Book review: Indexing and Retrieval of Non-Text Information

This review appeared in the Spring 2013 issue of Bulletin, the Indexing Society of Canada’s newsletter.


I expected to learn a lot from Indexing and Retrieval of Non-Text Information (edited by Diane Rasmussen Neal and published by Walter deGruyter); what I didn’t expect was to enjoy reading it as much as I did. Neal and her team have put together a timely and fascinating collection of texts that explore the challenges of indexing non-text material in an online world. Although geared much more toward academically minded information scientists than to back-of-the-book indexers, this book nevertheless has a lot to offer indexers who work with illustrated books or digital documents with embedded multimedia.

Covering everything from music information retrieval systems to World of Warcraft as a case study for gaming indexing, Neal’s wide-ranging book features voices from all over the world—including Bar-Ilan University in Israel, Universidade Federal Luminense in Brazil, and Heinrich-Heine-Universität Düsseldorf—but also showcases the strength of Canadian research in the field, with contributions from doctoral students and faculty at the University of Toronto, McGill University, and Western University, where Neal is an assistant professor.

Although I read the chapters about music with interest (Jason Neal, for example, looks at the problematic definition of classical in his probe of genre in music recommender systems), I focused mostly on the content most relevant to book indexers—namely, image indexing. Chris Landbeck’s chapter about editorial cartoons was eye-opening, as he explained that several factors contribute to the complexity of indexing these images:

  1. editorial cartoons are time sensitive;
  2. there is no tradition of describing editorial cartoons for the Electronic Age to draw on;
  3. editorial cartoons do not exist in a vacuum, but in a rich and active world that a reader must be familiar with in order to both perceive the visual part of the cartoon as well the message within it. (p. 61)

This distinction between an image’s “ofness” and “aboutness” is echoed in Kathrin Knautz’s chapter about emotions in multimedia; indexing must take into account that, because “an emotion may arise for various reasons (induction, empathy, contagion),” (p. 359) an emotion depicted may not be the same as the one evoked. Pawel Rygiel extends Landbeck’s thread about the time sensitivity of an image, showing the complications that can arise when indexing photos of architectural objects “whose name, form and function might have changed throughout their history.” (p. 288) The chapter by Renata Maria Abrantes Baracho Porto and Beatriz Valadares Cendón about an image-based retrieval system for engineering drawings was also interesting; I once worked on an art book in which the designer included details of the artwork next to the tombstone data (the title, date, medium, dimensions, and inscriptions for each piece of artwork)—a lovely visual index—and this chapter in Neal’s book made me wonder whether a closer relationship between indexer and designer may yield surprising, useful results for carefully chosen projects.

The book’s biggest weakness, ironically, is its unforgivably anemic index. Only three pages in a 428-page book, the index is virtually useless, with its entry for “indexing” consisting of 108 undifferentiated locators.

Indexing and Retrieval of Non-Text Information offers indexers a lot to ponder, especially in its look at the strengths and weaknesses of social tagging and the question of whether crowdsourcing the task of indexing will ever put us out of a job. For the working book indexer, however, this book is probably overkill. If someone extracted only the information that was relevant to book indexers and edited it into a smaller, more manageable resource, that abridged volume would be a welcome addition to any indexer’s reference shelf.

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