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Indexers, like editors, regularly run into people who think human indexers have been replaced by computers. “Doesn’t Word have an indexing function?” they ask. “Can’t it index the book I’ve just written?” Those same people might also ask, “Why do I need an index when I can do a text search?”
The short answer is that indexers don’t just index books—they also index websites, databases, archives, periodicals, and anything else that can be classified and arranged so users are able to locate information.
This variety was on display when the Indexing Society of Canada/Société canadienne d’indexation (ISC/SCI) met in Victoria on May 28 and 29, 2015. More than 50 indexers were in attendance, from eight provinces, eight American states, the United Kingdom, and Australia. Many were back-of-book (BoB) indexers; others were indexers of databases, government debates, websites, e-books, and even films and maps. All were treated to 11 sessions covering everything from general business topics (time management, disaster preparedness, financial management, international clients, new software and techniques, and marketing) to a short history of early indexing (with examples by John Foxe, Francis Bacon, and John Evelyn from the late 1500s and 1600s). Two presentations were on specific types of non-book indexing.
Raymond Frogner of the BC Archives gave a fascinating introduction to his current work, cataloguing the audio recordings (many on cassette tapes and reel-to-reel tapes), films, and papers collected by Ida Halpern, a Viennese music scholar who fled Nazi Germany and became “an accidental student of West Coast First Nation’s culture.” Frogner’s analysis involves consultation with Northwest Coast First Nations to translate the songs and stories Halpern collected and to establish the protocols for access to these materials, which must all be included in the index or other finding aids.
Rosalind Guldner and Julie McClung, from the Ontario and British Columbia Hansard offices, respectively, spoke about ethical indexing, a crucial aspect of their work. They analyze and classify the topics of parliamentary debates—featuring opposing MPPs or MLAs who are often rancorous, partisan, and off-topic—without bias, censorship, or distortion.
This last presentation, in particular, showed why indexers are not likely to be replaced by computers any time soon. Computers can search for a word the user specifies, or they can create a concordance (a list of all words that appear in a book) or an index that captures every reference to proper nouns. But they are not able to capture or collate the synonyms used by politicians and others who may be describing the same subject or event using very different words. As an example on the American Society for Indexers website explains: “A book on protective gloves for occupational use might have a chapter discussing surgical gloves, how they get punctured and how they are tested for integrity, but might never use the word holes. Yet a user of the book would expect to find this word in the index and be directed to the appropriate chapter.”
Indexers analyze a text or other content, picking out the main points and then breaking them down into specific aspects (which take the form of subheads) or combining similar points into one heading (with See or See also references from the terms that have been combined). By deconstructing the material they are working on, indexers try to imagine, and record, every access point readers or users might need to find their way to the desired information.
The skill and art that go into producing an index were honoured at the conference when ISC/SCI presented the inaugural Ewart-Daveluy Award for excellence in indexing. The winner was François Trahan for Ancient Pathways, Ancestral Knowledge by Nancy J. Turner (McGill-Queen’s University Press), a two-volume work on Indigenous uses and knowledge of plants in northwestern North America. Trahan indexed not only the scientific (Latin) and common (English) names of plants, but also material on linguistics, archaeology, geography, and botany, some of it in one of the more than 50 Indigenous languages of the region, with letters and diacritics that don’t necessarily correspond to the English alphabet. He produced two clear, easily used indexes (plant names and general), invaluable for this definitive botanical reference.
In effect, Trahan has illustrated the long answer to the question about computers replacing human indexers. Until a computer can recognize and combine synonyms, pronouns, and indirect references; recognize and differentiate between words that are spelled the same way but mean different things; and determine whether a reference is significant or trivial, humans will continue to produce the best, most useful indexes—and win awards for their skill.