Kate C over at the Indexer Network group on LinkedIn, has been asking some interesting questions in her search to see if she’d be a good match for indexing books (and maybe other stuff). Her questions prompted me to go through my “qualities of an indexer mind” spiel, so I thought I’d share it here. I’ve been making book indexes, as well as participating in other human-generated indexing activities (simple standard vocabularies and app taxonomies) since 1995. And I started indexing with my parents’ National Geographics when I was eleven years old. So, one could say I was a “born indexer.” Who else would derive pleasure out of such a task? 😉
One general observation I’ve made about indexers: most of the ones I know are introverts, although there are a number of weird extroverts like me in the mix. 😉 Many start out as librarians (but not all; I didn’t). Most of us do love to read, but we’re not all generalists. I index a lot of scholarly books, but some of my colleagues wouldn’t touch this material with a hundred-foot pole. They specialize in technical documentation, cookbooks, medical journals, legal documents. If one does have a good mindset for indexing, there are many niches to carve out a workspace in.
After three-plus years as the exam administrator for the American Society for Indexing‘s Training in Indexing Course, I’ve definitely seen among the students some common attributes that go with a good indexer mind, and many that do not. One has to be a bit “anal”; following specifications carefully and paying close attention to detail are both really important in pleasing clients, and many of our students have trouble with this. Also, on the opposite end of mental activity, one has to be able to see the forest for the trees and use the trees judiciously. There’s this balance between too light of a pass through material and getting too carried away putting details in an index that only two people will look up. Pattern recognition, and more importantly, semantic relationship recognition are important in the quality of the index (are appropriate synonyms dealt with? Where’s the audience likely to be coming from?). I think one of the reasons I do well at this is because I carry a thesaurus in my head. You can also use a published one, too!
But just like with editing, indexing is filled with judgment calls. Only instead of just making judgments on how the text is expressed by the writer, the indexer has to find both the essential structure and all the substantive and significant details that a writer has created in more or less linear form, and rearrange all of this meaning into a nonlinear “map” of the subject(s) so the index user can dip into the text from this condensed structure instead of having to read through the whole thing to find all the references to some subject of importance to that reader. Yes, the indexer has to categorize things, and a thematically organized document is definitely easier to index, but we have to go further than just an alphabetically organized outline of the book; we also have to decide which names, subtopics and jargon terms would be most likely to be searched for by the index user.
And then the thesaurus kicks in. It’s also important to highlight relationships among concepts and other subjects, not just deal with them as discrete things. I am always running through how these subjects I’m putting in the index (whether people or themes) overlap each other or relate to each other in some other way that might be important for the index user so they get to all the related information on a topic and not just one piece. This is the aspect of indexing that a lot of students take some experience to get the hang of.
The whole process is much less “machine-like” than folks think, although hyperlink relationships come closer than hierarchies in picturing what an index really does. But it’s not that simple, either. It’s more structured than simply browsing semantic links on the fly. This is where I get stuck trying to explain how my mind works. So many threads…one of my colleagues once gave an entire presentation on the index as tapestry, actually. Pretty accurate analogy.
When I see questions like Kate C’s, I get to think about how I think. Most of the time I just approach the text and “do my thing.” I engage my mind to read for understanding and build the index structure that will best match the writer’s intent and the user’s needs, but I don’t reflect so much on what my mind is doing. I just know that it’s natural for me to think in this way, and has been ever since childhood.
If you are intrigued by the idea of indexing, which can be applied not just to books, but to online information in websites and in mobile apps as well, the best thing is to take a short course at a local library school, or check out the distance learning opportunities at organizations like the American Society for Indexing, The British Society of Indexers, the Indexing Society of Canada, or the Australian and New Zealand Society of Indexers.
As another of my colleagues says all the time: Happy Indexing!