Facets of indexing: Society of Indexers’ diamond anniversary conference

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’Tis a good year to be a book indexer. Following on from the success of the inaugural National Indexing Day (#indexday) on 30 March 2017, which marked 60 years since the founding of the Society of Indexers (SI), a host of indexers and index scholars met up last week for three days of index conferences in Oxford: the SI diamond anniversary conference and the Book Index symposium, curated by Dennis Duncan. I was lucky enough to attend both conferences and it was a fabulous few days of indexing appreciation. I will write about the Book Index conference in a separate blog post; I had far too much fun to cover both in one. You can also see a Storify summary of the SI conference here. (Thanks to Ruth Ellis for the Storify.)

The SI conference was held on Wednesday 21 June at St Anne’s College, University of Oxford. As with last year’s SI conference, this was a one-day event. Around 70 SI members were in attendance on the longest (and hottest) day of the year.

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Sunny St Anne’s College campus and student digs

Sessions, morning: indexing arts and humanities; publishing developments; Society matters

After the initial welcomes, I began my day with leading a subject discussion group on indexing arts and humanities texts. Other groups were elsewhere discussing law, social sciences, and science, technology and medicine. This was a good icebreaking session to get people contributing, as did the indexing ethics discussion groups at our 2016 conference. Arts and humanities texts can present their own particular problems. Many of us noted the usefulness of Do Mi Stauber’s book Facing the Text, which is a helpful guide to indexing the more arty and perhaps ‘woolly’ concepts other than the easy – well, easier – ‘low-hanging fruit’ of names and proper nouns. (You can read an excerpt of Do Mi Stauber’s Facing the Text in the October 2005 issue of The Indexer here.) ‘Aboutness’ is the key to good indexing: what is this sentence/paragraph/page actually about? Sometimes this can be rather hard to identify. Another issue raised was the increasing number of errors that indexers find creeping into our proofs from publishers, indicating the lack of a proper copy-editing stage. This can cause major problems for indexers and proofreaders – who themselves are often being asked to do more than a proofread, as the copy-edit has not been done properly, or not done at all. Sadly this seems to be a growing problem. We also discussed regularly occurring issues such as remuneration (see also payments, late; rates, low) and workload.

This was followed by a plenary lecture by Philip Shaw (Oxford Brookes International Centre for Publishing) on current developments in the publishing industry. Philip presented us with some promising figures on how sales of print books, particularly non-fiction, have been on the rise in recent years, which is good news for the indexers. He noted how students still prefer print books but discovery of and access to books is increasingly digital. Publishers are looking to squeeze direct costs where they can and this unfortunately includes the indexing stage (tighter deadlines and lower budgets), as well as skimping on or skipping the copy-editing stage, as noted above. Not all good news then.

Our AGM was next, where several Society matters were discussed and voted on. I was very pleased to be approved for election as a new director on the SI Executive Board, along with Nicola King. Our honorary president Sam Leith then gave a speech and handed out this year’s well-deserved awards. The Bernard Levin Award for outstanding services to the Society of Indexers went to Jan Worrall for her tireless and ongoing work on the SI training course. The Betty Moys Prize for best newly Accredited Indexer went to joint winners Jan (Jay) Heaton and Tessa Botha. Congratulations to them all.

Sessions, afternoon: software demos; tips and tricks; value-added ebook indexes

After a very good lunch – St Anne’s catering is top-notch – we had a choice of afternoon sessions. My first choice was the software demonstration of Index-Manager by Dr Katharina Munk (developer) and Pilar Wyman. This is a fairly new program for embedded indexing for texts in Word, InDesign and XML file formats. I already produce embedded indexes in Word using the WordEmbed program and in InDesign with KPS Index Utilities (in conjunction with SKY Index dedicated indexing software). Index-Manager claims to operate as both dedicated indexing and embedding software, replacing the need for more than one program for embedded indexes. Katharina and Pilar gave an impressive demonstration of some of its features. It is hard to learn much about a new software program without hands-on experience but Index-Manager seems to have great potential and I will definitely be downloading a free test version for more of a play around.

My subsequent afternoon sessions were more informal discussion seminars on working efficiently – the first on software and the second on general tips, tricks and avoiding bad habits. The software session covered a few extra programs including Margaret Berson’s Megabit Macros, which can really speed up the input of index entries, and the Notability and iAnnotate programs for marking up PDFs on-screen, as many indexers still like to mark up their proofs while indexing and we often no longer receive hard-copy proofs. I found the general tips session very enlightening, with a great discussion of how we index and our different indexing and editing processes: for example, do we follow Sylvia Coates’ maxim OHIO (‘Only Handle It Once’), editing continuously as we index, or do we input everything first and edit it all at the end? I tend towards the latter. And how do we ‘get going’ on a new index? Some will skim-read the whole book text first (I do this); some will read the introduction and conclusion chapters first; and others will just dive straight in. We also discussed the importance of good breaks and reasonable working hours (e.g. don’t end up being an indexing mole in the wee small hours – it doesn’t do you or your index any good), Do Mi Stauber’s ‘low-hanging fruit’ advice (again), increasing problems of errors in the text (again), how well we can judge how long an index will take… As with everything in indexing, context is key: it all depends.

Other sessions running concurrently at this time included Ruth Ellis’ mini-workshop on using LinkedIn for networking; Ann Hudson’s workshop on indexing your first commission; Christopher Phipps’ workshop on indexing biographies, which I enjoyed at a previous SI conference; the SfEP’s John Firth’s seminar on editing and proofreading opportunities; Joan Dearnley’s mini-workshop on indexing images; and a panel-led discussion seminar on ‘the joys of freelancing’.

The final plenary session brought us all back together for a lecture by Pilar Wyman and Pierke Bosschieter on linked indexes in ebooks. It is still true to say that many ebooks lack proper live linked indexes. Some contain ‘dead’ indexes, reproducing the printed book index without linking to the correct part of the ebook, and some of course have no index at all. (For shame!) The lack of publishing industry standards also does not help here, with many publishers working in a completely different way to each other. Pilar and Pierke discussed some of the developments and possibilities for true linked indexes in the future to aid access to and navigation of the text, and how we as indexers are well placed to add this extra value to the book.

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St Anne’s on the longest (and hottest) day

Congratulations, and celebrations

After that, it was time to relax and celebrate our diamond anniversary with a drinks reception and gala dinner. The food was wonderful, as was the company (but of course). Given the heatwave, I was most envious of my dining neighbour’s decorative hand fan, having to fashion my own out of the menu. Rosemary Dear gave a most entertaining after-dinner speech on the 60-year history of the Society of Indexers, after which many of us retired to the student bar for a quiet drink (ahem) and then readied ourselves for the Book Index conference the next day (see blog post, forthcoming).

This was another excellent SI conference, brilliantly organised by our chair Ann Kingdom and the conference committee. It is so good to meet up with your fellow indexing professionals and get chance to brush up your skills, learn about new developments and spend time with friends old and new. My fellow indexers are some of my very favourite people – smart, funny, friendly, supportive and just a little different, in the best possible way. I am once again enjoying the traditional post-conference boost in enthusiasm and inspiration and I am already looking forward to next year’s conference in Lancaster. If you have never been to conference, whatever your indexing experience, please do consider coming next year. It really is well worth it.

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Happy 60th birthday to us. Cheers!

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Paula Clarke Bain is a professional book indexer and editor. She likes comedy, books and indexes and really likes comedy book indexes. See more at her website at baindex.org or on Twitter @PC_Bain.


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