On Indexing and Indexers

The Office of Law Revision Counsel in the U.S. House of Representatives recently asked for input on the possible elimination of the print index of the U.S. Code.  A call for feedback went out on GovDoc-L and Law-Lib. Thoughtful postings on those listservs highlighted some of the benefits of the print index.  Some of the public comments made on the listservs included feedback from state librarians and librarians serving rural areas with possible limited access to the commercially produced and indexed U.S.CA. and U.S.C.S.  The length of the Code and the difficulty of accessing relevant material without an index were also cited as a reason to continue the index. 

As a former indexer, this discussion had me thinking about the profession of indexing. Indexing is a profession often forgotten in both the library and publishing community. Not all users of indexes know the care and attention that professional indexers give to their work. An index the size of the U.S. Code would likely demand the attention of many, many indexers over a long period of time.  Indexers read the material they index carefully, line by line, looking for key words to be used in the index.  Some subject areas have terms of art that are well-defined with little ambiguity in what a word means and are easy to index.  Electronically, searches in these materials will yield relevant hits as long as the user knows the terms of art used.  Other areas, such as law, are often rich with ambiguity.   The health care reform law, much debated and subject to litigation at all levels, is The Patient Protection and Affordable Care Act.  Few users would search for the act by name (though Popular Names Indexes are great for this.)  Most will search health care reform and hope for a hit or go to the letter H in the print index where the indexer would have posted material on Health Care Reform or added a cross reference to the act’s full name where index entries would then yield the cites needed to find the information.  One listserv comment on the possible elimination of the print index to the U.S. Code gave a state example where “divorce” is not a term in the state code.  Users must know, absent the index, to look for “dissolution of marriage” to find information about divorce.  I haven’t looked at the print index to the U.S. Code recently but suspect we can all find examples that both bolster the argument for the need of an index or cases where a table of contents would lead to the same provision without an index.

An indexer once described to me the serendipity of indexing. To him, browsing topics under an index heading also allowed users to find related information they didn’t know they wanted or needed since the index entries were near one another.  That reminds me of the serendipity of browsing in the stacks.  Users may be looking for a title and have the call number but see, neatly arranged before of after the book they need, another title they hadn’t thought of that is of use to them in their research.

Anyone looking for more information on indexing should check out the American Society for Indexing (ASI) at http://www.asindexing.com.  ASI recently held their annual meeting with programs including “Indexing as Art: Impressionism vs. Perfectionism,” “E-books and Indexes,” and “What Constitutes a Passing Mention,” and many other topics – a smart group of people.

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