Electronic Media and the Future of Indexing

Fred Brown
Allegro Technical Indexing


(Originially published in Stimulus, September 1995, Society for Technical Communication, Eastern Ontario Chapter.)

Will indexes continue to play a role in the emerging electronic universe? Will automatic indexing tools and full-text searches replace the hand-crafted, back-of-the-book style indexes of the print-and-glue days?

Indexers from across North America gathered to discuss these issues at the "Indexing in a Shrinking World" joint conference of the Indexing and Abstracting Society of Canada, and the American Society of Indexers held in Montreal, June 8–10.

With full-text search tools, who needs an index?

The Bureau of National Affairs (BNA) offers to business and other organizations more than 200 U.S. government news and information services spanning tax, human resources, environmental and legal information. When BNA began moving its publications from paper to CD-ROM three years ago, it felt there was no need to continue the paper-style indexes because the user could search the CD-ROM using full-text search tools. Surprise! The customers demanded an index.

They did so for three reasons:

  • customers knew how to use an index
  • an index directly identifies the significant discussions relating to your question
  • an index groups together all the information on a specific topic
When trying to locate specific information quickly, users found the full-text search method troublesome. Full-text searching requires users to specify search terms that exactly match the terminology of the text. Differences in word usage among different authors, plus variations in spelling and hyphenation, can lead to missed "hits." Because full-text searches look for specific character strings, not ideas or concepts, many trivial hits result. Using full-text search features such as Boolean operators (AND, OR, NOT) also require some skill and experience.

The index that BNA subsequently produced for their CD-ROMs functions as an easy-to-use companion to other information access tools. When you find the relevant topic in the CD-ROM index, you can go directly to the information or use the topic heading as a search term in a full-text search. You can then jump to related information using hypertext links.

It’s a jungle out there

Posing even greater size and complexity than BNA’s CD-ROMs, the Internet offers a seemingly unlimited amount of rapidly changing information with varying degrees of quality — "a wonderful zoo" as one conference speaker called it. No conventions exist for naming information resources or for controlling vocabulary. Currently, there are tools such as subject lists or catalogues, keyword search engines, directories, and World Wide Web hypertext linkages that can assist you with resource discovery.

Keywords are key

Linking and being linked to other users and information resources is a central activity on the Internet. Simply using appropriate keywords in headers, addresses and descriptions can make a Web site more visible to the keyword search engines (such as Lycos, Einet and Web-Crawler) and can result in greatly increased traffic.

Naming itself stakes out territory in the landscape of cyberspace. The information provider need not supply any actual information behind the keyword, just stake out the territory in various online directories and keyword search engines for future use. For example, a company may list its Web site under "horses" just in case it decides to go into that business; however, if it provides no information on horses, readers can become frustrated.

The new order

The McKinley Internet Directory is a new, all-encompassing project to index cyberspace. Three ordering systems currently predominate on the Internet: alphabetical, geographical and chronological. But resources need to be ordered in a manner useful to the user. In "The McKinley" system, all Internet resources — database, magazine, meta index, discussion group, whatever — are rated in terms of how up-to-date the content is, how the content is organized, and how easy it is to access.

The Online Bookstore (OBS) demonstrated the concept of an open, interactive book or "bookbot." Extracts of books are made available online. These online books provide hypertext links to other related resources on the Internet. The reader may also respond and suggest further related Internet links. The linking process creates a living, evolving document that extends well beyond its cover. Commercially, the electronic bookbot can substantially increase sales of the paper version and also be connected to revenue-generating online services.

Organizing information increases its value

Two themes of critical importance to the future of technical communication emerged at the conference:
  • the greater the volume of information and number of information provides, the greater the need for an organized structure on which to search
  • being connected and accessible substantially enhances the value of information
Locating information in a large, complex, and changing body requires a conceptual structure. This structure brings you directly to the desired information by organizing ideas or information in a framework that reflects the many ways a user may view the world. The index — created only by a human intelligence — provides the conceptual structure and cross-referencing necessary for navigating the information universe.

A hypertext web also constitutes a searchable conceptual structure. Linking means making creative connections between disparate, yet related pieces of information. Links, usually set up as hypertext jumps, create a navigable web structure within a large information resource such as a CD-ROM. Such hypertext tapestries are not based on associations of character strings but are woven from threads of ideas spun by the human mind. A hypertext design calls upon the same information design principles — creating an overall, integrated structure fitted to the needs of the user — as in the traditional, back-of-the-book index.

The ability for customers to locate answers easily is essential to information-based products. In the world of technical documentation, harried computer users need to get solutions quickly; otherwise, they may turn to the more costly customer support line. Well written technical documentation, paper or electronic, is an asset to an organization, as is the index which makes the information easily and quickly accessible. As the volume, complexity, and rate of change of information increases, so too will the value of the human mind that can bring order to it.

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