Ethical indexing practices

This summary of a talk by Julie McClung and Rosalind Guldner, given at the Indexing Society of Canada‘s annual conference, appeared in the Summer/Fall 2015 issue of Bulletin, ISC’s newsletter.


What kinds of ethical issues do we face as indexers? Julie McClung, senior Hansard indexer at the Legislative Assembly of British Columbia, and Rosalind Guldner, supervisor of indexing and reference for Hansard at the Legislative Assembly of Ontario, delved into ethical indexing practices and gave us a taste of the challenges that arise when indexing political debates, which, as McClung said, “provides a lot of food for ethical thought.”

Ethics in indexing

Information ethics as a field looks at the life of information, from storage and retrieval to dissemination. Practices should be fair, equitable, and value neutral, but gatekeepers, including indexers, have the ability to bias or even outright censor information. “If we make indexes without thinking,” said McClung, “our indexing choices can magnify, distort, or omit information.” Indexers have a responsibility not only to the profession but also to the public interest.

Ethics aren’t codified for indexers, but some guidelines for indexing practice do exist, including the Society for Indexing’s code of conduct and ISC’s awards criteria. As Hansard indexers, McClung and Guldner also follow codes of ethics for government employees: they must be nonpartisan and avoid conflicts of interest, real or perceived.

Indexing the Hansard

Political debates are transcribed verbatim into the Hansard, which is edited for ease of reading and then published late that same night. Transcripts typically run between 20 and 100 pages and are essentially multi-authored serial publications, with each member of the legislature (85 in BC and 107 in Ontario) serving as an author. Every author has a unique idiolect, which makes synonym control challenging, especially because the governing party and the opposition will often use different polarized, emotion-laden words to describe the same topic—for example, backroom deal versus contract negotiation. The indexers must find a third language—one that’s general and nonpartisan—to bridge that polarized content, keeping the public interest and universal access to coverage topmost in their minds. While choosing unbiased headings, they also have to be careful not to inadvertently sanitize the index with euphemisms.

Because the Hansard is a transcript of speech, which is inherently less organized than a well-thought-out piece of written work, McClung and Guldner also face problems such as digressions, ambiguities, mangled metaphors, and deliberate attempts to confuse. “If the text is ambiguous, we preserve the ambiguity in the index entry,” said Guldner. “At least then we’re not misleading people about the content.” The indexers also have to evaluate whether the content in a digression is substantive enough to index and evaluate whether omitting a mention may be interpreted as censorship.

To do their jobs effectively, McClung and Guldner have to keep on top of the topics in the debates. Thorough knowledge of the subject matter helps ensure that the index is comprehensive. During some debates, said Guldner, the project or policy name is never mentioned, so it’s up to the indexer to provide that context, not only for the citizens of today but also the historians of tomorrow. Said McClung, “Our job is to index what was said, not make value judgments about it.”

Find more information about ethical indexing practice, McClung and Guldner recommend Ana and Donald Cleveland’s Introduction to Indexing and Abstracting and Heather Ebbs’s ASI webinar on ethics in indexing.

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