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Beyond the Back of the Book:
Indexing in a Shrinking World

by Laura Fillmore

Part 2

Presented to the American Society of Indexers, Inc.
and Societe Canadienne pour l'analyse des documents
Montreal, Canada
June 10, 1995

Copyright © 1995 by Laura Fillmore; written permission required to reprint.
laura@obs-us.com

What we see emerging on the Internet is a new palette on which the indexer can apply his color coding for entries, subentries, subsubentries, cross-refs, and see also's. A new and responsive environment where he can apply the analytical capability of thinking about not just one but many authors' constructs of an idea or a subject--and then deconstructing the larger ideas, naming the parts, and rebuilding a new, a kinetic and customized book, idea by idea, into a multiaccessible format. It used to be that indexes were all pegged to the totally arbitrary system of paper pagination. Those familiar reference points disappeared, along with galley pages, and in the kinetic online environment, what might take the place of page numbers is a new level of naming conventions for hyperlinks, which makes online indexing technology transferrable among different media and will help create a language for us to talk about online, recorded, nonsequential thought in a manner independent from the familiar reference points of page numbers and specific documents or books. . .

Gordon Brumm saw the World Wide Web coming before the first threads were woven: "An indexer's dream is a book thoroughly divided into short sections, with each section headed by a sub-title that describes the entire contents of that section with complete accuracy, and with no further terms in the body of the text that need be cited as particular entries...Your index should be a logical web which catches all the book's ideas, and along which the reader may travel from one term to another until he finds what he is interested in." [The Logic of Indexing, unpublished, circa 1984].

The subtitle that Gordon refers to becomes very important as we move from atoms to bits, from paper to computer programs. Freed from the artificial constraints of paper, and freed from the arbitrary order, the sequential page numbers, imposed by those pages, the ideas and information in books flow freely around the web. But how to identify and point to what in the age of books used to be called an index entry, how to include it, if it is not *of* something else, if it has no fixed context, no finite resting place or permanent shelf on which to sit?

Cut loose from pages they've been affixed to for 500 years, the ideas and bits of information spin out of the books containing them and call for a new organization, promise to spin off into chaotic babble unless readers find and recognize their worth through transferrable (named) organization. These first readers, those who identify, classify and name, as in the age of paper, may be indexers. In the dynamic environment of the web, indexers are asked not only to read both analytically and synthetically, to both take apart and put together again, but also to serve as "link editors", associative thinkers in a recorded environment, with the power to name their links, to identify the reasoning driving the associative thought behind their links. Without this kind of effort, this transitioning of skills from paper to online, the business of associative thought, now for the first time in a fully recordable environment, sits at the center of the commercial online publishing business, and cannot be accurately assessed, transferred or built upon unless it is used and understood. . We can see the beginning of this kind of new "link editing" approach to indexing in the work Lidia Zalevski did on Nicholas Negroponte's "Being Digital" for Online BookStore. That book talks about intelligent agents, and particularly one Ringo program at MIT, which promises its users that it will help them choose music most suited to their musical tastes and experiences. Clifford Stoll, in "Silicon Snake Oil," objects quite strenuously to this idea.. To drive home the concept so that the reader could decide which point of view most clearly approaches the truth, the link editor, using indexing skills in terms of information discovery, retrieval, and juxtaposition, linked Stoll to Negroponte, and both to the Media Lab. Let the reader decide. So the link editor facilitates the thinking process of the reader, doesn't just throw up terms, or even a hierarchy of terms, and hope the reader might find what he is looking for. Rather, the link editor creates an environment conducive to thought and experience impossible in a paper environment. One cannot listen to music on paper!

This idea of naming links between index entries or juxtaposed thought chunks, doesn't make a lot of sense in paper books, where the associations would be clear by virtue of the contained nature of the medium. With a book, it is, after all, a finite body of work the indexer is pointing to, and a book alone does not contain what Rosemary Simpson of Indexing Unlimited calls "a global index" or "a rich semantic net of meaning." Beyond books, however, as we click through an ever expanding hyperville of puff and profundity, the need arises to more clearly identify and structure the associative reasoning behind linking thought and thought; it begins to make sense to assume responsibility for authoring links. This authoring and naming of links will extend the power of abstract and analytical thinking, by using words precisely, to make footprints in the mud that someone else can follow and learn from, rather than -- yahoo! -- surfing down every alluring wave. What this means is a basic shift in the direction of indexing, and the creation of a kind of kinetic indexing or "bookbot," which, instead of being a kind of back door and pointing from the reader into the book, points from the reader outward to the universal online bookshelf, with the goal of creating a customized index to a bookshelf area. .

Done on a pilot, project by project basis, such HMI bookbots would reveal much about the necessary thought shifts involved in our collective transition from paper to online, while affording the requisite new income streams for the indexers. At Online BookStore, we have introduced the Cyberdock program, which is the extension of a printed book into cyberspace by virtue of a disk in the back of the book which contains HTML files, pointing first to our server and then to the up-to-date URLS which successfully contextualize that book on the Net. Selecting and updating those URLs is something that could very effectively be done by an indexer with curiosity and computer skills; annotating them would make the customized product even more valuable to the reader. This is not a mass production solution, but it is a thinking and learning approach which will yield results which can then be automated and scaled, we hope.

Online, thinking comes from practice, from doing it, from doing it again and naming, erring, and doing it again. Repetition and scalability will yield commercially viable models. We tread on virgin territory; It makes sense to *talk about* what we are doing in language everyone can understand, even if everyone is not linked in with a T1 and workstation. Sophisticated, intelligent and well-schooled indexers use words; they don't generally talk to each other in icons, flashing lightbulbs at one another through email or placing blink tags around their sig files. An indexer's craft is words; they think about word structures in words. In this sense, our generation of indexers is unique; we won't be here forever, and those more icon-driven users coming fast behind us will be able to use the templates we leave behind to good effect.

Whether literacy itself, the capability for abstract thought and experience through universally recognized word symbols, proves mortal, remains to be determined here in our brave new world of point and click. One of the beauties of the written word is that, because it represents an abstraction rather than a representation of reality (such as a little drawing of a disk or a light bulb icon), it can be passed on unchanged from one reader to the next, from one generation to the next. Readers' knowledge and perceptions may very, but the reference books defining the words remain fairly constant. The proliferating trademarks aside, people don't generally own words; companies are much more likely to own proprietary symbols, such as Donald or Daffy or Bell Tel.

We are much more manipulable by pictures than by words, because pictures seem to invite us to engage our emotions rather than our thoughts. When confronted with a picture, we recognize and respond, rather than take the deliberate step of thinking and interpreting before acting. So the indexer who names his links in the hypertext environment adds a new organizational level to communication on the Web, a logical and deliberate step between us and what is evolving out of the cyber environment. Those named links, sold in the form of a Cyberdock, for example, become a new and valuable commodity for the readers, a protean organizing structure for the content of the net, and a fresh income stream for the indexers.

It used to be that indexers were the last workers in a sequential production process for a book. Their work was focused on a single book or series of books. With the advent of the Web, we've seen a dissolution of boundaries between books, and a major redefinition of the term "Publishing". Publishing has morphed into "publishing and marketing". Two years ago, people would ask me in hushed and disapproving tones if I planned to make money publishing and selling books on the Web; now, the opposite is true; people generally scoff at the notion that Information Wants to Be Free and only want to hear about how we are making money.

No longer relegated to only traditional publishers of newspapers, magazines, and books, "publisher" applies to anyone who is living digitally, whose existence, either private or professional, is part of the exponentially expanding "Great Record." and some of the most creative publishers today online are not traditional publishers at all -- such as MCI on the corporate side and Rob Toups in the Toups Zone on the private side. Unfettered by the weight of the past, from hot metal to Quark, and the need to readjust and retrofit suddenly outmoded models of doing business, the new breed of publishers can afford to experiment with the more dynamic aspects of our binary incarnation. And here is where indexers might begin to close the circle and assume leadership positions in our collective and deliberate cognitive evolution.

Indexes have long afforded us the opportunity to access a book nonsequentially, customized to our own reading needs and knowledge base. But instead of pointing backwards into a static document, the living index, the "bookbot" possible on the Internet today, might point from the reader outwards, empowering the reader essentially to create a book suited to his immediate information and imaginative needs from the available information on the net. As noted above, initially, these cyberdock bookbots will be highly customized, individual efforts.. Only through refinement and repeat use will their value be determined, only through the using will the systems be established so that multiple accesses could begin to decrease the costs of customized bookbotting. Associations such as the ASI and CSI might become the bridge naming systems, key members of the standards setting bodies, applying the science and standards so that the intellectual constructs out in the kinetic frontier begin to reflect an architecture through which we can move and from which we can expand.

As long as the Web continues to be accessible primarily by automated key word searches, and modifications on these searches--and value and accessibility of information is determined in large part by an unreliable mixture of serendipity, public relations people planting pointers, or just plain advertising dollars--we cannot be surprised if the wonder of the web does not fully realize itself. It can't. Chaos will reign, people will posture and pass on, and the potential for a distributive, linking machine, owned by no one company or government and made strong in its diversity, will pass on in lieu of the ease, comfort, and linkless reliability of enterprise networks, or the Brand X "onesite" global thinking machine people foresee when they envision worldwide communications monopolies.. It seems that skilled indexers need little web experience in order to earn substantial amounts of money as custom filters, as bookbots on the Internet, by marshalling your organizational, linking and literate capabilities. Most popular browsers today have a learning curve for new users of about an hour; no manual needed. Just as the number of people on the Web is expanding exponentially, so too is the sophistication of the tools on the web growing at the same rate. The valuable and vanishing breed of literate indexers might want to position themselves between these tools, this browser software, and the web content, customizing their services to the growing number of users or readers. In reversing the traditional direction of the indexing process, and in serving the online reader's needs by making order or "bookbots" out of chaos, indexers can play an essential role in determining the evolution of our distributive thinking machine, the Internet.



Appendix:

Some suggested places for experienced indexers to seek work in the burgeoning Internet industry

Link Editors: All major book, newspaper, and magazine publishing companies are looking to fill this position under a variety of names, usually in a multimedia or online publishing division, newly started. Foreign language skills are a bonus; experience with reference a plus as this is the first area to go online seriously. Interview with a WebMaster today; frequently, they have computer rather than literature or indexing skills and seek complementary skills. Be fearless in your interview; convey confidence.

Find a TV station and interview there. Many news broadcasts are hiring Web people to fill out their Internet programming needs.

Approach your local school about K12 Internet connectivity; in return for helping out at school, you may get connectivity in return.

Superset Creator: Many companies are publishing on the Web now, finding that to succeed, they cannot hawk their wares alone--they must become generic rather than particular. XYZ shoe company wants to become known as "shoes.com", the superset of shoes. Become the architect of the shoe tree, the web page, for this company. Learn, and get paid well, for doing. Such an opportunity will give you the chance to learn some related new skills such as HTML programming.

Teaching about intelligent linking and associative thought. Courses abound and few are good. Knowledge is much needed about subordination of ideas, conceptual indexing, cross referencing. Find your skill, whether it is in conveying knowledge through talking or writing or demonstrating, and carry it out. Work for a large company perhaps to get started; approach any of those teaching publishing on the web courses.

Think hybrid. Work for the phone company or a networking giant. People making billions selling connectivity and wires today are expecting to be selling content tomorrow--and tomorrow's just around the corner. They need publishing people, specifically people who understand how to chunk up, weight, and value information. That means you.

Go into the Hot List Business. Approach the browser companies--you can probably work from home for them. Quarterdeck. Netscape. Internetworks. Spry. Spyglass. Mosaic. HyperG. Customized hot lists, which one can buy and sell and trade, will become increasingly valuable as they form the only access points to the web. These are nothing but index entries begging to be customized to the reader, by the reader.

Form your own company, again adopting the hybrid model, incorporating people with strong editorial, design, networking, and business skills.

Email to Online BookStore bookbot@obs-us.com and request information about a Bookbot Internship, where your customized Web indexing services can be attached to a book by a major publishing house sited at OBS.

Thank you for your attention.

Copyright © 1995 by Laura Fillmore; written permission required to reprint. laura@obs-us.com

OBS White Papers Part 1