Presentation by Kate Mertes at the Fall 2015 Meeting
By Roseann Biederman
The guest speaker at our fall meeting was award-winning indexer and author Kate Mertes. In her morning presentation, “On Aboutness,” Kate discussed the importance of establishing a clear vision of a book’s conceptual focus—or “aboutness”—before beginning the indexing process.
Getting a handle on aboutness helps indexers in two ways, according to Kate. First, it affects our indexing efficiency: When we understand a book’s structure from the start, we avoid time- wasters such as tweaking existing entries and adding additional entries to an almost-finished index. Second, it vastly improves the quality of the index, since it ensures that the index structure reflects the relative importance of the concepts in the book.
Understanding aboutness starts with identifying its metatopic, or main theme, along with four additional topic types that may or may not relate to the main topic. Kate identified the essential characteristics of each type (with a particular focus on the metatopic), and provided some exercises to help attendees identify them in a text.
1. The Metatopic
Since the metatopic is the overall argument of the text, it should be the starting point for building an index. Figuring out what the metatopic actually is can be tricky. While the book title sometimes reflects the metatopic, it can just as often be irrelevant or even misleading. The book may also contain multiple metatopics (e.g., a multi-author text), leading to further confusion. Kate provided a couple of techniques for identifying the metatopic:
Kate believes that the metatopic should be indexed if the publisher allows it. While indexing textbooks have generally advised against indexing the metatopic, she finds that readers actually do look up the metatopic (i.e., “whales” in a book about whales), and they are confused when it’s not there. In her own indexes, Kate includes a metatopic entry that functions as a directory to the next tier of related objects. She uses undifferentiated locators after the main heading to point to general overview information (rather than including an “about” or “overview” subentry), and includes subheadings that often point to a chapter range. Finally, she includes a note after the main heading that instructs users to look up the subheadings for breakdowns.
Kate defines these as the “basic, fundamental, or original concepts upon which the metatopic is based. She derived the term from the German prefix –ur (“original”), and from the name of the city in Mesopotamia which is said to be the origin of Abraham, the biblical source of civilization. This etymology helps us grasp the Ur-topic’s function as a classifier. According to Kate, “Every book has an Ur-topic; it’s how a librarian would shelve it.”
Ur-topics can be too general and can thus fool indexers, making it difficult to build a structure for the index. “If an index is growing and growing, you’re indexing with the Ur-topic and it’s time to redirect,” says Kate.
An example of this might be a book whose metatopic is “Buddhism in ninth century Vietnam” and whose Ur-topic would be “religion.” Indexing anything more than perhaps a general definition of religion here, and cross-references to other specific religions and denominations, could end up with a huge and relatively useless array.
Participants honed their skills at distinguishing between the metatopic and Ur-topic by identifying the Ur-topics in the books they used for the metatopic exercise.
3. Chapter topics
As the name suggests, these are the subjects of the book’s individual chapters with regard to how they fit into the argument of the metatopic. Kate noted that the first chapter is generally about the metatopic and establishes general information about the book, and can thus be a useful tool for establishing aboutness.
Kate provided an exercise for determining how each chapter topic relates to the main topic, which she recommends completing early in the indexing process. Using the table of contents from a theology book she indexed, she demonstrated how to create chapter topic entries and cross-references. If the actual chapter titles provide a definite link to the subject matter, she says, they can be used as headings. If the chapter titles are cutesy, discursive, or otherwise misleading, the indexer will need to change the terminology and/or phrasing to create useful headings.
Kate categorizes these as topics to which the book regularly returns and which are germane to the metatopic, but which are not given their own chapter treatment. Although microtopics aren’t directly related to the metatopic, they are nevertheless important leitmotifs that recur constantly in the book. Since readers will remember and search for them, microtopics should always be included in the index.
This final topic category comprises concepts which are randomly or repeatedly mentioned in the text but which are not central to the text’s overall argument. “Most books have them,” says Kate, “and it’s easy to create extraneous entries from them if you aren’t focused on the metatopic.” She advises against “daisy picking” non-topics, but says that a rare (or even bizarre) story or case related to the main topic should be indexed because readers will look for it.
“It’s hard to analyze the metatopic and work out the conceptual focus of a book, but that’s our job as indexers,” says Kate. Evaluating topics according to this hierarchy of categories can help us identify the metatopic, follow it through the text, and build a truly useful index.
© 2015 by Heartland Chapter of ASI. All rights reserved.