Archive for July, 2013

Indexing Historical Documents

Thursday, July 18th, 2013

A seminar on “Indexing Historical Documents” was held on Thursday, April 18, 2013 at the annual conference for the American Society for Indexing at San Antonio, Texas.  Kate Mertes, owner of Mertes Editorial Services, and winner of the ASI Wilson Award for Excellence in Indexing was the leader of the seminar.

A good index mediates between the languages of the author and the reader, providing a common ground on which different terms for the same concept can be coordinated and relevant relationships are revealed.  But an index to an historical document must also mediate across time and space, countries and cultures; uniting author, translator, editor, and reader, all of whom may come from separate centuries.  In this seminar,  we looked at the challenges of indexing materials written between the classical period and the early 20th century, balancing the need to remain true to the usage of the original text with the importance of serving modern readers.

Titled “Holding Hands with the Past,” this seminar focused on indexing historical documents as artifacts of a particular place and time.  Dr. Mertes, who holds a PhD in Medieval History, said there may be a problem of language for the historical book, with a different language for the original author, editor, translator, and modern editor.  There may also be a problem of meaning, with words changing drastically in meaning through the centuries.  The terminology may be different with an older text having many different terms, such as those describing the Civil War.  There may also be a problem of names.  She said as a rule, follow the text.  Use the most common modern name and include cross-references.  She said that Romans didn’t do name reversals.  Only since the 18th century, the 1700s, have names been reversed.

“When in doubt, double post,” she said.  “Consider your audience.”

Dr. Mertes focused on what was indexable in historical documents.  Time markers such as wars or kings, that are simply references, would not be indexable, she said.  She gave the audience exercises to practice identifying what was indexable in sample passages.

“You need to reach out across the divide and hold hands with the author when you index these historical documents,” she said.  “The index is a historical document in and of itself.  It reflects current times.”

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