Thursday, December 3, 2015

Do you like indexes?

An excellent book
I just finished indexing my new book last night. I actually enjoy indexing my books. It does take some time, but I find it fun and interesting to compile the index. This is a creative, intellectual task. You have to organize knowledge, cross-reference concepts and terms, and figure out how readers or users of the book might want to find information. I might say "market exchange," you might say "commercial exchange" and someone else might simply say "trade," all for the same concept. So the index has to accommodate all these terms, using "see" and "see also" entries. Users might want to find out about exchange systems, so should I put in an entry "exchange:  see market exchange"? Or do I let it go, assuming that this reader will think to look for markets or trade or commercial?

My wife Cindy, who is an editor, hates indexing. She loves editing, page production using desktop publishing programs, and graphic design, but not indexing. She always bring up the example of a book she indexed once on globalization. The anthropologists used one set of terms, the political scientists another, and the historians a third set of terms. She had to negotiate this diversity and come up with usable index terms that would serve all readers. Maybe the reason I like indexing is that I have only indexed my own books. I like my books. They are brilliant, extremely well written, and full of nuggets of deep insight. Who wouldn't want to index such excellent volumes? Well, maybe an ego-maniac who believed such hype might not have patience for the work of indexing. I always ask Cindy if she wants to index my books, and she usually falls for it, getting worked up about how she hates indexing, before she realizes I am kidding.

A lame index (to a lame-looking book)

But me, I do like compiling the index. And now it is DONE, as is proofing, and I just have to wait for the book to appear.  At Home with the Aztecs: An Archaeologist Uncovers their Deilyi Life.

Don't you hate lame indexes that don't have enough entries? Remember the old archaeology books from Academic Press? They had terrible indexes. Three pages for a 500-page book. Mostly useless. Why did they bother?
An index with "After poop deck"

 But what about indexes that are too detailed, too full of entries? Are they a problem? Probably not. If you are a sailor and really want to see where the author talks about the after poop deck, then you need a detailed index.

I just received Peter Turchin's new book, "Ultra Society" in the mail. I like Peter's work, and I was interested to see his book. I've been thinking about social insect colonies lately, since they seem to share some scaling relationships with human settlements. Our settlement scaling group is planning to meet with some of the mathematical social insect folks in a few months to explore the issue. So I wondered if Peter Turchin (a biologist) might discuss insect cooperation in his book. I open it to the back, and find, to my horror, that there is NO INDEX! This isn't a detailed technical monograph (most of which don't have indexes), but a book intended for a popular audience. Then why no index?

I was really impressed with a Calculus textbook I had, both in high school then as a freshman at Brandeis University. Written by Michael Spivak, it was idiosyncratic and more fun than most calculus textbooks. I was intrigued by an entry in the index for "pig-headed." The page in question discussed some pig-headed ideas by a group of mathematicians. I remembered this a few years ago when indexing one of my books, so I looked up Spivak in Wikipedia, where it says:  

"In each of Spivak's books there are hidden references to yellow pigs, an idea Spivak apparently came up with at a bar while drinking with David C. Kelly." I really wanted to verify this, but of course I don't still have my old calculus textbook. I do like the idea, however. I can say that I have never put "yellow pigs" in a book of mine, and "pig-headed" has not occurred in an index. But I cannot deny including one or two strange entries in my indexes. (Note to the staff of my publishers: please ignore that last sentence). But perhaps pig-headed would be a good keyword for a blog entry!


Peter Turchin said...

Hi Mike,

Unlike you, I hate indexing, and this applies to my own books. In my previous books, published with mainstream publishers, I always bargained, and usually got them to agree to pay for a professional indexer.

Similarly, I don't find indices particularly useful. The great majority of them are poorly executed, and cannot compare to having the complete searchable text of the work. I still prefer to read books as real, paper books, but I often try to find an electronic file (PDF) for the paper book I bought. Then I can be sure that the author never said, for example, "culture." You can't assum it if "culture" is missing from the index. It's easy enough and instantaneous to search for alternative keywords - market, trade, commerce, whatever. And you end up in the right place where the keyword is used. How many times I had to read the whole page carefully, to confirm that the indexed word is actually NOT used on the page.

So I could pay $1000 to a professional indexer to generate an index for my book. Or I could provide an electronic version of the book at a nominal price. I chose the second route. If you buy my book in paper at Amazon, you can also get the electronic copy (It's called kindle-match).

And for the rest of you, the book we are talking about can be found here:

Jan Sommer said...

Řekni, zda potřebuješ rejstříky, ať vím, kdo jsi
Rejstříky ano! I když pro mnohé čtenáře jsou zbytečným papírem a grafickou skvrnou na tváři krásné knihy
Rejstříky jsou velmi důležité a jejich schvalování či odmítání vypovídá hlavně o tom, jak kdo s literaturou pracuje. Jistě jde i o problém ekonomický a organizační (na vytvoření musí zbývat čas a síla). Rejstříky obecně sklidily spíše pohrdání v souvislosti s nástupem „fulltextového“ vyhledávání. Bohužel tento přístup našel živnou půdu i v knihovnách. Potřebnost rejstříků v obecné míře bude teprve znovu objevena, a to včetně potřeby nástrojů pro jejich kvalitní propojování. Nicméně je možné, že to bude pozdní lítost, jelikož při nynějším kvantu on-line přístupných dat se již nedá nic efektivního v tomto smyslu dělat.
O přístupu k „rejstříkování“ v nové době svědčí to, jak je stále běžné, že IT a webdesignéři preferují „searching“ před „browsingem“. Ačkoliv i zde by prostě byla možná klidná symbióza a uživatel by dle situace a letory použil jednou to, podruhé ono…
I tištěné rejstříky by měly být závaznou součástí odborného díla. A kdo by nechtěl, nemusel by je používat…

Michael Roberts said...
This comment has been removed by the author.
Michael Roberts said...

I do agree with Peter; indexes used to cause a headache for me too. That's why i've looked everywhere for an easier way to create my indexes. I've found a couple of programs that could help, and i've settled down with the one called PDF Index Generator. I've used it in indexing 4 books until now, and it includes 10th of nice features like defining cross references, header and subheader words, in addition to many styling options. This has saved me thousands of dollars for hiring indexers.

Michael E. Smith said...

My own reactions and inclinations don't agree with Peter and Michael. Maybe I am a dinosaur with an old and outdated view of books and publishing, but really think indexes are important in books. Peter, perhaps you use books differently than I do. I'd like to see some research on this point. Given the large body of scholarly research on books, publishing, citations, libraries, and such, I would guess that there are research results on the use of indexes. And given the cost-cutting that has been going on in the publishing industry, I would think that if indexes were not useful parts of books, they would have been omitted from books years ago.

Peter, perhaps you are compiling concordances, not indexes. Here is a quote from a review of PDF Index Generator. It confirms my view that software cannot create an index that is acceptable to editing and publishing professionals:

"When it comes to writing book indexes, frankly, the tool is
terrible. It provides no subject analysis, does not combine terms,
creates no subheadings, has no functionality for overriding strict
alphabetical sorting or applying cross-references, and does not
even combine page numbers into ranges. I cannot recommend this
tool as a shortcut to writing indexes."

This is a review from the journal, The Indexer, volume 28(1):;jsessionid=1p0xyng1h7tey.alexandra

Michael Roberts said...

I am not sure about this review Michael ! .. When i was used to hire indexers; most of them were already using professional software to organize their index. That's why i thought about doing the same thing myself. I wanted to create the index myself, but with a help of a tool to arrange my collected entries(Which i already collect myself) and write the index to my book. From my last four index experiments i am now able to create indexes similar to the one in your sample photo, and with a nice look suitable to my book design, with the help of such a tool.

Michael E. Smith said...

Michael - I am not an expert in this field, but I do know some of the scholarly literature on index construction, and mostly it coincides with my own opinions based on indexing a variety of books. If you use an automated indexing tool and your indexes are useful to your readers, then that is fine. I do know that for a number of years university and commercial publishers used an indexing tool that worked with proofs in pdf format (they made it available to authors to use), but then they abandoned it. I have been using my old Excel methods for some time now. The program you cite creates concordances, not indexes.

Glenda Browne said...

I agree with Michael E. Smith's latest comment. Most professional indexers use dedicated indexing software, but it most definitely is not automated indexing software.Rather, it removes the clerical aspects of indexing (alphabetisation, format etc) and allows the indexer to focus on the intellectual aspects of term selection, wording, structure etc.

As a librarian I see many poorly structured indexes, and I think the fault sometimes lies in reliance on concordance-generation type software, which results in numerous entries for certain topics, and misses others when the words used were not an exact match.

(I'm also an indexer).

Glenda Browne