My Last Index (Is Search A Form of Discrimination?)

My Last Index by Judith Pascoe.

From the post:

A casual reader of authors’ acknowledgment pages will encounter expressions of familial gratitude that paper over years of spousal neglect and missed cello recitals. A keen reader of those pages may happen upon animals that were essential to an author’s well-being—supportive dogs, diverting cats, or, in one instance, “four very special squirrels.” But even an assiduous reader of acknowledgments could go a lifetime without coming across a single shout-out to a competent indexer.

That is mostly because the index gets constructed late in the book-making process. But it’s also because most readers pay no mind to indexes, especially at this moment in time when they are being supplanted by Amazon and Google. More and more, when I want to track down an errant tidbit of information about a book, I use Amazon’s “Search inside this book” function, which allows interested parties to access a book’s front cover, copyright, table of contents, first pages (and sometimes more), and index. But there’s no reason to even use the index when you can “Look Inside!” to find anything you need.

I had plenty of time to ponder the unsung heroism of indexers when I was finishing my latest book. Twice before, I had assembled an indexer’s tools of trade: walking down the stationery aisles of a college book store, pausing to consider the nib and color of my Flair pens, halting before the index cards. But when I began work on this index, I was overcome with thoughts of doom that Nancy Mulvany, author of Indexing Books, attributes to two factors that plague self-indexing authors: general fatigue and too much self-involvement. “Intense involvement with one’s book,” Mulvany writes, “can make it very difficult to anticipate the index user’s needs accurately.”

Perhaps my mood was dire because I’d lost the services of my favorite proofreader, a woman who knew a blackberry from a BlackBerry, and who could be counted on to fix my flawed French. Perhaps it was because I was forced to notice how often I’d failed to include page citations in my bibliography entries, and how inconsistently I’d applied the protocol for citing Web sites—a result of my failure to imagine a future index user so needy as to require the exact date of my visit to theirvingsociety.org.uk. Or perhaps it was because my daughter was six months away from leaving home for college and I was missing her in advance.

Perhaps for all of those reasons, I could only see my latest index as a running commentary on the fragility of all human endeavor. And so I started reading indexes while reluctantly compiling my own.

A highly instructive tale on the importance of indexing (and hiring a professional indexer) that includes this reference to Jonathan Swift:


Jonathan Swift, in his 1704 A Tale of a Tub, describes two means of using books: “to serve them as men do lords—learn their titles exactly and then brag of their acquaintance,” or “the choicer, the profounder and politer method, to get a thorough insight into the index, by which the whole book is governed and turned, like fishes by the tail.”

In full context, the Swift passage is even more amusing:


The whole course of things being thus entirely changed between us and the ancients, and the moderns wisely sensible of it, we of this age have discovered a shorter and more prudent method to become scholars and wits, without the fatigue of reading or of thinking. The most accomplished way of using books at present is twofold: either first to serve them as some men do lords, learn their titles exactly, and then brag of their acquaintance; or, secondly, which is indeed the choicer, the profounder, and politer method, to get a thorough insight into the index by which the whole book is governed and turned, like fishes by the tail. For to enter the palace of learning at the great gate requires an expense of time and forms, therefore men of much haste and little ceremony are content to get in by the back-door. For the arts are all in a flying march, and therefore more easily subdued by attacking them in the rear. Thus physicians discover the state of the whole body by consulting only what comes from behind. Thus men catch knowledge by throwing their wit on the posteriors of a book, as boys do sparrows with flinging salt upon their tails. Thus human life is best understood by the wise man’s rule of regarding the end. Thus are the sciences found, like Hercules’ oxen, by tracing them backwards. Thus are old sciences unravelled like old stockings, by beginning at the foot. (The Tale of a Tub by Jonathan Swift)

Searching, as opposed to indexing (good indexing at any rate), is the equivalent of bragging of the acquaintance of a lord. Yes, you did find term A or term B in the text, but you don’t know what other terms appear in the text, nor do you know what other statements were made about term A or term B.

Search is at best a partial solution and one that varies based on the skill of the searcher.

Indexing, on the other hand, can reflect an accumulation of insights, made equally available to all readers.

Hmmm, equally made available to all readers.

Is search a form of discrimination?

Is search a type of access with disproportionate (read disadvantageous) impact on some audiences and not others?

Any research on the social class, racial, ethnic impact of search you would suggest?

All leads and tips appreciated!

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