Nancy Mulvany—The repurposed book index and indexer (ISC conference 2013)

Nancy Mulvany is the author of Indexing Books, the go-to reference for any aspiring or practising indexer. She kicked off this year’s Indexing Society of Canada’s conference in Halifax with her keynote speech about the changing role of the index and indexer in a digital age.

We all know that we will have to evolve and adapt to this new landscape. But how do we go about it, and what potential obstacles do we face? Mulvany warned us about some of the more insidious forces behind our seeming glut of free information. She quoted Jaron Lanier’s Who Owns the Future?, saying “the dominant principle of the new economy, the information economy, has lately been to conceal the value of information.” One you start to devalue information, she said, you devalue the people who provide access to information—that’s us. Companies like Facebook expect us to share information freely while they profit handsomely; Mulvany noted that “making information free is survivable so long as only limited numbers of people are disenfranchised”—right now it’s easy to get information for free by exploiting our musicians, writers, and artists.

Tracing the history of the book—from the invention of the codex to the development of the printing press and movable type to the first use of pagination—Mulvany offered context for the evolution of our consumption of information. At one time, Mulvany said, knowledge and information were highly prized: books were so valued they were chained to their bookshelves in libraries. Today we have an abundance of books in personal and office libraries, as well as in our computers and e-readers.

Finding information in an ebook, however, can be frustrating. If you go to Amazon and look through the reviews of reference books or non-fiction books that readers are trying to get information from, you’ll discover that those who have the Kindle edition can’t find what they’re looking for. Is there a way we effectively integrate the codex and the ebook and find the information we need?

Mulvany gave us an example of what’s possible by taking us on a tour of Evernote, a note-taking application that allows you to collect information from a variety of sources—from PDFs and Word files to images and audio files—and keep them in one place. Evernote makes the text and images searchable; it even has the ability to decipher neat handwriting on a scanned or photographed document. Items in Evernote are “indexed,” in that you can assign categories and subcategories to items, then add tags—all of which are searchable. If you add another layer of information by aggregating indexes in Evernote, as Mulvany demonstrated with her collection of cookbook indexes, you can then search across multiple books at once, and she believes that there’s a market for organizing information in this way in all sorts of fields. If you want to make the information in a law office library searchable, for example, “the five-hundred-page book on torts doesn’t have to be scanned—provided there’s a good index.”

The power to aggregate information in applications such as Evernote is an example of the repurposed index, but how do we repurpose the indexer? That’s easier said than done, said Mulvany; many of us are very set in our ways, but we have an amazing skill set that includes the ability to analyze, prioritize, synthesize, and localize. By applying those skills with tools such as Evernote, we could “create a product for a client that provides an incredible depth of access to information—something that the most sophisticated search algorithm can’t provide.” In so doing, Mulvany warns, we have to remember the users, who are getting more and more difficult to anticipate—especially younger people who have never been taught how to use an index.

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