Lisa Fedorak was looking through a book about the novelist Carol Shields when she came across a phrase that made her pause. The author of the book was explaining how novelists often use an “orgasmic pattern” of storytelling, building the action to a climax. Like other feminist writers of her day, the author argued, Shields was trying to overturn that convention and try something new.
Hmm, orgasmic pattern, Ms. Fedorak thought. She made a note for later reference.
Her interest was purely professional. Ms. Fedorak is an indexer, a member of the caste of dedicated, meticulous, inquisitive, proudly nerdy folks who make their living compiling the alphabetized reference list you find at the back of non-fiction books.
For generations, they have laboured in obscurity, combing through works of history, biography, botany and cookery for names that need mentioning and subjects that should be grouped together so that readers can look them up. The world scarcely knows they exist. Some readers assume authors themselves do the indexing (most farm it out to pros). Others think a machine is in charge. Indexers are accustomed to being asked: Doesn’t a computer do that?
Lately, though, indexers have been getting a few well-deserved minutes in the sun. A new book with a clever title – Index, A History of the – explores how this useful occupation came to be and why it still has value. Its author, Dennis Duncan, a lecturer at University College London, calls his book “a wreath laid at the tomb of these unknown readers.”
He argues that even in the Age of Search, when our devices can summon galaxies of fact in the blink of an eye, indexers remain essential knowledge guides, helping us navigate the books that still contain much of what we want to know.
“The professional indexer, learned, vigilant, goes before us, levelling mountains and beating paths so that we, time-poor students at the fingerpost, can arrive swiftly but unruffled at the passage – the quotation, the datum, the knowledge – we need,” he writes.
The index has its origins in ancient universities and religious orders. Clerics and scholars needed a way to find what was important in the works they studied. The first concordance (or list of words present in a text) of the Bible emerged from the monastery of St. Jacques in Paris in 1230. Across the Channel in England, a renowned theologian and teacher, Robert Grosseteste, produced an ingenious subject index for the Bible and many other works. Called the Tabula, it used a system of symbols to guide readers to the words they were seeking.
Two developments we now take for granted – the numbering of pages in a book and the widespread use of alphabetical order – helped the index evolve into the standard format we see today.
At first, many serious people thought that the index would make people stupid, allowing them to skip to what they wanted without the bother of actually reading the work. Jonathan Swift complained that a reader who claimed to understand a book by scanning its index was like a traveller describing a palace “when he had seen nothing but the privy.”
Others used early indexes to conduct feuds, peppering the indexes of rivals’ works with witty insults. “Let no damned Tory index my History!” the 19th-century Whig politician Thomas Babington Macaulay is reported to have exclaimed, fearing some hostile indexer would befoul his monumental History of England.
Over time, though, the index was accepted as a necessary component of any respectable book, as much a part of it as a title page or table of contents. Along the way, indexing became a profession, with training seminars, professional associations, annual conferences and all the rest.
Indexers have been practising their trade from before the birth of the printing press and its essence is little changed: read, absorb, organize. “It’s a problem-solving process,” says Fedorak, who lives in Vancouver. “Each book is different, which means each index is different.”
She starts off by asking herself: What is this book about? Who is the audience and what will they be looking for? She writes down some terms readers will expect. Then she reads through the book, usually on a PDF format. As she begins to master the material, she chooses what will be a major heading, or metatopic, and what is a subheading. In a biography of Winston Churchill, the Second World War would rate a major heading, the Allied invasion of Sicily a subheading.
All the while, she must be thinking of different kinds of readers. Some will be new to the subject, others well-versed. The index must be useful to both. Some will be using the index before they read the book, hoping to find a nugget of information they need. Others will be coming back to the book, hoping to find that quote they loved but can’t quite remember.
It’s close, mentally taxing work, but Fedorak likes it. A former visual artist, she went into indexing five years ago. “I get paid to read books,” she says. “It’s good for a curious person.” Among her recent projects was a book on African cinema.
Indexing software has taken some of the drudgery out, allowing indexers to search, sort and edit much more easily than the days of pen and index cards. But no program can yet match the flesh-and-blood indexer’s skill for evaluating and categorizing.
“The work of compiling a subject index is still, principally a subjective, humanistic one. It is a job of deep reading, of working to understand a text in order to make the most judicious selection of its key elements,” Duncan writes in his history.
Most indexers are freelance and most are women. Quite a few are also librarians or book editors. Many have specialties, such as cookbooks or theology. They take their job seriously. The Indexing Society of Canada declined to hand out its annual award this year because it decided no index reached the required level of excellence.
“What we are looking for is that elusive quality of elegance. Elegance is that sense that there is an unusual clarity, a memorable ease of use, a succinctness, or even a strikingly simple presentation of difficult ideas,” the society said.
The American Society for Indexing is just as exacting. It says that an index must have a number of qualities to rate its annual award: “Succinctness; the right word in the right place – even if the word isn’t found in the text; a certain ‘charm’; visual appeal; a sense that the index contains exactly what it needs to, no more, no less; simplicity; grace.”
Those are not things you expect to find in an average Google search. For all the amazing power of modern search engines, they don’t arrange the results in the orderly, rational way a good index does. In the Internet’s early days, someone called it the world’s biggest library, run by drunks.
“I think the greatest value that an index offers is that it is curated and carefully constructed,” said award-winning Edmonton indexer Stephen Ullstrom in an e-mail. “Search, in contrast, whether in a PDF or ebook or on a search engine, is quite a crude tool. It requires the user to do the hard work of evaluating each hit for relevance, which gets unwieldy beyond 10 or 20 hits.”
The search functions on ebooks tend to be unsatisfying. Readers can search quickly by keyword, but that’s not the same as having contents organized by subject. Many ebooks have no index. Or they have an index from the print version, which doesn’t work well for a product with no page numbers.
That may change as ebooks evolve and AI grows more powerful. For now though, it is hard to match the ease of finding something in the index of a physical book and thumbing through it to the right page. Readers have been doing it since Dickens was a boy, most of them giving no thought whatever to those who make it possible.
Fedorak pondered for a while about what to do with “orgasmic pattern.” She was indexing Relating Carol Shields’s Essays and Fiction: Crossing Borders, a soon-to-be-published collection of essays edited by Alberta scholar Nora Foster Stovel. She decided that it made a good heading – better than another term she found, “ejaculatory mode” – but not perhaps a main heading. She put it under plot. The index item will read:
Freytag’s triangle, 237
narrative arc, 7, 17, 152
the orgasmic pattern, 16, 20
rejection of the traditional plot, 17
replace plot, 150
surprise endings, 102
the spatula, 7, 16, 237, 238
The spatula? You’ll have to look it up – and thanks to Fedorak and her underappreciated craft, you can.
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