Dr. Laurence Errington has 30 years’ experience indexing and has achieved the Society of Indexers’ highest qualification: Fellow. We asked him a few questions about his profession and how technology is changing – or not changing – the way indexers work.
How did you get into indexing?
A friend had a contact at a publishers who needed an indexer. Being temporarily unemployed, I did a quick readup, and gave it a go. Since then I’ve indexed almost 2000 texts!
Tell us a bit about yourself and your work.
I’ve been indexing for about thirty years now. I’ve managed to be occupied with work maybe 95% of the time. I achieved the highest qualification of the Society of Indexers in 2000. I used to specialise in health and medicine, but over time have expanded my capability to include biological sciences, psychology, social sciences, geography, photography, geography, etc.
Why does indexing appeal to you and what are the benefits of working in this field?
I like being self-employed, even if it has disadvantages such as no-one paying you your pension, or when you take holidays, or are ill. For about ten years I had a lovely garden office, and working there with the french doors open on a warm summer day was pretty good. My only responsibility to my clients is to supply quality work on time at a reasonable price, and that gives me quite a lot of freedom compared to working for one employer.
Technological developments have somewhat changed the way that indexers work – have you found this to be of benefit or hindrance to you, and if so, how? Equally, what are you able to do that computer programmes just can’t compete with?
Email is a necessity of course, but I miss actually speaking to clients. Always working for people you’ve never heard speak or seen in person is a bit sad. A very short conversation can sort out some things much more quickly than back-and-forth emails.
At present there are no computer programmes that can produce indexes of the quality that a human can, though it’s hard to convince clients in some cases. There are so many reasons why and it would take too long to explain. A proper index is certainly not produced by searching for particular terms, as an indexable term can appear in many different ways in the text which the indexer will recognise very quickly. I know that Charcot-Marie-Tooth Disease is synonymous with hereditary motor and sensory neuropathy and that Down’s syndrome is synonymous with trisomy 21. Yes, you can get software to generate an index, but it will be poor on so many levels and include way too many undifferentiated references. To take a simple example, if I am indexing ‘dogs’, I can very quickly see if a subheading is deserved that may be ‘breeding’, ‘food’, ‘training’, etc. I can see context quickly.
If you want to see some bad indexers, look at computer textbooks, where the writer thinks that if Word says it can index, then it can index.
The technological development that has given me trouble is the use of some entry tagging systems. I have done some, which have been ok, but others can present nightmares for indexers. They are very time consuming and although the publishers may offer to pay for the extra time, they pay nowhere near enough to compensate in my opinion. Personally, the effort of tagging correctly interferes with the intellectual art of selecting and inputting entries.
Indexing is such a ‘dark art’ to explain to the clients, especially when it comes to explaining the sort of brain work we have to do to decide why one term needs indexing and another term does not.
In these cost-cutting days, it seems that indexes (and indexers) have suffered. I would contend that a good index will often result in sales that more than make up for the cost of getting a decent index.
What’s up next on your ‘must-read’ list?
Oh, it will be some thriller or crime novel, nothing on my list, but I have a pile by my bed.
You can find Laurence Errington in the Society of Indexers’ Directory here.