Friday 12 November 2021

October Event - Emma Coonan - What to expect when you're indexing

 Our AGM speaker was former Cambridge librarian and academic Dr Emma Coonan, speaking about her career move into an area which most of us haven’t given much thought to, while being closely related to what cataloguers do every day. We take the presence of an index in a non-fiction book for granted, without giving a great deal of thought, unless it is non-existent or badly done and doesn’t help us to find what we are looking for. While indexing and cataloguing have many similarities, Emma was surprised by the differences as well.

There is a great deal more to an index that simply a list of the page references where a particular term appears, which could be done by a computer, but which would not actually give us all the leads to what we actually need. A good indexer has to provide conceptual analysis, bringing together topics in a way which will help the user. Unlike a cataloguer, who has a set of predefined subject headings, a controlled vocabulary, which they can apply to the work in hand, whether or not the term appears in the title or even the work, the indexer does not, they have to use their own judgment. They have to assess the content and choose the headings which they feel the user is most likely to find helpful, so in both cases a knowledge of who the reader is can help. An indexer has an additional matter to consider, the publisher, since they are generally employed on a freelance basis by the publisher or author, who may have their own agenda and ideas, distinct from the end user of the book. 

Emma stressed that the most important thing in indexing is to try and think yourself into the mind of the potential reader, what are they likely to be looking for, and how? The example she gave was St Thomas Aquinas. Will the reader look under S for Saint, Thomas, or Aquinas? A cataloguer would choose the controlled term, and there would be a cross reference from other possibilities, but an indexer could put the page references in the index under all options to save the reader time. Do you have references to him as a theologian, a philosopher, a Dominican friar? That might depend on how detailed the book and its intended readership is. 

As a practical exercise, Emma gave us some paragraphs and asked the audience to suggest how they would index them. Everybody made different choices as to what was the key topic. (This reminded me of library school, where 12 people came up with 20 possible Dewey numbers!)  A general work might have very simple headings, while a highly technical book will need multiple subheadings under a primary term. Ideally there should not be too many page references for each topic, preferably not more than 6 according to the Society of Indexers. If there are more, consider further subdividing the heading into facets. 

Emma recommended the Society of Indexer’s basic online course for those wanting to know more about indexing work, before considering the full 4 module course. She also drew our attention to a new book on the history of indexing by Dennis Duncan – Index, a history of the. 

Post contributed by Dr Sarah Preston - Assistant College Librarian - Sidney Sussex College