This year’s conference was held in St Aidan’s College at the University of Durham, beginning on Friday 7 July and ending on Sunday 9 July. Overall, a very enjoyable event and the friendliest conference I have ever attended. I’ll definitely be going to London next year…
A number of people have provided reports on individual workshops and lectures. In addition to the sessions described in more detail below, we had a talk from Do Mi Stauber (author of Facing the text) to set the tone for the conference, an after-dinner speech on the local saints Aidan, Bede and Cuthbert on Friday night, a second peer review on an IT text organised by Anne Fencott, a very useful ‘Ask the Experts’ roadshow on Saturday afternoon and a well-attended talk entitled ‘It’s no laughing matter: humour in indexing’ from Ann Kingdom on Sunday morning. The final event, the Publishers and Editors Panel on Sunday morning, gave some insight into the way indexes are commissioned.
The AGM took place at the conference, but is the subject of a separate report.
Professor Byrne began by announcing that he understood what a difficult job indexing was because he had indexed his first two books himself. He had thankfully used a professional indexer for subsequent works however. He said that the fees for indexing are deducted from the author’s advance and so to a cash-strapped ex-student with an outstanding student loan there is a strong temptation to do the index oneself. He believes that if the fees were taken from royalties the temptation would be removed. In fact, other than for the authors of successful textbooks, the motives for writing books are to publish research and improve career prospects rather than to make money, and academic authors quickly realise that to index their own books is more trouble than it is worth.
He pointed out that new university lecturers are now required to take part in a programme of learning to teach and it would be worth while for the Society to make representations for the value of good indexes in recommended texts to be included in the course.
He referred to journal indexes, saying that he could not remember the last time he had used a printed journal index, and stressed the value of putting the index on line so they can be used in addition to search engines which are indiscriminate and produce an unmanageable volume of references.
Professor Byrne emphasised the importance of indexes at all stages of an academic career – from undergraduate onwards. Most people use academic books to find fairly small pieces of information or discussion and the index helps them to do this quickly and efficiently.
This was jointly presented by Val Mawhinney (Primary National Strategy Consultant) and Ann Cuthbert (Secondary National Strategy Consultant), both of the Education Development Service, Durham LEA. They provide advice and support to teachers on how to implement the National Strategies in their literacy teaching.
The first thing I noticed was the display of tempting books on a table at the front of the lecture hall. This included a ‘big book’ (oversized version of a picture book, for use in whole-class teaching) and several ‘six-packs’ (multiple copies of the same book, for use in small-group teaching). The second thing I noticed was that the aims of the literacy strategy are very ambitious; as Val explained in her presentation, children are expected to begin using indexes and other finding aids (eg contents pages) as soon as they start reading; by the end of Key Stage 2 (11 years old) they should be capable of not only using them, but composing indexes for texts they have written. Ann continued with the secondary strategy; by the middle of Key Stage 3 (about 13 years old) they are expected to be able to ‘...undertake independent research using a range of reading strategies, applying their knowledge of how texts and ICT databases are organised and acknowledging sources.’ I was impressed; I know university students who can’t do this.
Of course, you can lead a horse to water but you can’t make it drink; Ann commented that she had seen quite a few children (who had been carefully taught how to use an index) just flicking through a book to find the right place. Dare I confess that I do the same thing myself sometimes...?
The main message that I came away with was that the importance of finding aids such as indexes, bibliographies and catalogues is recognised in the educational world and the requirement to teach children how to use them is enshrined in national policies. This was a very positive note on which to start the day.
Professor Joan Abbott is interested in the way the brain works, and put together the talk prompted by information provided by indexers, mainly in the North East group of SI, including Drusilla Calvert. It involved a quick tour through the anatomy and function of the brain before focusing on the way the brain processes words and language, based on brain imaging studies reported in scientific papers. Related activities ‘map’ onto linked parts of the brain, but word structure, sound and meaning are processed in slightly different areas or combinations of areas. Indexing involves large parts of the brain cortex, and is a demanding high level intellectual activity that includes decision making and creative elements. Indexers often find it helps to pace themselves, e.g. with a treat after an intense session; such rewards help maintain ‘feelgood’ brain activity. Neuroscience may be able to offer suggestions for making the activity of indexing more efficient and enjoyable.
A dozen members of SI spent an exhilarating two hours at the University Library Special Collections which is housed in the Exchequer or Chancery Court building on Palace Green. Built in the later Middle Ages and altered and expanded over the centuries, the building contains Archbishop John Cosin’s library on the ground floor and several other collections housed over several floors and rooms including political papers, Sudan archives, ecclesiastical papers, scientific, oriental and architectural material and a good local history collection.
It is the third oldest founded library in England and apart from books and manuscripts it also contains photos, clothing, maps and, curiously, a deer collection including skeletons.
Several books were put on display for us to see and more importantly handle including early printed sermons and concordances, French Bibles, encyclopedias, Johnson’s Dictionary and a copy of a Tale of Tub by Swift with a reference to indexes.
We were shown all round the building which was beautifully old-fashioned with wonderful bookcases, mullioned windows and due to sinkage of the building over the centuries, room levels which bore no relation to the overall height of the building.
Admission is open to anyone wanting to consult material though as usual it is at the Librarian’s discretion. Further information may found on their web page: www.dur.ac.uk/library/asc/. Altogether a splendid afternoon enhanced by the fact that it was Gala day and the bands were playing on the Green so everyone was in party mood.
The first session I attended after lunch was a peer review led by Barbara Hird. Eleven members had compiled indexes to a passage from Lytton Strachey’s Eminent Victorians on the life of Florence Nightingale. Each index had been anonymised and circulated to the group beforehand so that we could compare the indexes at the session. The attendees ranged in age and experience, from trainees to well-established indexers, and we were also joined by the SI President, Professor John Sutherland.
The session began with Barbara asking for a list of points for discussion. Names, names, names! This text included several references to lords with no information on their full original names, e.g. Fox Maule became Lord Panmure. How much extra research should the indexer do to provide the full names in these cases? Place names could be another difficulty if the currently accepted name differs greatly from that used in the text.
The styles of the indexes varied considerably, with some choosing the run-on style and some the set-out style for subheadings. Styles further differed in how subheadings were ordered: would alphabetical or chronological order be better for the biographee’s entry? Indeed, should the biographee have a main heading at all? A major problem with alphabetically ordered subheadings was encountered when a name had a subheading for ‘death’ near the start of their entry, which was then seemingly followed by their many subsequent achievements. The suggestion that a subheading of ‘went and died’ would at least be at the end of the entry was well received here!
Many other interesting points were raised and no doubt we all learned a great deal from considering the varying approaches. A peer review is a great learning experience: a rare opportunity to compare one’s standard of work with that of other indexers and to assimilate all their best ideas!
This seminar on web design was principally aimed at those who already knew something about the subject.
Tanya began with a brief history of the Web, as originally conceived by the British Tim Berners Lee, and then moved on to different web standards. I discovered that HTML is short for “Hyper Text Mark up Language”. She covered her subject in quite some depth in the short time allotted, dealing with such necessary matters as mark-up language, nesting tags, document structure, text, links and images.
Tanya’s presentation was very professional, from someone who was clearly at ease with her subject, and those with the required depth of knowledge would doubtless have found it very useful.
This was a session of relaxation, Pilates and Yoga techniques aimed at reducing the potential health hazards of working at a computer for long periods.
Wendy Lake, who is a Yoga teacher, started by explaining what injuries and long-term damage we could be causing by poor posture and lack of exercise in our working habits. We spent most of the session sitting or lying on the floor and were given some simple introductory techniques in both yoga and Pilates for improving posture and muscle tone. Pilates aims to create a neutral position so that the spine and muscles are not put under strain. Yoga is aimed at flexibility and elasticity within a supported posture.
Wendy handed out sheets with a number of simple exercises that should be performed at regular intervals during the working day. It is also important to relax in order to take a break from the stresses of work and to aid concentration, so we concluded the session lying on the floor practising relaxation techniques, which revitalised me for the next conference session.
Methods of Working attracted a huge audience. Elisabeth Pickard, “the only person in the Society who can work a sheepdog”, used her considerable skills to help us through commissions from the initial phone call/message offering work to (optimally) proof reading the index proofs.
There was widespread agreement that the process involved phone call/message, the proofs, choice of headings, dealing with strings, editing, research, notes at head of index, invoicing, despatch, and checking index proofs.
Interestingly, while some try to skim read proofs before starting, others do not. Useful suggestions included marking up in two colours if separate name and subject indexes are required. Some add sub headings as they go, with others choosing to break down strings at the end. PDFs allow a word search which one found literally a God-send for scriptural texts. Some research names, acronyms etc. as they work while others do it when bored or at a tea break.
As in so much of indexing, there was no one prescribed method which would work for all with all texts. “It depends” was not so much fence-sitting as the accumulated wisdom from much experience. And perhaps an indicator of the creative nature of indexing. However, there was universal agreement that thoroughness, accuracy, attention to users’ needs and implicit observation of BS ISO 99 are required.
On Saturday evening our honorary president, Professor John Sutherland, gave us the memorable image of William Caxton transported to modern day Oxford St. by H.G.Wells’ time machine and considered what changes he would see. He might be confounded by the horseless carriage, but instantly at home in Waterstones. He might take back the ideas of perfect binding, dust jackets, probably, and indexes, definitely, but essentially the book is unchanged compared to his day.
Today, however, technological obsolescence is an accelerating problem. The Domesday book was published a few years ago on laser disk but already it needs old machines to read it which are now unobtainable, yet the original vellum copy is still legible.
Bill Gates recently predicted that in 10 years’ time every student will have a $400 palm tablet containing every book ever writing in English, but how the information will be organized he didn’t say – presumably some kind of search engine, but it seemed to Professor Sutherland that a search engine is nowhere as useful as a good index. What is needed is some kind of XML standard to preserve indexes so that they can be merged in the future.
If there was one thing he could change it would be the contracts provided by publishers which push the responsibility for indexes onto the author, encouraging then to cobble it together themselves and usually produce an index inferior to that produced by a professional.
The conference, he felt, did not have the air of critical competitiveness, where anyone else’s success is perceived as damaging one’s own progress, that he had met at conferences of other organizations he had attended, and the SI conference had a much better atmosphere. He encouraged us to continue in that mode and to continue producing indexes of quality.
This seminar, given in inimitable style by Gale Rhoades, basically comprised a series of common-sense recommendations on what should be done by way of backup. Of course, every fastidiously careful, highly-organised person like an indexer should carry these things out as a matter of course, but do we?
In case there are others like me who do hardly any of them, a few of the tips are as follows.
On the final day of the Conference Hilary Faulkner, Alan Rutter and Paula Peebles, three relative newcomers to the trade, offered the benefit of their experiences. The audience also contributed to a lively debate which – while it showed that there’s no wrong way to go about things – did suggest that there are several tactics a budding indexer can employ to ensure success. “Bite off more than you can chew, then chew like mad” was Sue Lightfoot’s advice, a maxim which conveys the combination of optimistic enthusiasm and vaulting ambition which helps to kick-start an indexing career.
Many trainees’ greatest concern seemed to be how to get their first job and how to ensure continuing work. Hilary emphasised the importance of networking, advertising and personal recommendations. For those with no chance of networking within the publishing world, she suggested writing direct to academics and publishers or promoting your occupation amongst friends – Elizabeth McFie, President of the Indexing Society of Canada, revealed that she met her first client at a fitness class. Joining Indexers Available or going to a local group meeting ensures vital support from other SI members. Alan recommended ‘creative marketing’: he found a book without an index, compiled an index to the early chapters, and sent it to the publishers, who were so impressed they commissioned him to index the whole series.
Paula suggested it might be helpful to offer a varied skills base extending beyond indexing, as much as to relieve monotony for the indexer as to impress the client. Members were advised to look into courses in copy editing and proofreading, and were referred to the Publishers’ Training Centre and the Society for Editors and Proofreaders.
Finances were a matter of fervent discussion. Initially indexers must resign themselves to working for small rewards. New indexers were advised to take any job, however low-paid, to gain experience. The consensus was that, given the freedom to offer a quote, it was advisable to give an upper estimate for a job rather than negotiate an hourly rate, even if working at a painstakingly slow speed. As for the decision to work full- or part-time, it was evident that qualified indexers should make the shift to their new career gradually for financial security.
One final piece of advice to all new indexers: go to the Society conference! It’s a sure way to revive flagging enthusiasm, defeat confusion in the face of conflicting orthodoxies and make important contacts for the future.
John is a financial consultant who specialises in pensions; the problems of the self-employed in this area are very near to his heart as he is self-employed himself, and he provided a very clear explanation of what pensions are and why it’s important to save as much as you can afford for your retirement… because the longer you wait the more you will need to save. I was reassured to discover that the stakeholder pension that I bought last year was the best option for me, and resolved to start putting money into it regularly. If all goes well, I may even be able to retire before the age of 70…
Photos from the conference are available here.