I’ve been asked for my vision. The indexing partnership I’ve joined, Potomac Indexing, LLC (PI), has asked me to express my vision for the future of our role in the information access business. This will be a broad-tipped pencil sketch of the challenges and opportunities I see from my perch at the peak of my book indexing career, overlooking the maelstrom that is the publishing industry below me.
As much as I love reading a book and building an index from the judgment calls I make about what’s important to make visible in my map of the text’s themes, actors, mission, and conclusions, this specific craft is losing value in our society of full text search for mostly electronic books. This loss of value is misplaced, but is currently causing people with the mission of producing books (publishers and authors) to leave out indexes altogether or settle for simple concordances of names and explicit terms, regardless of significance. The search engine rules. But the search engine is flawed.
The Quality Question
Funny thing is, the search engine’s greatest strength, comprehensiveness, is also its downfall. It gives us everything, but that’s a whole lot of overwhelming everything. Used to be, we didn’t have enough information to make decisions; now we have too much (although in my old job as an intelligence officer, we dealt with more primitive versions of information quantity vs. quality—raw intelligence has always required analysis).
So, I propose a focus on quality. Now that can be a nebulous term. If you are curious about how philosophical quality can get, check out Zen and the Art of Motorcycle Maintenance by Robert Pirsig if you haven’t already. Persist with this hippiefied narrative, and you’ll get some of the complexities and subjectivities of quality. But quality is human, it’s a human judgment, not just based on an algorithm, but on a deeper knowledge of what’s significant for the inquiring human.
And that is our gift, the indexer’s gift, to humans looking to find what they want to know. We sift through to find the quality information based on a human understanding of the meaning of a text, not just a machine “relevance” algorithm, which relies only on visible terminology and not on actual meaning.
I remember seeing this so completely in a cool taxonomy project I did with PI last year or the year before: the folks at Bartlett’s Quotations were trying to figure out how to make their content searchable using a mobile app. Cool idea, but a simple search algorithm was going to fall short, very short, when dealing with so many metaphorical quotations. There was no way for the computer software to understand what a given quotation was about. Talk of roses was all well and good, but the quote was actually about love. So, we were called in, we human minds, to figure out what each quote was about to add those keywords to the search and give the searchers some quality access to the quotations.
As we move forward into the maelstrom that is publishing, whether on the web as blogs or in ebooks, or in large websites with lots of content, or in databases or apps, let us focus on the gift of quality that we, and only we, can provide. It may seem now as if that talent is not fully appreciated in the publishing industry as whole or on the Web, but it will be. For we provide that link of quality between the searcher and the vast ocean of information they face every day. We, with our human judgment of quality, we extract the fish from the ocean; we provide the quality catch.
Go forth and create access to quality!
This week’s recommended reading stops:
Steven Booth has written a great guest article on my fav BookDesigner blog about when to self publish. Check it out here.
Louise Harnby has waxed eloquent and useful on editorial blogging. Check it out here.