Indexing monographs in the digital age

This post by Agata Mrva-Montoya is reblogged  by kind permission from Sydney University Press’s impressive blog, ‘Sydney Publishing‘.

Agata writes: An index and a bibliography have been integral components of scholarly monographs, and academics remain some of the most dedicated and appreciative users of indexes. This is where they tend to start reading a new book – from the back – first checking the list of references and then the index. The bibliography provides the all important context to the work and its author, revealing the breadth and depth of prior research and the influences that had shaped the work.

A good index divulges a lot of information about the book’s content, facilitating access to the complex arguments, signaling depth of coverage and helping decide whether the monograph is worth reading from the beginning to the end. Even when it is, academics rarely follow a linear trajectory when reading a book. Hence the index remains a vital tool, guiding the researchers directly to a specific fact or aspect of the topic and reducing their reading overload. With the increase in the interdisciplinary character of research and the volume of publications, the ability to dip into works is becoming even more important.

Because indexes are invaluable in the research process, academics, not surprisingly, often have strong opinions about indexes and get very involved in their creation, and the publishing process overall. In contrast to general or professional readers, academics are not only content consumers (as readers and researchers) and content providers (as authors and editors of collected works), but also act as gatekeepers (as reviewers they influence the shape and reception of individual books, as teachers they have impact on what their students are reading, and as members of editorial boards they have input into the publishing program of a university press).

Many university presses stipulate in their contracts that the index remains the author’s responsibility: they can do it themselves or outsource it to a professional indexer. Some authors relish the experience and believe they are best placed to index their own books (they know the subject matter, the specialist vocabulary and the audience). Others think of indexing as a nightmare. Professional indexers, in turn, believe that the authors more often than not have no indexing skills or experience, no access to efficient software, but more importantly, lack the ability to distance themselves from the text.

Both authors and indexers agree that indexes are vital in printed books. But what about ebooks?

As elsewhere, the publishing workflows at university presses have been greatly influenced by the technological changes that have revolutionised the whole publishing industry over the last few years. Scholarly publishing (both commercial and non-profit) was at the forefront of digital experimentation (since Project Gutenberg started in 1999) and adoption of digital workflow and delivery methods, especially in journal publishing.

Monograph publishing, however, has been lagging behind in the digital revolution. At first, in the era predating e-readers and tablets, monographs were perceived as less suitable for digital delivery. Reading long and complex prose on a computer screen was seen as tiring and incompatible with the need for critical engagement with the content. In fact, many academics in the humanities and social sciences, remain attached to the print version, even hardback editions.

And they have legitimate reasons for this attachment to print. The developments in ebooks driven by fiction publishing by and large ignore the academic user, whose engagement with the text requires page numbers, as well as footnotes and indexes. These remain problematic in the electronic format.

Lavishly produced hardcover editions of scholarly monographs aimed at limited and specialised audiences are not financially viable, especially in Australia. Going beyond the traditional and financially unsustainable methods of mass printing and distribution, the new generation of scholarly monographs is being released as digital files or as print-on-demand (POD) books, ensuring that important and publicly funded research is published more quickly and never goes out of print.

At present, some publishers in Australia decide not to index ebooks due to the implementation cost and challenges, relying instead on the search function as the only substitute. Others include print-based index entries as suggestions for further searches. Only some decide to make the most of digital technologies by hyperlinking index entries in ebooks. The process is difficult and expensive.

Sydney University Press is yet to finalise its ePub workflow. One of the biggest hindrances is the complexity of our books, which contain footnotes, tables, illustrations, and of course indexes. At present, once the books are copyedited and styled in Microsoft Word we use InDesign for layout. The books are indexed in-house using the indexing function of InDesign, which creates embedded locators that can be updated with re-pagination. The locators are also retained when working on new editions and different formats of the text. The ability to start working on the index earlier in the publishing process, before the layout is fixed, allows for greater flexibility with the schedule and is one of the major benefits of embedded indexing.

But there are many drawbacks. An embedded index takes longer to create. The indexing function of InDesign is clunky and feature poor. The index entry dialog box is slow to open and close, and as the index grows, the software slows down even further. There are also issues with the way it alphabetises entries. Moreover, indexing in InDesign lacks a way to apply character styles or formats to parts of an index entry. With no option to use italics or bold fonts, there is a need for some degree of manual formatting at the end of the process, which is lost if the index is recreated.

The embedded links can be retained in the web-friendly PDF version of the book, but unfortunately at this stage, index entries cannot be exported from InDesign to ePub. All the index markers, even in the most recent version of InDesign 6.0, are stripped in the process. There are ways to work around this problem. Elizabeth Castro suggests exporting index entries from InDesign into Dreamweaver, creating a XHTML file, marking the actual physical print pages in the EPUB and using GREP to convert the XHTML index entries into links to the now marked pages. Jan Wright suggests generating an index outside InDesign to start with, inserting hyperlink text destinations to each paragraph in the text, and finally using scripting for InDesign to create hyperlinks between index entries and the destinations in the text. Both are somewhat involved processes.

Alternatively, one can send the files to a conversion house to hyperlink index entries.

Or drop InDesign and use XML or LaTeX. In the XML-based indexing process each index entry is ‘anchored’ to its position in the XML file using a simple numbering system in the margin. The index is automatically created from these embedded elements to match the ‘pages’ of the ebook or printed book.

LaTeX has the facility for the author to create the index while working on the manuscript, and it has remarkable cross-indexing capacity. But how many authors beyond maths and statistics departments are preparing their manuscripts in LaTeX? And the transition from LaTex to ePub is difficult.

So is indexing of ebooks worth the trouble?

As Peter Meyers, author and digital book producer, wrote: “A well designed digital index … can be a key part of instrumenting smarter books, ones that help readers find and retrieve information more efficiently.” In his vision for Index 2.0, the index and the search-box work in partnership. And this is what the American Society of Indexers Digital Trends Task Force (DTTF) is working on. DTTF was formed in 2011 to engage with the industry including publishers, hardware manufacturers and software developers to design “smart indexes” for the digital age: interactive indexes that would combine semantic metadata with search function.

A way to create a smart index is what we need in the age of information overload. And when we have one, convincing authors, publishers and readers about the usefulness of indexes in ebooks will not be hard.

This post evolved from my [Agata’s] notes for a presentation at the ANZSI regional conference, ‘From Pbooks to Ebooks’, Bowral, 28-29 July 2012.


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