Category Archives: 2016

Society of Indexers conference 2016

For the first time in many years the SI conference was a one-day event. The venue, The Studio, Cannon Street, Birmingham, was a smart refurbishment of a 19th century building.

Ann Kingdom opened the conference and introduced the first session on ‘Ethics in Indexing’, based on Heather Ebbs’ presentation at the 2015 conference (Ebbs 2016). The discussions that followed were an ice-breaker for the many new and student indexers who attended the conference. Split into groups led by experienced indexers we discussed six ethical dilemmas: censorship of the index by the author, indexer beliefs clashing with an author’s, the quality of another indexer’s work, a lack of skill or subject expertise, making a table of contents into an index, and a client putting down the work of another indexer. The groups then reported their comments. This session was food for thought for everyone present.

The second session was a lecture by Alastair Horne, which looked back on, and predicted the future of, digital publishing. The previous five years had not turned out at all as Alastair had expected and the lack of e-book innovation was disappointing. It all comes down to costs and consumers are not keen on paying for additional content, because their expectations have been trained to expect e-books to be much cheaper than printed versions. He predicted that the future may hold fragmentation of the digital market with more formats sharing the publishing space. This could include an increasing diversity of routes to market. Crowdfunding sites, like Unbound, can introduce new authors to new reading markets. Subscription models need work on how to charge for a service that most subscribers actually use, unlike gyms, which make money from a service that most subscribers do not use. Serialisation takes us back to the days of Charles Dickens, where readers pay for parts of a book at a time. Scholarly publishing is also undergoing a period of change and development. New university presses, such as White Rose University Press, are publishing monographs and journals with a view to providing free access to digital content, without impacting on quality of content and standards of production. Knowledge Unlatched is also intent on providing free content through subscribing academic libraries.

After lunch we settled down for Dennis Duncan’s talk entitled ‘Filthy Talk, p. 2: scenes from the history of indexing’. The title was taken from a hand-written index he found in an early printed book. He covered early Bible concordances and how they contributed to the development of indexing and then offered cases of how 17th and early 18th century indexers used their political position or academic knowledge to create indexes that enraged the authors. This took us neatly back to the start of the conference and our discussion of ethics in indexing. The first example covered Boyle against Bentley, a collective effort to discredit Richard Bentley. Bentley had had the audacity to criticize Charles Boyle’s edition of the ancient Greek ‘Epistles of Phalaris’, stating that Boyle did not realise that the epistles were fake. The book includes a four page index of Bentley’s characteristics, for example, ‘His Egregious Dulness, p. 74…’ and ‘His Collection of Asinine Proverbs, p. 220’. Bentley may have been dull, but recent scholarship has shown he was correct and the Epistles were fake. In The Transactioneer, published in 1700, William King drew attention to the silliness he felt was contained in letters published by the Royal Society in their Philosophical Transactions. He used ironic and witty entries in a table of contents to highlight their lack of scientific thinking. In 1718, when clergyman Laurence Echard published his three volume History of England, he had not counted on his indexer taking issue with its politics and undermining the work with a series of subversive, occasionally sarcastic, index entries. Echard’s is a Tory version of English history and John Oldmixon – the indexer hired by Echard’s publisher, was a radical Whig. Much more of this sort of thing will be at the symposium on the history of the book index that Dennis is organising next year.

A choice of workshops completed the afternoon sessions. Janice Rayment presented two sessions on ‘Indexing with InDesign’. Panel-led discussions on ‘Indexing dilemmas’ and ‘Getting started’ were alternative choices for experienced and new indexers. The new indexers and trainees asked sensible and searching questions. After another round of coffee, those who did not attend the second part of Janice’s workshop could choose between ‘Working more efficiently: editing the index’ with Ann Hudson or ‘From plot to plate: indexing gardening and cookery books’ by Michèle Clarke-Moody. Michèle gave a rapid and thorough coverage of issues related to indexing gardening and cookery books, some of which I have had to use since the conference, how timely was that.

The conference closed and a thunderstorm of biblical proportions broke over Birmingham.

Conference season – that back to school feeling

Next week the Society of Indexers is holding its annual conference in Birmingham. It has the title Back to the Future.  But I don’t think it involves fast cars and time travel (more’s the pity, but I will be taking the train). This will be the third time I have attended the Society’s conference. Why should a trained, professional indexer want or need to do this? What might I get out of it to help me in future? I think there are three main reasons:

  1. There’s always something new to learn: on a one day event there’s only so much that can be done. I’m looking forward to hearing from Dennis Duncan on the history of indexing, and learning from Michele Clark-Moody more on cookery and gardening book indexing. Reflecting on how things were done in the past is always a way of informing present practice, and hearing from an expert is a good way to refine one’s own approach. I like working on cookery books, and maybe I can expand into gardening titles too.
  2. Networking: Meeting people who otherwise only appear to live on email message groups is always fun. I’ve met many before but new friends can be made in the spaces between sessions.
  3. Giving a bit back: As a relative newcomer to indexing I’m taking part in the session for new indexers and how to get started. A small panel of similar folk will hopefully be giving useful tips to even newer indexers and those still on the training course.

The one-day format packs a lot in. We’re also discussing ethics in indexing (censorship by authors, clashing with authors’ beliefs, quality of other indexer’s work, lack of skill or subject expertise, table of contents indexes). We have a Code of Professional Conduct which we all abide by, but perhaps sometimes situations force us to consider it very carefully. And we are also taking a look at digital publishing, backwards and forwards to the future.

Cook books and indexing

Earlier this year I was asked to make an index for a baking book written by a YouTuber (yes that is a word, it’s in the dictionary). So I did the job and ended up a bit puzzled. There were plenty of recipes for cakes, cookies and cheesecakes, but they were a bit ‘easy’, no complicated techniques, no hard-to-find ingredients, not many flavours, and I wondered faintly why anyone had bothered to make the book. So I put the work behind me and got on with other things and wasn’t even tempted to try making any of them.

Last Friday, 1st July, while Britain and Europe were still reeling from Brexit, I was labouring over an index for a book about medieval trade across the North Sea, and on the day the destruction of the Somme was remembered (wasn’t #wearehere fabulous? I wish I’d been able to see some of the young men myself), Tanya Bakes was launched. And I finally got why the book was written, it’s not a book for my demographic at all, it’s a cookery book for people who want straightforward, simple, feelgood recipes, with nice pictures. It’s for girls (and boys) who want to thank their mum or dad or sister, or nan or uncle or teacher and make them a few cookies. It’s for friends who want to spend an hour together to make something before settling down to watch a movie. It’s for anyone who wants to make cheesecake or party pudding or a cake you can stick sparklers in. There’s not much in the way of fancy icing to be done and it shows it is OK to put sweets on cakes if that’s what you want to do. If you want recipes for Nutella or put peanut butter in something, you’ll find something to help you.

Twitter went mad. #TanyaBakes was used by people expressing their excitement at having received their copy, saying they were going to one of the book signings she has arranged, and more importantly perhaps, showing off their bakes. So it’s not my demographic, but I’ve got to congratulate Tanya if she encourages people to try a few things for themselves. It’s not a book to grab and use every day, I had to laugh a little at the person who put a review on Amazon complaining about the amount of sugar, but in moderation it has got good points.

And I made some brownies. Tanya’s most ‘exotic’ recipe uses coconut sugar and coconut oil, I swapped that out for brown and white sugar and some butter, but I did put in the half an avocado. Here’s a piece with some raspberries out of my garden and a bit of cream.


100 best non-fiction books – catch up time

For 2016 Author Robert McCrum has compiled a list of the 100 best non-fiction books. These are “key texts in English that have shaped our literary culture and made us who we are”, in the Anglo-American English language tradition, the list covers “essential works of philosophy, drama, history, science and popular culture”.

A bumper set of three to look at this week:

9) Michael Herr – Dispatches – no index to check.

8) Edward Said – Orientalism – Lots to look at in this index.

  • Titles of works of literature, music etc in italic  to draw the eye to them
  • Titles also include name of author in brackets to clarify exactly which version the book refers to. Might not be entirely necessary but can be useful to readers
  • Some entries have too many locators, somewhere around 5 to 7 is the ideal maximum, too many and readers can’t remember them. It may also indicate too many minor mentions.
  • Run-on subheadings may be the publisher’s preferences but too many can make them hard to read.
  • Use of cross-references to guide reader. The author refers to Lord Cromer in the text, rather than Evelyn Baring, so the index uses a see cross-reference from “Baring, Evelyn” to “Cromer, Evelyn Baring, Lord”. A further refinement might have been to use the full form of address as “Cromer, Evelyn Baring, Earl of” but full forms of address are sometimes a step too far.

A good example of an index where the indexer and publisher had many choices to make, and other decisions could have made a different, but just as valid, index.

7) Tom Wolfe – The Right Stuff – No index so far as I can see.

100 best non-fiction books – A Brief History of Time

For 2016 Author Robert McCrum has compiled a list of the 100 best non-fiction books. These are “key texts in English that have shaped our literary culture and made us who we are”, in the Anglo-American English language tradition, the list covers “essential works of philosophy, drama, history, science and popular culture”. Here are my comments on the index in this week’s volume.

Steven Hawking’s book is the one that many have bought but (relatively) few have finished and gave its name to the ‘Hawking Index‘. A quick peep inside the book courtesy of Amazon shows that there is an index to help readers around the text. But note you’re looking at the 1988 version of the text, the current 2011 version may be different.

A few things to note:

  • A capital letter is used for every heading. While this is not ‘wrong’, it can make it hard for the reader’s eye to differentiate between people’s names, titles of things that usually have capitals, and other things. It might have been better to follow the usage in the book, for example ‘big bang’ on page 9 is lower case, not with an initial capital.
  • Subheadings are not used consistently, there are lots of cases of entries with long strings of locators and no subheadings and other entries that have very few locators that have subheadings. Rule of thumb is no more than about 5 or 6 entries at each heading or subheading so that the reader can easily remember them without having to go back to the index. There are cases when more is acceptable, often when space is limited, but really there should be enough space for all the subheadings required.
  • Plurals are not used where they should be. Entries for things that are countable are usually given in the plural form. This index has a heading ‘Star’ with a see also cross reference to ‘Neutron stars’. Much better to have plural for both.
  • Some of the cross references are unnecessary and would have been better as subheadings to the main heading they are referred from, for example the ‘Neutron stars’ example above. Neutron stars could remain as a heading in its own right.

A better index might have helped a few more people finish this book.

100 best non-fiction books – Birthday Letters

The letters in question are in fact poems by Ted Hughes. The current printing does not appear to include an index. You might think that poetry volumes don’t need one. However, some poetry books include indexes of first lines as these may be better known that the titles of the poems. The reader is therefore helped by having the titles at the front and the first lines at the back. The lines are usually given as they stand in the text. Here’s a quick sample from the poems, might they make you want to read the poems more than the titles alone?

Lucas my friend, one
Our magazine was merely an overture
Stupid with confidence, in the playclothes
What were those caryatids bearing?
Where was it, in the Strand?

100 best non-fiction books – Dreams from My Father

A quick place-holding blogette – Amazon/the publisher don’t let us look all the way inside this book so I’ll have to try and find a real hard copy in a library or book shop and check it out to see if there even is an index in it. Who knows, I might even end up reading it. The Guardian review suggests that the author is indeed a real human being, something the current candidates for his position could do well to remember.


100 best non-fiction books – The Year of Magical Thinking

For 2016 Author Robert McCrum has compiled a list of the 100 best non-fiction books. These are “key texts in English that have shaped our literary culture and made us who we are”, in the Anglo-American English language tradition, the list covers “essential works of philosophy, drama, history, science and popular culture”.

Indexers love lists too, usually of words to put into indexes. So I thought I’d run a parallel list and take a look, where possible, inside the books at the indexes.

The second summary is of The Year of Magical Thinking by Joan Didion. Amazon usefully allows us to ‘look inside this volume. It doesn’t have an index, so what can I say about it?

This is a very intimate and personal memoir of a difficult time. The book is non-fiction because it is ‘a true story’ that happened to someone. In this case the editor deciding on whether to include an index would have to consider whether readers would want to be able to consult different parts of the book. What questions might they have? Which friends are mentioned? Which hospital/s was her daughter treated in? What medical treatments are suggested and given? What emotions does the author describe? Is this enough to warrant the inclusion of an index? In this case, perhaps not because of the personal nature of the story.

Not all non-fiction needs an index but the decision has to be taken carefully. In memoirs it is often the case that the author has dropped the names of everyone they ever met, places they went, food they ate, and things they did. But a book like this dealing with an episode in a person’s life don’t fall into that category.


100 best non-fiction books – The Sixth Extinction: An Unnatural History

Newspapers love lists of books, usually in the form of end-year-round-ups of best-selling and notable new books. However, for 2016 Author Robert McCrum has compiled a list of the 100 best non-fiction books. These are “key texts in English that have shaped our literary culture and made us who we are”, in the Anglo-American English language tradition, the list covers “essential works of philosophy, drama, history, science and popular culture”.

Indexers love lists too, usually of words to put into indexes. So I thought I’d run a parallel list and take a look, where possible, inside the books at the indexes.

The first summary was published today, 1st February 2016 and he chose The Sixth Extinction: An Unnatural History by Elizabeth Kolbert. Amazon usefully allows us to ‘look inside’ this volume. It does have an index, so what can I say about it?

  • It’s a book of over 300 pages, so it is a little disappointing to find an index of about 11 pages. A rule of thumb is about 5% of the pages should be index. So maybe it’s a bit skimpy, I can’t tell without reading the book.
  • The index is in set-out layout, with indented sub-headings one under another. This is generally a good thing as it is easier on the reader’s eye to see what is in those subheadings.
  • Headings include names of people, organisations, animals, plants and subjects, which is a good range of coverage.
  • Where species are named, they have been given separate sub-headings under the main heading. In some cases this gives lots of sub-entries with information all on the same page, which looks a little odd and strings out entries which could have been more compact. Would a reader looking up ‘worms’ want to differentiate between ‘burrowing’ and ‘earthworms’ before heading into the text? Maybe, maybe not. The rule of thumb is more than five locators could be split down into subheadings, but in this case they have been consistent.
  • Some headings have gathered longer strings of locators, for example ‘dinosaurs’ has 12 locators. Without subheadings we don’t know what she says about those dinosaurs.
  • Headings often have locators and sub-headings. This isn’t wrong as my indexing software tells me it is when I start editing a draft of an index, but if a heading justifies having any sub-headings, it can be more useful for the reader to have all the locators entered into sub-headings, especially if there are more than five locators at the main heading. The locators at the main heading are sometimes the most important parts, sometimes they are the most minor ones that don’t fit with the sub-headings. The reader doesn’t know which they are and it can be frustrating. If space and time are not an issue it can be good to clear the locators away from the main heading into sub-headings or reduce them to the main entries only and highlight them if possible.

Looking at indexes by other people always makes me think about how I would approach a similar text. Writing an index is an art as well as a skill, and we are often constrained by time, money, space and the requirements of the press or the author. Every indexer will create a slightly different index, for any given text.