Like any other profession, indexing also uses specialized tools and software. These tools allow the indexer to enter a significant number of terms, necessary subheadings, and page references. At the same time, these programs help to organize index entries into one clear and comprehensible system. Specific indexing programs are also able to analyze and index any given text without human intervention. These programs carefully go through the text, trying to understand it by making semantic judgments and identifying important terms within the document. These indexing programs then organize the terms in alphabetical order with page numbers next to them. Sounds too good to be true, right? Well, that’s because it is. These programs might be useful for some somewhat restricted and basic materials, such as database indexing. However, you should not use them for more challenging types of indexes, such as the index of a book or journal, for example.

Why can’t indexing software write an index?

Even though it may seem odd at first, an index can’t be written by a computer. Some might say that a computer can beat a human at chess, so why wouldn’t it be able to write an index? Well, if we compare chess and book indexing, we’ll see that there are some significant differences. Chess is a logical game with a finite number of possible moves. That number is large, but limited. The computer can discern every likely scenario and predict the possible outcomes.

However, this mathematical approach can’t be used for indexing. It’s still unknown whether computers can genuinely understand what their reading material is actually about. Computers may be able to read the words, but can they understand what the information is truly about? There’s one thing that makes the human mind different from programs: unlike computers, a human mind understands the concept of “aboutness.” In other words, a human doesn’t have to see the specific term on the page to know what this page is all about.

On the other hand, if the exact phrase isn’t in the text, the computer won’t consider this part of the text as relevant. That’s how a lot of relevant entries/references, subentries, and cross-references might be omitted. Sometimes, we use synonyms, metaphors, and different figures of speech. Humans can speak about a particular topic without using specific terms and still know what is being communicated, even when a specific concept isn’t mentioned at all. Computers, on the other hand, can’t do this. At least, not yet. Artificial intelligence earnt its name for a reason.

Some concepts are usually discussed over several pages without even mentioning specific words. Indexing software only takes into account the terms that appear in the document. In other words, indexing programs aren’t capable of determining the nuanced relationships between words and concepts. For instance, let’s take the word key as an example. It can have different meanings: a key to lock/unlock doors, computer key, piano key, or key in Key West as a geographic name. We, as humans, can determine the meaning of the word based on the context. Computers, on the other hand, aren’t able to distinguish the content if a term can have multiple meanings.

Book Indexing: Man vs. Machine?

Indexing software is beneficial to professional indexers. Indexing tools and software is indispensable for organizing an index, manipulating its entries, and keeping track of the overall indexing procedure. However, indexing software can’t automatically create an index by any means. They could try, but it would be like using Google Translate for translating. Both indexing and translation require intellectual and analytical work that, at least for now, the software hasn’t been able to achieve. Be careful about the so-called indexers who define indexing as a simple procedure that can be completed by running a program on the text.

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