20 January 2007


Foreword to Heather Hedden's upcoming book

I was asked to write the foreword to Heather Hedden's upcoming Indexing Specialties: Web Sites, to be published in 2007 by ITI. Given the importance of this book in the indexing industry, I am reprinting that foreword here. For more information on the book itself (not yet available), visit either ASI's publications page or a list of ITI's indexing publications.

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Indexing is not a popular profession by any stretch of the imagination. Not only is it almost completely unknown in lay circles, but let's be honest: writing indexes sounds about as exciting as cleaning the house, but a hundred times harder. Also, if you were born in any year before 1990, the idea of Web indexing sounds like cleaning a house in outer space. I mean, there are no houses in outer space.

The Internet and the Web -- this monstrously huge and growing system of sharing data -- desperately need more information sorcerers like Heather Hedden. Not only does Heather have the talent to recognize when knowledge is missing, but she also has the ability to make that knowledge visible. She starts by learning for herself, and then she loves to share.

Heather and I first crossed paths in my classroom, where I taught a course called "Writing Indexes for Books and Websites." My course was written to explore the questions and theories of indexing, and so couldn't be limited to just books. Heather’s interest went much further, and since then she has explored writing web indexes as a singular discipline. For me, Heather has been a student, an apprentice, and a role model. She's someone I count on to get things done. She has vaulted across the lines from library science to book indexing to web indexing, each time with surprising success, and has since become a renowned and respected expert in the web indexing community.

Indexing Specialties: Web Sites is a book filled with honest, get-it-done advice. Heather is not afraid to talk about the code and the tools, because she has faith in her readers. In her hands, the complicated stuff looks straightforward. Besides, when the technical lessons are over, Heather shows readers how to think about web indexing as well: as a process and as a business. Until now, if book indexers wanted to graduate to the Internet frontier, they had no unified place of reference, no single source of everything they'd want to know. In fact, some of the tools Heather includes in this book were almost completely unknown to indexers until now.

I am excited and pleased to see Heather compiling this knowledge in a book. She has put into print an indexer's Rosetta Stone, which will lead book indexers toward other information management topics like taxonomies, information architecture, and search tools. It's not about complicated coding practices and computer programs, but about the guidelines to getting that A-to-Z index published on the Internet, and doing it right.

She begins by exploring the boundaries of web site indexing, clarifying what kinds of sites need indexing, how they should look, and how they should work. Then she immediately provides the HTML building blocks to making your indexes appear on the Web, the surprisingly simple code you'd need to create index pages, index entries, indentations, hyperlinks, and cross-reference links. If you've never programmed on the Web before and are afraid it's over your head, you’ll be kicking yourself once you see how easy Heather makes it.

Once you're armed with the grammar, you next need the tools to actually write. Heather gives you the detail about the tools (
CINDEX, HTML Indexer, HTML/Prep, Macrex, SKY Index Professional, and XRefHT) to create or generate indexes that are ready for web publication. She takes more time exploring the specialized tools of XRefHT and HTML Indexer, two stand-alone web indexing applications, and shows how you can use their features with agility.

The last third of the book is dedicated to the "mindspace" of web indexing. There's more to indexing than just the tools, and so Heather writes carefully about how indexers should approach the job. She addresses the challenges of working out of order, adding anchors, indexing periodicals, and knowing which pages and at what level of detail you should index. She deals in detail with cross-references, language, subentry structure, and format. Finally, Heather dives into the nitty-gritty of the web indexing marketplace, including how to market yourself as a web site indexer.

Web Sites is going to satisfy you immediately and in the long term. On behalf of the American Society of Indexers -- and myself, personally -- I am honored to welcome Heather as an esteemed author in our community.

Seth Maislin
President of the American Society of Indexers (2006-2007)

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09 January 2007


Constructing a mysterious index

[NOTE: Edited on 6-9-07 to fix missing indentations for index entries. -SM]

For years I have puzzled over the possibility of writing an index, to an imaginary book, in which a mystery is revealed and potentially solved. The book itself would not have to be a mystery, but there would have to be some kind of secret.

For example, suppose you had these entries:

La Traviata, clandestine meeting at, 145
Marters, Francine
meeting at La Traviata, 145

From these entries you would learn that Francine Marters met someone at La Traviata surreptitiously. An additional entry

Rapiere, Evan
   accidental discovery of La Traviata matches, 166

implies not only that Evan was not the person at the restaurant, but also that Evan might have been the reason the secret was necessary. A final entry,

Pfiser, Victor
   confronted by Evan Rapiere, 231

allows for the possibility that Victor was the other person with Francine (on page 145), such that Evan's discovery of the matches led to this confrontation.

What would make an index like this potentially interesting as a puzzle would be (a) the randomization of information, caused by the alphabetization of entries; (b) the summary-style labels in the index, which must naturally leave out much of the story; (c) the creativity of the labels, which can emphasize or omit interesting facts without destroying the quality of the index itself; and (d) the ability to tell many overlapping and long stories across just a few pages.

On the other hand, what makes an index puzzle challenging -- and the reason I've had no success so far -- is that the index must articulate all the facts; an index can have no secrets if it's going to work as a puzzle. For example, if this were a murder mystery, wouldn't the murder have to be indexed? If the index is going to be a good one (and that's a requirement for me, because otherwise it would seem too contrived), you'd have to have entries like these:

Rapiere, Evan
   murder of, 235
Marters, Francine
   guilty confession of, 469

Is there any way that a legitimate index could obfuscate information sufficiently enough to leave some mystery? In a way, an index must be too "honest" to allow for secrets.

The other problem, opposite to the honesty problem described above, is that if an index isn't specific enough, it's impossible to put the facts together in the first place. For example, if I changed the matches entry above to this:

Rapiere, Evan
   accidental discovery of match book, 166

there's no way to connect this to La Traviata without help. Similarly, if I change the murder entry to simply this:

Rapiere, Evan, 235


Rapiere, Evan
   surprised by an intruder, 235

then there is nothing in the index to clarify that Evan actually died.

I'm looking for ideas on how to get around these challenges. How much integrity can the index maintain without either giving too much away or leaving too many holes in the story?


03 January 2007


My waitress, my audience

For some reason I felt like hugging my waitress this morning.

There’s a diner in my hometown that I visit up to three times weekly, while my daughter is at school. They know me here. I have my special table, my eminent domain, where I plug in my computer. Kathleen, my regular waitress, brings me coffee even as I sit down and tries to guess what I want for breakfast, with some accuracy. She knows my name, too, which I feel is the best part. So in this new year, after I happily kissed 2006 good-bye, I was inspired to welcome my diner lifestyle in true living style. “Kathleen, can I give you a hug?” I asked, and she said yes.

Then we get to talking. Her age, my age. Her career path, my career path. The kinds of things people always talk about at the start of a new year. To sum up her half of the conversation in just one sentence, I’d write this: She came to the realization that at the age of 54, if she had taken her father’s advice and gotten a job at the phone company when she was 20, she would be retired instead of working at the diner. (I have to add that she’s never had a vacation in her entire life, except for two weeks when this diner was closed temporarily, and that her job pays no benefits.)

As a self-employed indexer working voluntarily where she works, what can I tell her?

First, I tell her that my profession is dominated by women over the age of 45. Many of these women raised their children and wanted to do something different with their lives. Many felt oppressed by their imaginings of the traditional workplace, or were afraid of having insufficient skill to reenter the job market. Others no longer had the financial support of a spouse and simply needed to find work to stay comfortable, or even solvent. I see these women at every indexing meeting and in my classrooms. Almost all had never heard of indexing before, and they’re giving it a try. After all, being self-employed and reading books sounds a lot better than being buried in a cubicle.

Then I tell her that once you’re truly self-employed, making enough money to pay monthly bills and quarterly taxes, in your life you will never experience unemployment again. You can’t be fired, you can’t be laid off, and you can’t be transferred to another division, location, building, team, or employer—not without first choosing it for yourself. As long as you have your core skills, you’re not much different from a child who can entertain himself with sticks, sand, and even an empty parking lot: the world is your workplace.

Finally, I tell her that in my profession, everything I have every learned (and continue to learn) has a direct application to my job performance. My grandfather says “no knowledge is ever wasted,” and in my case he’s literally correct. Every conversation I have gives me better background on people and information, and every experience provides me with a potential story to share with my students.

It’s not hard for me to be positive about what I do, because I love what I do. There are lot of perks, too, from being my own boss to sitting at my favorite table in the diner, where I am now. Kathleen, on the other hand, is pretty grumpy about her job. She gripes about a lack of benefits, a dearth of Social Security earnings, a regular 5:30am wake-up call. I have no doubt that I have it better than she does, at least in these ways.

If there’s a professional lesson for me here, it’s that Kathleen is my audience. She is the person who reads the books I index, the person who might sit in my classroom. I have to remember that if I do my job correctly, I am building a bridge from me, the college-educated small business owner who works off his laptop, to people like her. The gap in our lives is the challenge I face every time I sit down to invent a keyword, and index entry, or a label for a hyperlink.

In the world of indexing, these life differences are surmountable.

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