The nagging question crops up regularly on indexing discussion lists: As more content goes digital, is there a future for indexing? And the responses predictably conclude: 1) Yes, the publishing industry is changing significantly; 2) In spite of the changes, there continues to be a stable demand for print books and indexes; and 3) It’s a good idea to keep developing related skill sets to hedge your bets anyway.
The less-discussed version of the question gets a bit existential: Am I becoming a relic of a dying medium? Is what I do still relevant? It’s unavoidable after you’re asked for the hundredth time, “Can’t they automate that?”
The nature of our work is extremely focused, so it’s important to step back now and then and look at the big picture. This is what I had in mind when I picked up David Weinberger’s Everything Is Miscellaneous: The Power of the New Digital Disorder. Though written in 2007, the book is still a staple on information architecture reading lists.
Like many indexers, I love organizing things. Editing an index toward elegance is a satisfying task. I mocked the KonMari decluttering book, but my socks and kitchen towels are now stored vertically, and they make me happy. I’m pretty sure I picked up mosaic as a hobby only so I could sort stained glass and Italian smalti pieces in plastic bins by color.
Weinberger paints the digital content landscape as a powerfully functional disorder, contrasting it with previous organizational schemes (think physical products on store shelves, or card catalogues, indexes, or the Dewey Decimal system). Physical constraints have limited the way we organize and access information. There’s only so much shelf space in a brick-and-mortar store, only so many pages reasonably allotted for an index, only one location in my pre-digital photo albums for that snapshot of Grandma on the hayride. These systems he refers to as the first and second “orders of order.”
Digital information, on the other hand, can have many tags, and Weinberger calls it the third order of order. Third-order content doesn’t need to be filed into folders, or categorized by a single taxonomy. My photos can be in a virtual heap somewhere on Flickr, with multiple tags that allow me to find the same photo under “Upper Peninsula,” “beach,” “Uncle Bob,” or “2012.” Geolocation, facial recognition, and algorithms that infer “Upper Peninsula” is probably equivalent to “U.P.” all expand the ways I can find my photos, beyond the tags I apply manually.
Despite the initial skepticism about crowd-sourced tagging and content creation, both have proven far more effective than anyone anticipated—not perfect, of course, but often pretty darned good, and far more democratic than expert-controlled content. Defenders of traditional editorial authority use Wikipedia far more than we like to admit, because the vast majority of the time, it answers our questions quickly and accurately, while being thoroughly transparent about the behind-the-scenes negotiations of passionate and often non-pedigreed contributors.
Digital information is a mess. And it works, much to the consternation of obsessive organizers everywhere. (Remember early articles about indexing the Internet? LOL.)
Is this the writing on the wall for second-order indexers? Probably not, at least not for a good while. There’s plenty of evidence that print publishing isn’t going away anytime soon , and UX-savvy ebook publishers will realize the potential for enhanced ebook indexes to become a value-added feature that delights readers .
Admittedly, Weinberg locates book indexes as a pre-digital organizing scheme, and the book is about the positive disruption of the digital disorder. We’re the “before” in a “before and after” narrative. But even the descriptions of the first and second orders of order contain examples indexers will appreciate, like the Bettman Archive of historic photos, the Universal Alphabet, Mortimer Adler’s fight against alphabetization, alternate models for the periodic table of elements, problems with the Dewey Decimal System, and terminology from indexer Seth Maislin. The “before” portion of the book is actually pretty entertaining, if you’re an indexer or taxonomist.
Fortunately, the meat of the book—Weinberger’s focus on the third order—does not argue that the first and second orders will become obsolete. Rather, he makes the case that the digital disorder affects not only the way we find information, but also the way we understand knowledge itself. Third-order knowledge, he asserts, is grassroots, iterative, commoditized, and metadata driven, upsetting the power structures and categories of the past. And it becomes harder to define what constitutes a topic, or topic mastery, when you can slice it up so many ways. These are the landscape changes that may not affect the day-to-day work of indexers, but on the meta-level they affect our clients, our readers, and the context in which we work.
As algorithms advance, you can bet the digital disorder—the third order of order—will only become more powerful and more useful. Compulsive organizers like me will need to let it go and take solace in our sock drawers and elegant indexes . But keeping an eye on the evolving content landscape is always a good idea, and since Everything Is Miscellaneous speaks especially well to an indexer’s sensibilities, it’s a great place to start.
 See Nicholas Carr’s The Shallows for a discussion of digital vs print reading comprehension. Carr’s article “Paper Versus Pixel” gives an overview of why print is unlikely to go away, and Frank Catalano’s article “Paper Is Back” compares recent print and digital book sales.
 See the ASI Digital Trends Task Force recommendations for ebook indexes.
 Regrettably, the index to Everything Is Miscellaneous contains long spans of undifferentiated locators, which I found frustrating. It does, however, include a few silly, self-reflective, and thoroughly miscellaneous entries in the traditional format.