Rule Number One

posted by SWC on June 9th, 2012 · 3 Comments | | Printer Friendly Version

The rules of indexing,  not counting those that are the responsibility of basic education, are few.   The most useful are grounded in common sense and should therefore be self-evident.  Among these the most important is the one I usually formulate as:

Index the idea, not the word.

Authors present their views in terms of concepts–ideas as such–or names.  For indexing purposes nouns, proper and common, are on an equal footing with concepts.  That also happens to be the principle which best answers the following question: “Why can ‘t computers be programmed to index books?”

Let’s take as an example a hypothetical book on the Truman period, the era , of course, not the punctuation that is sometimes omitted after the middle initial of the 33rd president’s name, a subject we can discuss another time in one of the back booths of the Pleasantville Diner.

Human intelligence, at least up to now, is superior to machines in determining, say, whether George F. Kennan, whose name appears only on page 84 and 92 of this hypothetical text, should be indexed with the span,  84-92 or with two separate locators, 84 and 92.  It depends entirely on how Kennan’s story is told on pages 84-92.  Were there on those pages excerpts from his “Long Telegram” or his X Article in Foreign Affairs?  The famous telegram may have been mentioned only on pages 84 and 96, and that is how a computer program is likely to index it.   But obviously, whether as a heading on its own or as a subheading of Kennan, George F., the entry requires a span that accurately tells the reader on just which pages it appears.  Moreover, the reader would probably like to know the significance the author has attached to the entry.  In other words, when we are hurriedly seeking a meaty discussion of topic A we often brush aside single page references in favor of long spans.

The Cold War as a subject in any book of the Truman period is likely to require subheadings, perhaps many.  If the indexer or the computer program indexes that term only where it is specifically mentioned the usefulness of the entry may suffer proportionately.  The author may refer specifically to the Cold War in an introductory paragraph or two, but the subject may reappear in its various aspects throughout the book.  Subentries  will probably be needed, for containment,  the Berlin blockade and airlift, the Truman Doctrine, the Marshall Plan, NSC-68, and the abovementioned Long Telegram.  And, naturally, the Berlin blockade may appear on pages where the term itself is not mentioned.

Cross-references from “Cold War” to these topics can and probably should be used with one important exception, the too-frequently employed “see also specific topics.”  The reader who turns to the index is hoping to save time, not to multiply it by reading, additionally, the indexer’s mind.

[Note:  If you have read to the end of this benignly intended pedantry–thank you.  It was originally meant to prevent the Chappaqua dust from settling on my keyboard, and I think it has at least served that purpose.]

 

3 comments

  1. I was just trying to explain this concept to someone, who thought the whole thing could be done automatically, but I couldn’t have said it as clearly. Juniper

  2. Chris Great point, I have read One Second After and it does make you think. I’ll have to check out Renewal . I’ve also read James Wesley Rawles’ Patriots which was in the same vein as One Second After . The writing wasn’t as good as Forstchen, but might be worth ckcheing out. Thanks for the comment.

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