Automatic indexing

Subject: Automatic indexing
From: Lori Lathrop <76620 -dot- 456 -at- COMPUSERVE -dot- COM>
Date: Mon, 18 Sep 1995 18:09:31 EDT

In response to Pam Owen (powen -at- lmi -dot- org) ....

Pam -- I was gone all last week, delivering indexing workshops at client
sites; today, I'm trying to catch up on all of my e-mail. I saw your
posting on TECHWR-L (9/12/95) about "automatic indexing" and wanted to

As a professional indexer, I am extremely skeptical about any type of
"automatic indexing" or "concordance." The big problem that both
"automatic indexes" and "concordances" (and full-text search in online
documents) share is the fact that they can't distinguish between relevant
information and a passing reference. They simply produce *hits* on
whatever exact wording you provide. That's another problem; they require
an *exact match* in order to generate an entry. (That said, I want to
add that I am also open-minded and very interested in evaluating any
software product that claims to do automatic indexing.)

Also, editing a concordance in an attempt to produce a quality index is
akin to the old analogy of trying to make a silk purse out of a sow's ear.
It's much easier to create an index "from scratch" than to transform a
concordance into an index, no matter how careful you are in selecting
terms. Of course, it is possible to create something that *looks like* an
index; however, it takes much more work to refine and enhance such a
"skeleton" index so that it eliminates passing references and also
contains enough access points for all of the topics various readers will
want to find.

You are absolutely right when you say that it's no accident that indexing
is a specialized field. Indexing is a unique style of writing; however,
that doesn't mean that technical writers can't be good indexers. The big
advantage that technical writers have is their product knowledge.

The big disadvantage that technical writers have is their lack of indexing
skills. Most technical writers do not receive any formal training in
indexing; even degree programs for technical communication usually ignore
indexing skills (that's one of my pet peeves). Consequently, most
technical writers have to learn indexing "by the seat of their pants." If
they're lucky, they at least have some corporate guidelines to follow.

I'm always willing to respond to indexing questions from technical
writers. Also, if you're interested in indexing or have questions about
indexing, I'd recommend subscribing to INDEX-L (by sending an e-mail
message to listserv -at- bingvmb -dot- cc -dot- binghamton -dot- edu) or participating in the
Indexing folder on AOL (using the "Writers" keyword and selecting
"Editing/Indexing/Translating" from the Writers Club Message Boards.

Lori Lathrop ----------> INTERNET:76620 -dot- 456 -at- compuserve -dot- com
Lathrop Media Services, P.O. Box 3065, Idaho Springs, CO
Office: 303-567-4011 / Home: 303-567-9533

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