Passing mentions – when you don’t have to index everything

As a Society of Indexers trained indexer I work under the tenets of BS ISO 999:1996 Information and documentation — Guidelines for the content, organisation and presentation of indexes. This states, among other things, that the function of an index is to provide the user with an efficient means of tracing information. The indexer should therefore: a) identify and locate relevant information within the material being indexed; b) discriminate between information on a subject and passing mention of a subject; c) exclude passing mention of subjects that offer nothing significant to the potential user.

Passing mentions are an item or concept mentioned incidentally in the text but lacking worthwhile information about the item or concept itself. Mere mentions of the existence of something that does not provide at least one fact should be avoided in an index. Generally I try not include locators where no substantial information is provided.

Passing mentions typically fall into four main types:

  • examples (Many marsupials, including possums and bilbies, are nocturnal – entry would be marsupials or nocturnal animals, not possums or bilbies),
  • lists of things or people (the group subject is the entry if it needs one)
  • asides (as my predecessor, Dr Jones, might have done – no entry for Jones)
  • scene setting may include passing mentions that are not followed up with what follows.

In the age of Big Data and ctrl+f searches it can seem quaint and outdated in that as an indexer I have to try and assume the role of reader and what they might be looking for and make judgements. But that’s the advantage of having a human being do the job, not a computer. However, I also have to ensure the terms used are appropriate and will

  • quickly establish the presence or absence of information on a specific subject in an unfamiliar work [the new reader or browser],
  • quickly retrieve information on a remembered item in a known or partially known work [someone who has already read all or part].

The first will let someone know if the book is worth reading, the second helps them find things when they return to it.

So I try to find relevant information, concentrating on the ‘aboutness’ of each section, and generate ways of readers finding material they might want. Indexing is an art, and as such every indexer will without doubt produce a slightly different take on any particular text, they might choose different ways of saying things, they might select different pages. But each would produce a usable index.

#Indexday

The Society of Indexers is celebrating its diamond anniversary in 2017 and designated 30 March as the first National Indexing Day to raise awareness of this essential profession.

The Society has seen many changes in book production and indexing methods during that time. Gone are index cards, going out are paper prints and highlighter pens, in are specialised software packages, coming in are e-pub books with linked indexes. I wonder what the next 60 years will bring?

Media coverage included an article by Society of Indexers President Sam Leith which explains a lot about what indexers do – see here. And the following week there was a podcast by Sam and Dennis Duncan discussing the history of indexing. Listen here.

Here’s a Storify of the coverage we got – National Indexing Day.

National indexing day

 

 

Current Archaeology Book of the Year

Voting recently took place for the 2017 Current Archaeology awards, including the Book of the Year. The winner was Images of the Ice Age (Paul Bahn) – this book has an index that the publisher owns up to, but I can’t see it or any reviews of it.

So, what of the indexes in the other books? Might considering the usefulness of the index have helped voters decide the best book?

Celts: art and identity (Julia Farley and Fraser Hunter) – there is an index, and it has been described as “workable” – which might be damning it with faint praise. I haven’t seen this book, so can’t comment further.

St Kilda: the last and outmost isle (Angela Gannon and George Geddes) – also listed for a British Archaeological Award – I can’t find whether this book has an index or not, or a reviewer who has commented on it.

Bog Bodies Uncovered (Miranda Aldhouse-Green) – a reviewer on GoodReads said the index was “nice”. But that’s all I can find.

The Home Front in Britain 1914-1918  (C Appleby, W Cocroft, J Schofield) – Council for British Archaeology Handbook. But I can’t find any reference to this book having an index.

Ritual in Early Bronze Age Grave Goods (Ann Woodward and John Hunter) This is book is ordered by item type and there is an index of grave groups and objects studied in detail, which is in itself very detailed.

Hidden Histories: a spotters guide to the British landscape (Mary-Ann Ochota) Seems to contain an index of places, as the book is arranged by theme there may have been no need for anything more. The index was prepared by a Society of Indexers member.

A Tale of the Axe: how the Neolithic revolution transformed Britain (David Miles) This book has an index, but that’s pretty much all I can say. An indexer has told me that the index was “good, helpful, and well constructed”. So that’s OK then.

So, what do we learn from this review? Not much I am sad to say. The books in question are not generally available to ‘look inside’ on Amazon, and the publishers don’t make much of the indexes as a selling point. Also, the reviews I found seem slightly shy of mentioning the index. Maybe this was because of space constraints, or possibly because the reviewers only know a good index by the fact it wasn’t bad. The index probably wouldn’t have made or broken the chances of any of these books succeeding in the Current Archaeology awards, however, the absence of an index, or a poor index can impact on the chances of a user making full use of the information contained in the book.

Society of Indexers conference 2016

For the first time in many years the SI conference was a one-day event. The venue, The Studio, Cannon Street, Birmingham, was a smart refurbishment of a 19th century building.

Ann Kingdom opened the conference and introduced the first session on ‘Ethics in Indexing’, based on Heather Ebbs’ presentation at the 2015 conference (Ebbs 2016). The discussions that followed were an ice-breaker for the many new and student indexers who attended the conference. Split into groups led by experienced indexers we discussed six ethical dilemmas: censorship of the index by the author, indexer beliefs clashing with an author’s, the quality of another indexer’s work, a lack of skill or subject expertise, making a table of contents into an index, and a client putting down the work of another indexer. The groups then reported their comments. This session was food for thought for everyone present.

The second session was a lecture by Alastair Horne, which looked back on, and predicted the future of, digital publishing. The previous five years had not turned out at all as Alastair had expected and the lack of e-book innovation was disappointing. It all comes down to costs and consumers are not keen on paying for additional content, because their expectations have been trained to expect e-books to be much cheaper than printed versions. He predicted that the future may hold fragmentation of the digital market with more formats sharing the publishing space. This could include an increasing diversity of routes to market. Crowdfunding sites, like Unbound, can introduce new authors to new reading markets. Subscription models need work on how to charge for a service that most subscribers actually use, unlike gyms, which make money from a service that most subscribers do not use. Serialisation takes us back to the days of Charles Dickens, where readers pay for parts of a book at a time. Scholarly publishing is also undergoing a period of change and development. New university presses, such as White Rose University Press, are publishing monographs and journals with a view to providing free access to digital content, without impacting on quality of content and standards of production. Knowledge Unlatched is also intent on providing free content through subscribing academic libraries.

After lunch we settled down for Dennis Duncan’s talk entitled ‘Filthy Talk, p. 2: scenes from the history of indexing’. The title was taken from a hand-written index he found in an early printed book. He covered early Bible concordances and how they contributed to the development of indexing and then offered cases of how 17th and early 18th century indexers used their political position or academic knowledge to create indexes that enraged the authors. This took us neatly back to the start of the conference and our discussion of ethics in indexing. The first example covered Boyle against Bentley, a collective effort to discredit Richard Bentley. Bentley had had the audacity to criticize Charles Boyle’s edition of the ancient Greek ‘Epistles of Phalaris’, stating that Boyle did not realise that the epistles were fake. The book includes a four page index of Bentley’s characteristics, for example, ‘His Egregious Dulness, p. 74…’ and ‘His Collection of Asinine Proverbs, p. 220’. Bentley may have been dull, but recent scholarship has shown he was correct and the Epistles were fake. In The Transactioneer, published in 1700, William King drew attention to the silliness he felt was contained in letters published by the Royal Society in their Philosophical Transactions. He used ironic and witty entries in a table of contents to highlight their lack of scientific thinking. In 1718, when clergyman Laurence Echard published his three volume History of England, he had not counted on his indexer taking issue with its politics and undermining the work with a series of subversive, occasionally sarcastic, index entries. Echard’s is a Tory version of English history and John Oldmixon – the indexer hired by Echard’s publisher, was a radical Whig. Much more of this sort of thing will be at the symposium on the history of the book index that Dennis is organising next year.

A choice of workshops completed the afternoon sessions. Janice Rayment presented two sessions on ‘Indexing with InDesign’. Panel-led discussions on ‘Indexing dilemmas’ and ‘Getting started’ were alternative choices for experienced and new indexers. The new indexers and trainees asked sensible and searching questions. After another round of coffee, those who did not attend the second part of Janice’s workshop could choose between ‘Working more efficiently: editing the index’ with Ann Hudson or ‘From plot to plate: indexing gardening and cookery books’ by Michèle Clarke-Moody. Michèle gave a rapid and thorough coverage of issues related to indexing gardening and cookery books, some of which I have had to use since the conference, how timely was that.

The conference closed and a thunderstorm of biblical proportions broke over Birmingham.

Conference season – that back to school feeling

Next week the Society of Indexers is holding its annual conference in Birmingham. It has the title Back to the Future.  But I don’t think it involves fast cars and time travel (more’s the pity, but I will be taking the train). This will be the third time I have attended the Society’s conference. Why should a trained, professional indexer want or need to do this? What might I get out of it to help me in future? I think there are three main reasons:

  1. There’s always something new to learn: on a one day event there’s only so much that can be done. I’m looking forward to hearing from Dennis Duncan on the history of indexing, and learning from Michele Clark-Moody more on cookery and gardening book indexing. Reflecting on how things were done in the past is always a way of informing present practice, and hearing from an expert is a good way to refine one’s own approach. I like working on cookery books, and maybe I can expand into gardening titles too.
  2. Networking: Meeting people who otherwise only appear to live on email message groups is always fun. I’ve met many before but new friends can be made in the spaces between sessions.
  3. Giving a bit back: As a relative newcomer to indexing I’m taking part in the session for new indexers and how to get started. A small panel of similar folk will hopefully be giving useful tips to even newer indexers and those still on the training course.

The one-day format packs a lot in. We’re also discussing ethics in indexing (censorship by authors, clashing with authors’ beliefs, quality of other indexer’s work, lack of skill or subject expertise, table of contents indexes). We have a Code of Professional Conduct which we all abide by, but perhaps sometimes situations force us to consider it very carefully. And we are also taking a look at digital publishing, backwards and forwards to the future.

100 best non-fiction books – 18 to 25

Some catching up is called for in my survey of the indexes of these books. Some interesting points arise about use of capital letters and the sorting of subheadings.

Number 18 is The Feminine Mystique by Betty Friedan. The current version available via Amazon has a tidy index, including names and subjects. Worthy of note are the subheadings, which depart from the usual alphabetical order, and are organised as they appear in the book.

Number 19 is The Making of the English Working Class by E. P. Thompson. This is a large book and the current version has a relatively short index, about 12 pages for a book over 900 pages long, which makes me wonder what has been left out. Many headings have lots of locators, which can make an index difficult to use. Also, all the headings start with a capital letter, even if the subject in the book doesn’t. This can be tricky on the eye for modern readers more accustomed to lower case letters.

Number 20 is The Silent Spring by Rachel Carson. A more generous allowance for the index in this book, than the one above. Again, there are capital letters at the start of all the headings. The index doesn’t seem to suffer from excessive numbers of locators for each heading, but there are many run-on subheadings for some entries. As with The Feminine Mystique, the subheadings are in the order that they appear in the book, not in alphabetical order.

Number 21 is The Structure of Scientific Revolutions by Thomas S Kuhn. The 50th anniversary edition has an index that uses run-on subheadings that are in alphabetical order, and some of them suffer from excess locators, making it rather difficult to find things in this book.

Number 22 is A Grief Observed by C. S. Lewis, and the index, if there is one, isn’t available on Amazon.

Number 23 is The Elements of Style by Strunk and White, also without index visible.

Number 24 is The Affluent Society by John Kenneth Galbraith, and we’re back with an index to look at in this volume. Another slightly shouty index with capitals at the start of all entries. Run-on subheadings which are generally short, and in alphabetical order.

Number 25 is The Uses of Literacy: Aspects of Working-Class Life by Richard Hoggart. The recent edition seems to have an updated index. It includes the names of people who probably weren’t born when this book was first published. It’s quite short for the size of the book. Capitals only for proper names, lower case for other entries. Very few (possibly unnecessary) subheadings, so some entries with lots of locators. Some cross-references that are unnecessary, and a double entry would have done – bird fancying has one locator, so canary-breeding see bird fancying could have duplicated the locator and not bothered with the cross-reference, and I might have checked if either or both should be hyphenated.

 

 

 

Cook books and indexing

Earlier this year I was asked to make an index for a baking book written by a YouTuber (yes that is a word, it’s in the dictionary). So I did the job and ended up a bit puzzled. There were plenty of recipes for cakes, cookies and cheesecakes, but they were a bit ‘easy’, no complicated techniques, no hard-to-find ingredients, not many flavours, and I wondered faintly why anyone had bothered to make the book. So I put the work behind me and got on with other things and wasn’t even tempted to try making any of them.

Last Friday, 1st July, while Britain and Europe were still reeling from Brexit, I was labouring over an index for a book about medieval trade across the North Sea, and on the day the destruction of the Somme was remembered (wasn’t #wearehere fabulous? I wish I’d been able to see some of the young men myself), Tanya Bakes was launched. And I finally got why the book was written, it’s not a book for my demographic at all, it’s a cookery book for people who want straightforward, simple, feelgood recipes, with nice pictures. It’s for girls (and boys) who want to thank their mum or dad or sister, or nan or uncle or teacher and make them a few cookies. It’s for friends who want to spend an hour together to make something before settling down to watch a movie. It’s for anyone who wants to make cheesecake or party pudding or a cake you can stick sparklers in. There’s not much in the way of fancy icing to be done and it shows it is OK to put sweets on cakes if that’s what you want to do. If you want recipes for Nutella or put peanut butter in something, you’ll find something to help you.

Twitter went mad. #TanyaBakes was used by people expressing their excitement at having received their copy, saying they were going to one of the book signings she has arranged, and more importantly perhaps, showing off their bakes. So it’s not my demographic, but I’ve got to congratulate Tanya if she encourages people to try a few things for themselves. It’s not a book to grab and use every day, I had to laugh a little at the person who put a review on Amazon complaining about the amount of sugar, but in moderation it has got good points.

And I made some brownies. Tanya’s most ‘exotic’ recipe uses coconut sugar and coconut oil, I swapped that out for brown and white sugar and some butter, but I did put in the half an avocado. Here’s a piece with some raspberries out of my garden and a bit of cream.

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