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In Defense of Specialists

by Rose Grant
Key Words, Vol. 5/No. 5 (September/October 1997), p. 8. Reprinted with permission

Although I've been indexing cookbooks for 15 years I never thought of myself as a real indexer. Real indexers do history books, or biochemistry books, or encyclopedias. I spend my time reading cookbooks, even when I'm not indexing them. I enjoy what I do so much that it doesn't even feel like work.

I have just returned from my first ASI meeting in Winston-Salem and what an eye-opener it was. I now see myself in a whole new light. Not only am I a real indexer, I am a specialist in my field with a certain body of knowledge and experience and strong opinions on how cookbooks should be indexed. I was wrong not to have attended ASI conferences before this and I hope to make up for lost time by becoming an active participant.

I know that the current wisdom among many indexers is that anyone who knows the rules of indexing can adequately do just about any back-of-the-book index. I would like to make a case for specialists, who have an area of expertise and do books only in that field. It makes sense that indexers who really understand the concepts and the nuances of a subject are likely to do a more thorough job than people who are learning as they go. And also, I like to think that editors would be willing to pay a bit more for an index created by an expert in the field.

Having generated all kinds of cookbook indexes, I have many thoughts on what constitutes a good one. For starters, each index should be unique; it should suit the particular book; one size does not fit all. A single-subject book (e.g., chocolate, fish, soup) calls for a very different approach—and a very different index—than a book that covers a full range of recipes.

Anyone can list the recipes in proper alphabetical order, but only a cook knows how to cross-reference the entries so they are useful; a cook knows how a cook thinks. Although it seems reasonable to index "Cocoa Mocha Torte" under the three words in the title of the recipe, a cook knows that Cocoa Mocha Torte is a chocolate cake and should be indexed accordingly.

I consider myself the cookbook user's advocate; it is my job to create the most useful index for any cookbook. I will argue with an editor, and because I know my subject I can be quite persuasive. For example, I will not do a run-in style nor will I do a "recipe title only" index. No cookbook benefits from such treatment, and I try to enlighten editors who think otherwise. I don't always get the job but that's O.K. Though it does hurt my feelings, I have a sense of mission about my role as an educator.

Several years ago I was asked to do a cookbook that had 2,500 recipes, a huge undertaking. When I first received the specs there were eight pages allotted for the index. I thought that must be a typo; they mean 18 pages. Wrong! They meant eight pages. I tried to explain to the editor why I had to have more space for such a large book. The answer was always the same: "Just Do It!" The unspoken subtext was "stop whining." But I couldn't—I wouldn't—"Just do it." The editor didn't care if I used run-in style or took any other shortcuts, but I cared. As the deadline approached, our conversations became very animated (read steamy). In the end, I was given more lines, not as many as I needed but enough to do the job. As you might guess, I never heard from that editor again.

I can't imagine that a thorough understanding of the subject applies only to cookbooks. Wouldn't any book profit from a tailor-made index by someone who is immersed in the field? In a perfect world archeologists would index archeology books, those who understand medical terminology would index medical books, and books that deal with legal matters would be done by lawyers.

What does the future hold for indexers? I have two fantasies. First, starting in the year 2000 all indexes will be placed in the front of the book. Since the index is a critical component of a book it will be at the beginning, where it is bound to get more attention. As we all know, people pay most attention to the index when it doesn't work; otherwise, it is taken for granted.

Second, book reviewers will be compelled to evaluate the index along with the content of the book. A reviewer might say that although the book is worthless, it does have a smashing index—and then urge people to run out and buy the book just so they can enjoy the index.

Now, there's a fantasy!