Imagine indexing this quote: “Time flies like an arrow; fruit flies like a banana,” by Groucho Marx. A search or concordance would find the following key terms: “time, flies, arrow, fruit, banana.” But how helpful is this? Imagine this quote under the word “arrow” (a weapon). Human indexers would also pay attention to the human experience of rapid time passage, insects, fruit, and humor. The combination of the two (concordance and human indexing) is much more helpful.
If you have an iPhone or iPad or own a Nook device, you can find the Bartlett’s app by starting at http://www.bartlettsquotes.com. An Android version is in the works. Is the tool perfect? Of course not, but the detailed hierarchy-taxonomy our team created is a great place to start.
The Unscalability Problem
I have written and spoken about the challenges facing the future of the indexing business, including specifically the question of whether traditional, editorial A-to-Z indexing can keep pace with the acceleration in information publishing. The time and energy required to write a good index has remained relatively stable since the release of modern indexing tools, while writing production and specialization both continue to grow exponentially. More content than ever before is being published without an index, and it would take decades for indexers to catch up.
Thankfully there are several reasonable solutions to this “unscalability problem,” and I’m proud to say that with a single high-profile project, Potomac Indexing was able to provide all of them. Those solutions are boutique-style indexing (spending extra money for special attention), taxonomy (applying the index in multiple ways), and deprioritizing the long tail (focusing first on the most important needs).
That project was the indexing of Bartlett’s Familiar Quotations, 18th Edition, conceived as an integral part in Hachette Book Group’s conversion of the longstanding text to a searchable, shareable app.
Perhaps the first—and definitely the most time-consuming—responsibility of indexing BFQ18 was to assign keywords to each and every quotation in the soon-to-be-published text. The project required a team of many indexers with specialized skills (and sufficient speed) to meet the client’s needs for comprehensiveness and accuracy. The willingness of BFQ’s publisher to bravely invest in the effort required was, I believe, unprecedented in the industry. It was far more likely that a publisher would rely on search to provide access to such a large database of small items. However, Hachette knew intuitively not only that simple search would fail to meet users’ needs, but also that their highly curated collection of 20,000 quotations deserved far better.
Now join your hands, and with your hands your hearts.
Of course, indexing alone would not be enough to meet the requirements for the digital application Hachette set out to develop. The Bartlett’s Familiar Quotations app would need to provide convenient means of navigating among quotations, searching for quotes and groups of quotes, relating quotes together, and suggesting quotes appropriate for specific occasions and user moods. Meeting all of these requirements demanded the development of a taxonomy.
The final BFQ taxonomy had almost 3,000 preferred terms with more than 2,000 synonyms and 450 cross-references, arranged in a six-level hierarchy across 20 top-level categories. More than 55,000 keywords were assigned to nearly 20,000 quotations, an average of about 3 tags per quotation, with a maximum 20 tags assigned to a single (and exceptionally long) quotation. The taxonomy includes keywords for topics that are tangible and intangible, concrete and abstract, timely and timeless: applause, artistic criticism, bad relationships, cheese, delight, Dust Bowl, fishing, HIV, geometry, globalization, kitsch, Ides of March, meaning of life, memoir, mustaches, nightmares, reality, seasickness, second thoughts, smoking, separation of church and state, walking sticks, widows, working on Sunday, and writer’s block.
A vocabulary was created for occasions (e.g., Father’s Day, new baby, Yom Kippur), and quotations were also tagged for their style (e.g., inspirational, wise) and level of positivity. These additional sets of keywords enable users of the app to select quotes appropriate both for moments in life and for the user’s current moment.
Finally, these terms were used to build a multifaceted search and navigation experience, so that quotations could be found in multiple ways. Compared to the print edition, which provided a flat A-to-Z concordance with no topical aggregation and otherwise organized quotes according to the speaker’s birth year (when known), the flexibility and the power of the app rival not just its competitors but also all 18 of its printed editions.
Shoot all the bluejays you want, if you can hit ’em, but remember it’s a sin to kill a mockingbird
For us, the opportunity and pleasure of working on this truly unique project validates unquestionably PI’s competence, relevance, and creativity in the changing information industry. Every project is a boutique project, something that seems even more true now, in this age of massive, digital endeavors.
You can learn more about this project through this webinar:
No society can make a perpetual constitution, or even a perpetual law.