other, I came across the shocking fact that ebooks don't have indexes. There are technical and ebook-reader compatibility reasons, but for me, professionally, if ebooks take over, I'm fucked.

Back to the link (interesting blog called 'A New Kind of Book', BTW):
The index has been on my mind lately, and not just because I cursed a (print) book for omitting a key word in its lookup list. (Tip: use Amazon’s Search Inside tool as a makeshift index.) I’ve also been having some enormously instructive exchanges with folks who do serious, in-the-trenches indexing work—special shout out to Jan Wright, Joshua Tallent, and Nancy Humphreys —and who grapple with today’s question: why has the ebook index gone AWOL?

I’ll get to some reasons in a moment, but first let’s consider why it is that people use indexes. Looking up a specific term, of course, is the biggie. You’re reading a book on illuminated manuscripts, say, and forget what the term “gloss” means. So you pop open the back pages to track it down. Or that zucchini that just rolled to the front of the fridge looks like it’s got one more day in it and you need a simple recipe, stat. The index in your favorite cookbook is your best bet. But beyond these simple retrieval tasks—which, after all, a good search tool is adequate for—don’t forget all those other reader services an index provides. It:
* Includes concepts rather than just words. In Henry Aaron: The Last Hero you can, for example, find sub-entries under the Media listing on “racially biased coverage and stereotypes perpetuated in” (try searching for that!). For students, essay writers, and other serious readers, the ability to undertake thematic and concept-specific explorations of a book is hugely valuable.
* Provides guided discovery. Consider the zucchini scenario I just mentioned. A well done print index is a perfect place to explore a cluster of related topics. By organizing zucchini recipes into different kinds (fried, broiled, steamed, etc.) a cookbook’s index helps recipe searchers make some high level decisions (fun or healthy?) before following the choices that await. The see also pointers provide similar help.
* Helps when you know what you want, but aren’t sure how to describe it. For example, say you want to create multi-level bullet lists in Word. By heading to the entries on, say, outlines and lists readers can usually home in on the answer.
* Signals depth of coverage. For example, readers know that the first entry in this listing—St. Cloud, 84-92, 172—contains more info than the second entry.
* Provides a handy one-stop tally of coverage points throughout a book. Again, for students and scholars looking to review all mentions of a particular item, this can be a big help.
* Gives tire-kickers a sense of the book’s coverage. Sure, the table of contents—not to mention plain page flipping—helps prospective buyers evaluate a book, but serious readers will sniff through an index to get a sense of what awaits.

In sum, an index is a kind of a collection of pre-made searches: rather than diving headlong and unawares into a search oval’s do-it-yourself void, an index presents would-be searchers with an already assembled, alphabetized list of the 500 or so most common query items.

So, essentially, you have to do your own search if you want to find something in an ebook. But how the hell do you know it's there to look for, let alone what terms have been used?

Mostly, I index textbooks in the apparently serious category of 'higher ed'. (That textbook publishing is a racket, I well know. A subject for another time, perhaps.)

I figure I'm writing for two audiences: one who knows (or is pretty sure) that something is in there, the other who wants to know what's in there. Specifically, students and potential 'adopters' (that's what instructors do to textbooks, BTW). I also harbour the quaint notion that maybe some students will keep the book and refer to it in their further education or career.

Indexers can get quite defensive over their unnoticed work. The Goddess knows publishers would like to eliminate us with fancy-schmancy computer software.
Indexing ultimately organizes "aboutness" for quick recall. The computer and its software assist, but the human mind alone can speak to the concept of "aboutness". If a term or concept is not specifically articulated on a page, a computer cannot choose it for the index, nor can a search engine find references to it. Neither can the computer reword the entry in a form that aids readers who are unfamiliar with the author's thrust. A paragraph or discussion can be "about" a topic without specifically using those words.

There have been attempts at computer indexing programs that are laughably pathetic.

Yet, assigners of indexing gigs -- if they are not editors, and saints preserve us, one lot of my clients is NOT editorial -- think of indexes as simple and quick. 'Just do a quick proper name index', I'll be told. Yeah, but I still have to read the fucking book, doughhead.

Indexes are also the last editorial task. Often -- very often -- indexers are asked to take up the inevitable schedule creep that has occurred over several months of production.

'What do you mean, you can't produce an index for a 550-page book over the weekend?'

And the fees are not princely, to say the least.

Still, I like it. It suits me. I can do it in my jammies, whenever I want. I don't have to deal with (many) authors. Mostly, I'm left alone to get on with it.

And I'd like to keep doing it.

I don't buy ebooks, obviously. I have no clue why anyone would. But if you're a reader, consider the poor indexer. Buy the print version and/or complain to publishers about the lack of index in the electronic version.

Now, back to the 550-page book.

Image source.


Lia Pas said...

If you're interested in the conversation about ebooks vs. print books I recommend reading http://craigmod.com/
I think he would be on your side regarding indexes. It's one of my pet peeves with a lot of ebooks. I've found that apps of books currently work better than regular ebooks when I need a book with an index, but that is something that needs fixing.

the regina mom said...

I shared this post on Fbook and a friend suggested this link for more on the discussion.

Beijing York said...

I love indexes. Some of the most entertaining are those found in history of medicine books.

fern hill said...

There's a concept: entertaining indexes. :D

Pseudz said...

My own career as a prop-maker for advertising photography is being altered by the inroads of 'Computer Generated Imagery' (aka CGI). In the past, I was unable to keep up with the number of requests for my work - - while now, I am barely able to eke out a living. What you describe is likely an aspect of a diminishing quality of scholarship - without good tools, can a scholar excel?

A very interesting panel discussion on the general topic of the social/cultural aspects of the evolution of technology took place on TVO's 'The Agenda' on 28/11/2011 (http://theagenda.tvo.org/episode/141136/beware-the-machines-and-the-future-of-social-mobility).

Would not a Luddite success have been Pyrrhic? Will the fantastic growth of computing power necessarily exacerbate the bifurcation of our society?

fern hill said...

Pseudz's link.

fern hill said...

That's a great video, Pseudz. That McAfee is a smart dude and fast talker.

I'm not worried about being replaced by a machine to do actual indexing. What I worry about is the relentless human fascination with new shiny toys and the equally relentless pursuit of profit. If ebooks gain ground quickly, I can easily imagine publishers just jestisoning the whole concept of professional indexing. Let the buyers figure it out themselves.

Beijing York said...

The downside of all this new technology is the cheapening of cultural products and services. Gone is the elaborately engineered studio recording. Ditto for really beautiful graphic design and professional photography. The quality of newspaper and news magazine photos particularly bad these days. And everyone thinks they can do design work with the right software (even if it all looks generic and often really crappy).

I guess the upside is the democratization of cultural expression. But it would have been nice to see that happening by raising the bar and not lowering it.

fern hill said...

Were you around for the early days of desktop publishing, BY? Professional designers called it 'ransom note typography' as people tried to use as many fonts and style as possible.

Beijing York said...

Yup, I was working as a copywriter and the designers had much to snicker about :-) And don't get me started on "clip art"...

Speaking of photography, the image you chose is beautiful.

Alison said...

There's something else too - it's about memory. You know how people able to remember vast amounts of data have a trick for organizing it all in their mind : they visualize facts as real items in an imagined physical locale like a room or a series of interconnecting rooms so that the act of recall is accompanied by a physical manifestation that human brains find easier to remember than abstract stuff.

Books and indexing already do this to some extent for the rest of us. When you're looking for a quote or passage you can't quite recall, you kinda remember how far into the book it was, where it lay on the page, how far down it was, how fat the paragraph was, whether on a left or right hand page - same thing with the index - and in this way you are honing in on the physical presence of what you're searching for just like the memory champions do.

Ebooks and search apps both lack this physical presence so critical to memory, streaming by without any visual signposts that will help you to find your way back to them later. It's an immeasurable loss to the organization of memory.

Hope this makes sense - I'm running on no sleep.

Nitangae said...

I have gone over to my IPAD for scholarly articles - it just became such a pain to print up such a mass of articles every time I started on a new paper. But not for books, for the reasons mentioned by Alison, and I agree with you about indexes. It is one thing that computers don't do well. I was once asked to work up an index - since so much of it is handled by the microsoft word function, it should be easy for me, they said. In fact, it turned out that Word was useless for indexing. Better to use the search function as an aid and otherwise work it up myself, or alternately, hand things over to a specialist like Fern Hill (what I suggested .... well, not Fern Hill in particular).

I think academics who want to bicker about their indexers should all go through my exprience at least once first. Then, bicker away.

Lynda said...

As a fellow indexer, I love this article! Thanks for an entertaing read!

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