Indexing—for your information

Last year, when I was taking technical communications courses, one of my required readings was this article by Seth A. Maislin, published in the Society for Technical Communication’s Intercom magazine. Two sentences near the end of the article caught my attention:

So far, indexing is a phenomenon dominant in only the English language, although I don’t know why. (Many French textbooks, for example, have simple tables of contents in the front and deep tables of contents in the back.)

I haven’t had that much experience working with nonfiction publications in languages other than English, so I suppose I just took it for granted that of course those publications must have indexes, too, and I was genuinely surprised to discover otherwise. There’s nothing inherently special about English that makes it more conducive to the process of indexing, and indexes are just so useful that they would add to a reference book or technical manual in any language. (Since reading Maislin’s article I like to imagine that indexes catalyzed English’s becoming the world’s lingua franca. Oh sure, a few centuries of British imperialism followed by American hegemony probably had something to do with that, too, but the ease of information retrieval through indexes just may have played a [tiny] role in the efficient knowledge transfer that spurred so much innovation.)

Within the last decade, though, it seems as though other languages have caught on to the power of indexing. The Deutsches Netzwerk der Indexer/German Network of Indexers formed in 2004, and in 2006, Robert Fugmann wrote Das Buchregister. Methodische Grundlagen und praktische Anwendungen (The book index: methodological foundations and practical applications), what appears to be one of the first rigorous guides to creating back-of-the-book indexes—akin to Nancy Mulvany’s Indexing Books.

The Netherlands Indexing Network began meeting in 2005, and the indexing program TExtract, developed in the Netherlands and useful for creating indexes in both Dutch and English, is gaining ground on the established CINDEX, SKY Index, and Macrex software.

In my poking around for French resources, I found this title—Concevoir l’index d’un livre: histoire, actualité, perspectives (Conceiving the index of a book: history, current practices, perspectives) by Jacques Maniez and Dominique Maniez—which looks fascinating, not only because it is, for French, much like the Fugmann title was for German, one of the first major resources to address the practice and process of indexing but also because half of the book is dedicated to indexing history.

The Maniez title was published by L’association des professionnels de l’information et de la documentation—the Association of Information and Documentation Professionals—which really drives home the point that indexing is information science. Most of the indexers I know also have an editing background; in fact, the Indexing Society of Canada frequently coordinates with the Editors’ Association of Canada to hold its annual conference at around the same time, and the Chicago Manual of Style’s indexing chapter is one of its major components. This close association makes sense logistically—often publishers will ask the proofreader to compile an index concurrently—but it doesn’t really make sense logically. Editing and indexing require incredibly different skill sets, involving different parts of the brain. Indexing is all about organizing information for efficient retrieval, and it would really make more sense for an information science specialist to be doing it. After all, an indexer does with a book’s terms and ideas on a micro level what librarians do with archives and publications on a macro level. Yet, despite the fact that indexing appears to be a core course in most Master of Library and Information Science curricula, I rarely hear of people going into an MLIS degree wanting to be a librarian but emerging a back-of-the-book indexer.

So what can we learn from other branches of information science, in English and in other languages, that could help us shape better indexes? If other languages aren’t accustomed to using indexes, what book-level information retrieval systems do they use, and how can this knowledge inform our indexing practices? Is there a more effective system out there—perhaps one that looks completely different—that those of us working in English simply haven’t discovered yet?

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