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Indexing is political

One of my favorite publications is Lapham’s Quarterly, “a magazine of history and ideas,” created by Lewis H. Lapham, formerly editor of Harper’s Magazine. The magazine’s blog, Lapham’s Quarterly: Roundtable has a fun article on back-of-book indexing.

  • Back Matter, by Moira Donovan, Lapham’s Quarterly: Roundtable (April 13, 2012).

Donovan quickly outlines the history of indexing books. Then she makes this parallel to search engines and the internet and how they affect how we view information:

The power of the index was twofold. Not only was it a microcosm of a more protracted body of knowledge, but it could also be intensely political. With the formalization of the profession in the eighteenth century, an author’s choice of indexer required a discerning judge of human nature. One nineteenth century writer warned of books “whose indexes, compiled by unscrupulous enemies, have been their ruin.” Although an index considered ‘good’ by the standards of the profession could never express any overtly political bent, a shadow of authorship is inevitably cast. In the same way that modern search engines filter content, the index shows that the organization of information, no matter how straightforward, is never neutral. Information retrieval may not change the content of the information sought, but it certainly affects how that information is viewed, shifting physical and psychological perceptions.

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