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The following article on the H. W. Wilson award-winning index to John Patrick Diggins's The Promise of Pragmatism appeared originally in Volume 3, Number 3 (July/August) of Key Words: The Newsletter of the American Society of Indexers. It is reproduced here with the kind permission of the American Society of Indexers and of the author, Alexandra Nickerson, ASI president for 1997-98.

The 1995 ASI/Wilson Award Winner
by Alexandra Nickerson

The ASI/Wilson Award Committee is pleased to announce its choice for winner of the award for book indexes published last year: an index worthy of emulation.

The winner of this year's American Society of Indexers-H.W. Wilson Award for excellence in book indexing is the index to John Patrick Diggins' The Promise of Pragmatism: Modernism and the Crisis of Knowledge and Authority, created by Martin L. White and published by the University of Chicago Press. The index is commendable for its structure and content as well as for its format and appearance.

Mr. White's index is both comprehensive and concise; it provides an excellent tool for the reader. He has created excellent entries that convey the information covered in a text on a topic difficult to conceptualize in indexing.

Mr. White has a B.A in mathematics and philosophy and an M.A. in philosophy. He has been employed as an instructor of philosophy at the University of Connecticut and as an indexer for 13 years at Encyclopedia Britannica, Inc. He was Senior Indexer for Children's Britannica (a runner-up for the 1988 Wheatley Medal) and was involved in all stages of the production process for Britannica products and in the development and maintenance of Britannica's 90,000-term thesaurus. He has been a freelance indexer for five years and has written indexes for scholarly monographs and trade books; most of his work has been in the humanities and behavioral sciences. He recently left Encyclopedia Britannica, Inc. to devote full time to freelance indexing. Areas of particular interest to him are African-American music, architecture, Islamic history and culture, painting, philosophy, and physics. He is a member of the American Society of Indexers, the Chicago Book Clinic, and the Society for Scholarly Publishing. When informed that his index had won the award, Mr. White was quite surprised since he was unaware that the University of Chicago Press had submitted it.

The books submitted for consideration for the American Society of Indexers-H.W Wilson Award this year were extremely varied in subject matter; they included books on law, medicine, software documentation, biology, philosophy, religion, psychology, politics, and history. The quality of the indexes submitted was high and the judging committee found its task both enjoyable and difficult as a result. The members of the 1995 committee were Vicky Agee, Marcia Carlson, Julie Kawabata, Jane Maddocks, Kate Mertes, and Alexandra Nickerson.

In addition to requesting that he provide us photocopies of typical pages from the Table of Contents, the text itself, and the index [note: permission to reproduce these pages here has been granted by the University of Chicago], we asked Mr. White to tell us about the indexing tasks presented by Mr. Diggins' book:

I can't now recall whether my reaction to being asked to do the index for John Patrick Diggins's The Promise of Pragmatism was "Good, I've had a wee break and am ready for another free-lance job" or "Oh my gosh, how can I possibly get all of this done?" Whatever, I wasn't about to turn down a project from the then Chief Manuscript Editor (now Managing Editor) of the University of Chicago Press if there was any chance that I could get it done. There was also the fact that the title indicated that it was a book that was well-suited to my background and interests (and that might even be a good read).

One can't tell a book by its cover, of course, especially regarding what's going to be involved in compiling the index. It usually takes a chapter or so to get a sense of how the author writes, and by that time it's too late to back out. I knew from the title that the book wasn't going to present any insurmountable conceptual problems for me, as my undergraduate major was philosophy and my senior project was John Dewey's Logic: The Theory of Inquiry (which may never be surpassed as an instrumental, empirical account of logic). And though Dewey was sixty-four years gone from the University of Chicago by the time that I arrived there in the late sixties to do graduate work in philosophy, there were still a few older faculty members for whom pragmatism, generally unfashionable at the time, was intellectually respectable. My favorite professor went so far as to read Plato in terms of Charles Sanders Peirce, the founder of pragmatism.

Understanding the concepts isn't the whole story, though, when it comes to the index. The manner in which the author treats the concepts determines whether creating the index goes along at a good clip (nice paragraph-long, or even section-long, discussions of a concept) or at a glacial pace (half a dozen concepts per paragraph, each one related to all the others, with a few proper names thrown in for good measure). Diggins lies toward the complex, convoluted end of the scale, but he's by no means the worst (from the indexer's point of view) that I've had to deal with.

There were two aspects of the book that caused me rather more problems than the author's having to lot to say. The first was that I started out with idea that the book was a philosophy book (it's actually the history of ideas), and I thought that I had a pretty good idea of how to index a philosophy book. Had I paid more attention to the subtitle, Modernism and the Crisis of Knowledge and Authority, I might have seen that more was going on. But, as I'm generally eager to get right down to business, I took only a brief look at the front matter before digging into chapter one.

Nothing in the subtitle, in any case, would have prepared me for what I found there. Instead of getting directly to Peirce, James, and Dewey (the Holy Trinity of pragmatism), Diggins started by discussing the historian Henry Adams. Now, Henry Adams has a certain resonance for me, beause, as a teenager, my best friend and I were wont to compile reading lists for ourselves, and, near the top of my list, was Adams's The Education of Henry Adams. (Despite having my interest renewed by Diggins, it's still there.)

I couldn't imagine what relevance Adams had to pragmatism, so I figured that the author's little idiosyncrasy would soon pass, and that I could index with a light hand until I got to the meat of the book. But it didn't pass; rather, the discussion got longer and deeper, and it came clear to me that Adams's views on physics or modernity could not be passed over in the index. Thus, I found myself going back through the page proofs trying to recover the passages that I'd neglected the first time through. The economics of scholarly book indexing do not allow a second full reading, so it came down to scanning the proofs, looking for terms that my sieve-like memory had on (say) the top half of a right-hand page. I'm sure that I didn't get them all, but I hope that I got most of them.

The second feature of Diggins's writing that raised problems for me was his repetition of many ideas. The entries for "Adams, Henry: and history", and its reciprocal, or "dualism: Dewey on" are representative of the persistence with which he hammered home certain points:

Adams: and history, 17, 20-21, 36-37, 44, 71, 78, 80-83, 97, 106, 108-11, 170-73, 195-96, 250, 258, 293, 465, 482-83

dualism: Dewey on, 5, 8, 40, 212, 214, 218, 222, 223, 232, 238, 240, 308, 315, 379, 485

It is my understanding that academic presses give their authors a pretty free hand regarding the content of their books (they're the experts, after all), but, in my opinion, the book would have been improved, and the index tightened up, had some of this repetition been pruned.

This repetition had two consequences for the index. First, it entailed considerable extra inputting without enhancing the index (or, in my opinion, the book). My log shows that I devoted 74 hours to the project. At 493 billable pages, I certainly didn't get rich on the index (fortunately, the H. W. Wilson Company has helped make up the difference). At least, the text was trouble free. My cover letter has only one query, which, in my experience, is quite remarkable.

The second consequence for the index was the occurrence of long strings of locators at entries such as the above. I was surprised, on looking at the book after I was apprised of the award, how long some of them were. I suppose that I could have decided to have stopped indexing them after the first few. That, however, is contrary to my deeply-rooted policy of indexing every significant occurrence of a name or idea once I have decided to track it. Breaking out the heading-subhead complex and making it a headword would have been the standard move, but I am sceptical about creating entries such as "Adams and history" or "Dewey on dualism" in a traditional index for a humanities book. Another possible move would be to look for subtle differences in context and to create a series of subheads within the entry. In addition to being time-consuming, such subheads would likely have to be on the long side to express the differences. They might also alphabetically scatter closely related references within the entry; or, if kept together alphabetically, there would be a long series of subheads all relating "Adams" and "history" or "Dewey" and "dualism". In the paragraph-style, single-level-of-subhead entries that the Press prefers, I feel that such series (say, more than two or three) are probably more off-putting than useful to the inquirer. In fact, when such series begin to build up, I often collapse them into a more general subhead (often the awful "and", of which I see too many in the Diggins index) with a longer string of locators. To sum up, though I know the rule about limiting the number of undifferentiated locators, I try to apply it, and all rules, by considering all of the relevant circumstances, then making my best guess as to what best serves the inquirer.

I ask myself, naturally, whether this is my best book index. Though I think it is a good one, I feel that I've done better. I believe that my principal strength as an indexer is ascertaining conceptual relationships and expressing them in the index (this reflects my nine years' experience in thesaurus construction). The Promise of Pragmatism, though it treats philosophical and political concepts, focuses on people, i.e., proper names. Therefore, I didn't have the scope for conceptual relationship building that I'd been led to expect from the title. Where such relationships were needed, I believe I've provided them. At the entry "metaphysics", for example, the references for all of the topics and doctrines of metaphysics are listed as subheads (essences, essentialism, idealism, materialism, naturalism, nominalism) or given as targets of a see also reference (realism).

Though the author is not a philosopher, and I occasionally found his philosophical naiveté a minor irritant, he has an insightful point of view on pragmatism and its place in American history. The book deserves its long, favorable review (no mention of the index) in the New York Review of Books (February 16, 1995). If the topic is of interest to you, I recommend the book. I hope you find the index useful.

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