Joanne Sprott has been a freelance book indexer, copy editor, and proofreader since 1995, and has taught indexing for the American Society of Indexers. She teaches a course on book indexing for Library Juice Academy, which is running for the second time in January. Joanne agreed to do an interview here, to let people know a bit more about her class and about her background.
Thanks for agreeing to do the interview, Joanne. I’d like to start by asking you to talk about about your career as a book indexer and your experience teaching indexing, to give people an idea of who their potential instructor is.
Book indexing began for me when I was eleven years old. I made a subject index for my parents’ National Geographic magazines using a blue felt-tip pen and 3X5-inch index cards. I just loved the whole process of organizing topics. My mom still has the index cards in the attic, along with those old magazines.
I didn’t really think about that childhood project again until after I’d gone to college (late 1970s), been an intelligence officer in the Air Force, and then started working as a university administrative manager. In the Brown University bookstore, I found this little book on careers for bookworms (like me!) and discovered that book indexing was an actual job, and that most indexers were freelancers. Since I had small children and a husband with his own career, I decided this would be a good thing to pursue.
First thing I did was to join the American Society for Indexing in 1992. When you’re new at something, networking is really important. In 1998, after I’d been indexing for three years, I was asked to teach a two-day beginning indexing workshop at the Society’s annual conference. I had already taught one friend of mine how to index the year before, so she and I taught the workshop together. It seems to have been quite well received, so we taught the workshop again for the next four years. The concepts and structure of that workshop formed the basis of my LJA course.
Since that last workshop session in 2002, I haven’t had a chance to go back and teach again, but I was very pleased and honored to be referred to the LJA to get back into teaching indexing in this online course.
That’s a really interesting background, and a solid one for teaching classes for us. Would you give an outline of the indexing class that you teach? What does it cover, and what will students be able to do at the end of it?
My book indexing course for LJA covers about the same number of hours as my original workshop, but because it’s spread out over a month’s time, there’s more opportunity for integrating knowledge and practicing indexing skills.
The course is designed to provides an introduction to the indexing process for a closed system text (as opposed to periodicals or databases). The main objective is to provide the student with a beginning skill set in producing a traditional back-of-the-book index. Topics I’ll cover include plumbing the indexer mind; how users approach and use indexes; index term selection (names and subjects); index entry formation; publisher requirements and considerations; double-posting and cross-referencing conventions; and editing the index for conciseness, completeness and usability.
The student should have a good grounding in indexing conventions by the end of the course as well as practice in the mental business of term selection and organization of entries.
I’ve also added a special section on names and on the basics of embedded indexing, which is becoming more prevalent as indexes are adjusted to or created from scratch for, ebooks.
I like to keep in regular contact with students and have as much discussion through forums as possible, since I think each student’s learning experience can help the others. I’m also going to introduce more quizzes for this January iteration of the course to help folks reinforce the rules of thumb we use in building indexes.
Sounds like a very good class. I think there are a lot of librarians who are interested in book indexing as side work, and they might be interested in knowing a bit about what the work is like. What do you enjoy about indexing, and what do you think it would be like as side-work versus a full-time job?
The main enjoyment aspects are the interesting books I get to read (but not all of them are, of course!), and building and editing the indexing structure. I’m not a big fan of the entering part (although professional indexing software does make that a lot easier). I’d love to be able to read the book and have the terms I select in my head automatically appear in my indexing program in draft form, and then just do the editing/creative part.
I love finding semantic relationships among terms and coming up with alternate headings for people to use to find things. This is a separate creative activity from the writing of the book. I take some pride in understanding the author’s themes and subject structure and expressing them in the abbreviated, map-like structure of the index.
The advantages to doing indexing as a side job instead of full time include: 1) being able to say “no” to books you might not like as much because you’re not paying the rent with your indexing income; 2) accepting the often less-than-ideal rates many publishers offer, again because you don’t have to pay all your bills with the income; and 3) having a nice supplementary intellectual activity for retirement. I’ve known a number of indexers who were originally librarians and simply kept their part-time freelance indexing thing going after retirement from a library job.
It sounds like an appealing kind of work to do. You’re making me want to get into indexing too. I have one last question before we sign off. I wonder if you would tell people a bit about some of your other interests, just to give them more of an idea of who their instructor for this class will be.
OK. I tend to be a generalist anyway, so, here goes. Subject matter that I love to work on includes mythology, history, biography, computer stuff and how-to on a variety of subjects. In my business, I also do copy editing, proofreading, and my newest activity, book design, which I am still learning. I also enjoy helping self-published authors make their way through the publishing process, so I am getting ready to list myself as what they call a “book shepherd” in the biz.
And when I’m not busy running my business “empire,” I get away from the computer to do gardening and knitting (just relearning that one, also). I also love all things mysterious and fantastical, so I read science fiction and fantasy for pleasure and also study Tarot and other oracle card reading methods. That about covers the territory.
Thanks for doing this interview. I am looking forward to the next round of your class.
Thank you for the opportunity to teach, and to learn from my students. I enjoyed the first class and am looking forward to January’s.