Who writes the index?
November 20, 2007 4:18 PM   Subscribe

This mind-boggling index won an award from the American Society of Indexers. Last year's winner was slightly less hard-core. As indexing blogger Seth Maislin says: "Scholarly indexing is WAY hard." And, as author Mary Beard (who indexed her own book) says, it's "Not remotely fun."
posted by tombola (19 comments total) 14 users marked this as a favorite
Ha, my sister does this to help fund her perpetual student career. I don't recall her ever saying it was hard or difficult, just tedious.
posted by Brocktoon at 4:26 PM on November 20, 2007

Haha! I read that WHOLE index and I didn't even pay a dime for it. Thanks, Amazon - SUCKERS!!!
posted by jonson at 4:31 PM on November 20, 2007 [1 favorite]

I started writing some snarky comment about grepping dead trees, but does it really need to be said? Instead, I'll just say that I find Google's site and inurl operators to be quite handy, and I'm glad that typing / to search works in vim, less, and even Firefox. And, while traditional indices are pretty much useless in the post-print era, a comprehensive concordance can be quite useful.
posted by finite at 5:07 PM on November 20, 2007

Not remotely fun
Makes referencers cross.
posted by Abiezer at 5:08 PM on November 20, 2007 [2 favorites]

So I assume you all know how to alphabetize diacritics? Can recognize a proper noun in a foreign language? Can break a concept down into its parts and then describe, group, and identify them in an argument? That book is 736 pages. Besides the author and the editor, only the indexer has a true sense of its scope.

Hell, what is Google if not a glorified index? What is PageRank™ if not a list of popular term uses in order of popularity? Imagine an Internet without a search engine.

We publish a lot of scholarly indexes and they are a bitch. But a good index adds tremendous value to a text. Sure a book can survive without one, but with one new things can discovered. New connections can be found. An index can be as important as the argument. When done well.

Go Do Mi, that index ROCKS!

posted by Toekneesan at 5:16 PM on November 20, 2007

traditional indices are pretty much useless in the post-print era

Spoken (okay, written) like someone who's never done any kind of serious research. Indexing scholarly books is vital if they're going to be useful to readers at all, whether we end up flipping through them on Kindles (as I very much doubt), the web, or on paper. Grep is nice and all, but real language as written always contains things like synonyms, alternate spellings, periphrases, etc., that make literal searches useless; and besides, a good index does much more than allow us to hunt up individual words or names, providing something like an alternative map into the subjects and concepts used in the book.

This is a great post, a window into a world of index geekery that I never suspected. I'll just add that at least one longstanding commune, Twin Oaks, supports itself largely on indexing books (and making tofu).
posted by RogerB at 5:45 PM on November 20, 2007

I'd have thought that the majority of indexing could be done with automated tools, a topic specific dictionary, and a topic specific thesaurus. I'd guess that the dictionary and thesaurus could be data-mined out of previous works in the same field.
posted by BrotherCaine at 5:55 PM on November 20, 2007

I love indexes. Good indexes require actual thought. I have to believe someone was smiling then they wrote this entry in the <mumble> edition of the CRC Handbook of Chemistry and Physics: Sea water - See Water, Sea.
posted by cairnish at 6:50 PM on November 20, 2007 [3 favorites]

It appeared that Claire Minton, in her time, had been a professional indexer. I had never heard of such a profession before. She told me that she had put her husband through college years before with her earnings as an indexer, that the earnings had been good, and that few people could index well. She said that indexing was a thing that only the most amateurish author undertook to do for his own book. I asked her what she thought of Philip Castle's job. "Flattering to the author, insulting to the reader," she said. "In a hyphenated word," she observed, with the shrewd amiability of an expert, " 'self-indulgent.' I'm always embarrassed when I see an index an author has made of his own work." "Embarrassed?" "It's a revealing thing, an author's index of his own work," she informed me. "It's a shameless exhibition--to the trained eye." "She can read character from an index," said her husband. "Oh?" I said. "What can you tell about Philip Castle?" She smiled faintly. "Things I'd better not tell strangers."

Kurt Vonnegut, Cat's Cradle
posted by adamrice at 6:54 PM on November 20, 2007 [2 favorites]

As a grad student, I got a chuckle out of D. A. Miller's entry in the index to his The Novel and the Police (go to p. 222).
posted by thomas j wise at 7:48 PM on November 20, 2007

To my shame: I once was paid to prepare an index, and the text processor wasn't rerun before publishing, which meant the page numbers were all off by 5 or some number.
posted by wfitzgerald at 8:12 PM on November 20, 2007

I don't recall her ever saying it was hard or difficult, just tedious.

Tedious jobs are the most difficult of all. Which is part of the reason I never got into indexing or (shudder) cataloguing.
posted by The Card Cheat at 9:17 PM on November 20, 2007

I've composed an index and it was three full days of unrelenting misery.
posted by Rumple at 12:11 AM on November 21, 2007

I've linked to this before, but it's good enough to be worth linking to again: The Indexer ('the information- and fun-packed publication for professional indexers everywhere') has a regular feature entitled Indexes Reviewed in which good indexes are praised and bad indexes are given a hard spanking. (Needless to say the hall of shame is much more entertaining than the hall of fame.)

I like indexes. My postgraduate supervisor used to say that all PhD students should be made to index their own thesis, as it forced you to think about the basic concepts you were using (though I have to say that my one experience of book-indexing was less about abstract conceptualisation than about trying to work out whether 'Murray' was the publisher John Murray, his son John Murray II or his grandson John Murray III). I'm proud to say my wife was one of the runners-up for the Wheatley Medal this year, and got to attend an award ceremony at the fiftieth anniversary conference of the Society of Indexers. The title of the conference? 'Golden Retrievers'.
posted by verstegan at 3:11 AM on November 21, 2007 [1 favorite]

My favorite story about an index entry is in Hugh Trevor-Roper's Catholics, Anglicans and Puritans. He'd recently been elected Master of Peterhouse, a college at Cambridge University, and discovered a group of reactionary fellows who loathed him and whom he loathed. The index entry for Peterhouse in the book apparently reads:

"Peterhouse": "high table conversation not very agreeable .. four disagreeable fellows of ... main source for perverts".
posted by greycap at 3:24 AM on November 21, 2007 [1 favorite]

I'd have thought that the majority of indexing could be done with automated tools, a topic specific dictionary, and a topic specific thesaurus. I'd guess that the dictionary and thesaurus could be data-mined out of previous works in the same field.

You can data-mine and automate all you want, but doing so still won't account for those small but often pivotal nuances that only a professionally trained indexer can bring to the table.

Language -- even a controlled vocabulary -- can't be sufficiently reduced or systematised automatically without knowledgeable human input into the process. If it were possible, then machine translation would have already given us perfect Star Trek-esque universal translators. (Getting a little off the point, I know, but it's vaguely relevant.)
posted by macdara at 3:49 AM on November 21, 2007 [1 favorite]

Great post and fascinating topic.
posted by marginaliana at 10:28 AM on November 21, 2007

Macdara, oh I totally agree, but I'd hope that indexers use automated tools to start off with so that they have plenty of time to do the very hard entries that resist automation. By majority of indexing, I meant lines in the index, not majority of complete indexes. I've worked on computational problems in a similar space, and it always seems like you can get the computer to do the majority of the work, but it's only the easy work that gets done. Humans will probably be better than computers at any pattern matching problem for years to come.
posted by BrotherCaine at 2:51 PM on November 21, 2007

I've done a certain amount of indexing of my own publications and of others — I find it tedious and detailed work that requires a specialist hand that I can only dimly imitate. I can do perhaps 85% of a job, but the real deal is a thing of beauty and surpassing utility.
posted by Wolof at 3:55 AM on November 22, 2007

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