Re. Unneeded index?

Subject: Re. Unneeded index?
From: "Hart, Geoff" <Geoff-H -at- MTL -dot- FERIC -dot- CA>
To: "Techwr-L (E-mail)" <TECHWR-L -at- lists -dot- raycomm -dot- com>
Date: Mon, 27 Mar 2000 09:14:10 -0500

John Posada opines: <<An index is only that useful when the content of the
book itself is so bad that it doesn't make sense. How is needing a section
of the book to find a section of the book a good thing?>>

The same comment might be made about a table of contents, John, and doing so
(redactio ad absurdum) is a useful tool for demonstrating that an argument
is flawed. Obviously, it's not as simple a situation as you're making out.
You have to understand the purpose of an index before you can determine when
and where the index is necessary: an index lists everywhere in the book that
a specific concept appears, and that suggests that an index is necessary
even in extremely well-structured documents whenever a single concept must
appear in different contexts. Another thing that indexes do that even a
brilliant structure cannot do is to efficiently provide synonyms as
cross-references; that's important where an audience uses two or more terms
for a concept, but you can only afford to use one in your docs (for
consistency). So what it comes down to is not whether the content is good or
bad, but whether the body of information is large and complex enough to use
a single concept in several different contexts; if that's the case, an index
is essential. If the information structure is simple and relatively brief,
you may be able to dispense with the index (e.g., a 2-page list of keyboard
shortcuts, a 6-page installation guide).

About the only case where I'd consider an index to provide no value
whatsoever would be in a dictionary, but that's an extreme case (since a
dictionary is itself in many ways nothing more than an annotated index).
Actually, the dictionary example is very illustrative of the underlying
principle here: an index is optional only when the structure of the book is
completely intuitive, the information is perfectly chunked, and the access
to individual concepts is transparent to the reader. I've yet to meet such a
creature. For long books, there's no way to quickly find a specific topic
without an index simply because there's too much material. Try this test
with any really fine book you've ever read: time the task of finding a
concept just by skimming the book or the table of contents, then try again
with the index. Which is faster? If you're tempted to respond that you've
yet to meet a book that was so well written that it would pass this test,
then you've just answered your original question: until we can write such
books, we're still going to need indexes.

--Geoff Hart, FERIC, Pointe-Claire, Quebec
geoff-h -at- mtl -dot- feric -dot- ca

Hofstadter's Law: The time and effort required to complete a project are
always more than you expect, even when you take into account Hofstadter's

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