Indexing a moving target: Ontario Hansard’s approach (ISC conference 2014)

Rosalind Guldner, Cheryl Caballero, and Erica Smith work together to produce the index for the Ontario Hansard, the official record of the province’s legislative assembly and its standing committees. Their team recently won the Web & Electronic Indexing SIG Award for excellence in web site indexing, and at the ISC conference, they shared their insights on team indexing approaches, indexing a constantly changing and growing text, and adapting to the demand for electronic indexes.

The Hansard is a serial: the House sits Monday through Thursday, and House debates have to be transcribed, edited, and proofed within twenty-four hours. The index and research group aren’t quite on such tight timelines—they have to produce final speaker and subject indexes only after the session ends—but they do index and edit as they go and also help the Hansard team with fact checking and other research. The index is bilingual, but the Hansard is transcribed and indexed in the language spoken only.

The team has found that assigning one primary indexer and editor to each index (one for the House debates and one for the committees) yields the best consistency. They also keep a subject authority list to help standardize their headings and subheadings. This list grows continually and changes as heading terms go in and out of style. For example, whereas MPPs (Members of Provincial Parliament) used to say “physicians,” they’re more likely today to say “doctors.”

The House index is based on the transcripts of debates about bills, oral questions, members’ statements, and statements by the ministry, and the indexer faces a number of challenges. First, Question Period is fast paced, and there isn’t always enough time to provide context, so the indexer must constantly keep on top of current events to know what’s being discussed. Second, the content can be unpredictable: because nobody knows when the session will end, non-substantive content now may later resurface as substantive content, so it’s hard to know how specific to go with subheadings. Third, people read the Hansard to determine legislative intent, so indexers must provide several alternative access points to the information. Finally, indexers have to maintain neutrality. The transcript is substantially verbatim and editors are restricted from sense making, but MPPs go off topic constantly and are often crafty about using language that is only tenuously related to the topic.

The committee indexer works with transcripts from standing committees and select committees. Sometimes committees are given special mandates, and occasionally the committees will hear from witnesses. Although witness statements are recorded and transcribed, they are not indexed; only members’ questions and reactions are indexed. The committee indexer will often use the House index as a guide, although the subject matter can be discussed in finer detail, so the committee index may have more headings or subheadings.

The Hansard indexing team is constantly editing their index, issuing daily updates to the online House index and twice-weekly updates to the online committee index. Once the session ends, they do a final “big picture” edit before producing final print and online versions of their indexes. The print versions are sent to depository libraries all over the world.

The Hansard is still printed on paper, as it’s used as a legal record, and paper indexes have been used since 1949. For the past dozen years or so, the indexing team at the Ontario Hansard have also provided an online index. They use HTML/Prep and Webprep to convert indexes created in CINDEX to HTML. Right now there’s no tagging yet—the locators link to the top of a page, and the user has to use search function on that page to find what they need.

In the future, the team hopes to tag content directly; create a linked, tagged index to audio or video content; and provide “live” headings, where they listen live during the debate and provide quick access to popular content such as oral questions and members’ statements. They also aim to expand their role, spotlighting their indexing skills and reference resources to create useful reference lists, and maybe one day to index other assembly content, including the Members’ Guide and the Standing Orders (rules of Parliament).

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