Ig Nobel 5-minute MIT informal lecture

On 4 October 2007 I received the Ig Nobel Prize for Literature at Harvard University. On 6 October I spoke about my research for 5 minutes in the MIT Informal Lectures, and answered 3 questions. The talk and questions follow.

Inconspicuous indexers, and indexers as vegetables

Thank you for this honour.

I work as an indexer – an inconspicuous but thriving profession made up of people whose aim is to help readers find the information they need. Not many people know we exist, thinking instead that indexes ‘just happen’ or are created by computers. Because of this the American Society of Indexers chose the kohlrabi as their official vegetable – no-one knows what it is, either.

Indexes in daily life

My grandmother’s cousin, the American author Worth Tuttle Heddon, published her memoirs under the name Winifred Woodley, in a book titled ‘Two and three makes one’, which led my husband to point out that she was obviously better at English than at Maths! She noted (p.20) ‘This morning I made out a card index for the characters in my novel; keeping up with twenty-seven of them in my mind takes time from the writing’.

Christopher Kremmer wrote in his book ‘The Carpet Wars’ (p.274) that Mr Butt, owner of a luxury houseboat in Kashmir, had ‘indexed in the back of each guestbook the names of the VVIPs who had stayed.”

Indexes can also be a handy delaying tactic. When subpoenaed to supply tapes to the Watergate hearing, Richard Nixon said that he would turn over the nine tapes ‘after they had been properly itemised and indexed.’

And, of course, I had to index the chicken Ig Nobels. Here are my selected entries.

bird brains, see chickens

chickens, passim
beautiful humans preferred by
plucking of in tornadoes
uniquely simple personalities
which came first, see eggs

Coop, The (Harvard bookstore)

eggs, see also under chickens
economics of Tamagotchi eggs
Inside-the-Shell Egg Scrambler
which came first, see chickens

foul fowl, see chickens

ova, see finished

scaredy-cats, see chickens

??????, ???

All of the subheadings under ‘chicken’ and ‘egg’ refer to real Ig Nobel awards, except for the ‘uniquely simple personalities’ which originally applied to politicians! The final entry says ‘The chicken or the egg, which came first’. This perennial problem is also addressed in the two cross-references. I was delighted to learn that there is a Club Passim in Boston –passim being an archaic indexing term.

How this article and award came about

So, to this award. It’s funny how an article I wrote in 2001has led to me being here in Boston in 2007!

As indexers we try to follow standard rules, and we also index according to our understandings about the potential users of the index. When the rules disagree with each other, or with how we think users think, then we have conflict. My article on alphabetising ‘The’ in index entries was an attempt to examine the varying rules, and what happens in practice, and devise a coherent approach.

Marc Abrahams discovered my article, which had been published in the international journal, The Indexer (www.theindexer.org/files/22-3/22-3_119.pdf). It was then used in the special ‘The’ issue of the Annals of Improbable Research (www.improbable.com/pages/airchives/paperair/volume12/v12i4/WhereThe-12-4.pdf), alongside articles by cataloguers, editors and proofreaders.

Marc pointed out to me that there is a character in a Sherlock Holmes story who is referred to as ‘The Woman’. I fear that I will hereafter be referred to as ‘The The Woman’.

Alphabetising THE

So, why does it matter? Probably the greatest failure of indexing is caused by people looking in the index in the wrong places. As well as having two major filing rules (depending on how a space is treated), we have special rules for articles, prepositions, Greek letters, symbols, Mc and Mac, entries with serial commas, and so on.

Some lucky people don’t worry about ‘The’, but positively enjoy it. Gary Larson’s index to Weiner dog art: a Far Side collection (1990) at ‘T’ includes the entries:

The one about the accountant
The one about alien biologists
The one about the aliens

After the presentations on Thursday night some people came and spoke to me about their filing problems. A few asked whether this was a purely English problem. As Hans Wellisch pointed out: ‘Happy is the lot of the indexer of Latin, the Slavic languages, Chinese, Japanese and some other tongues which do not have articles, whether definite or indefinite, initial or otherwise.’ For the rest of us, it remains a problem. One German woman said that half of her video collection was alphabetised at ‘Die’ (The, in German), but she felt that if she rearranged it she wouldn’t find the videos. Other people mentioned the Mc/Mac issue, and problems with different rules about whether or not to ignore ‘von’ in the Netherlands and Belgium.

Attention to detail

So, we indexers beaver away doing the best we can to craft indexes that have just the right entries for those unknown users who’ll be needing them. John Ruskin appreciated the effort that went into indexing, saying: ‘It is easy enough to make an index, as it is to make a broom of odds and ends, as rough as oat straw; but to make an index tied up tight, and that will sweep well into corners, isn’t so easy.’

Once again, thank you to my sister Carol for being here, and love to Jon, Bill and Jenny back home. On this note I’ll leave you with Willowdean Vance’s observation: ‘Isn’t it great to be in a profession where you get paid for having the last word.’