“If there is no index, the book is probably not worth reading.”
William J. Casey (former Director of the CIA), How to read a book (1983)
Interview by Angel Candelario
Technical Communicators (also called Technical Writers) create instructions manuals and other supporting documents to communicate complex and technical information more easily to understand to a specific audience. Indexing is a very important stage for most documents production because the intended user can manage the document more easily and retrieve topics faster. Another benefit associated to a well-crafted index it’s that technical communicators can update sections more accurately. Many technical communicators find themselves in the position of having to produce an index in a short amount of time with no training, knowledge or experience.
John Noble has been indexing since 1989, and a Fellow of the Society of Indexers (FSI) since 1994 but not all his life has he been associated to index documents. During Post War and Cold War period he served as Radio Electrical Mechanic in the Royal Navy and receiving the Pingat Jasa Malaysia medal, for his services during the Malayan Emergency and the Malaysian-Indonesian Confrontation periods. He also participated at the Zanzibar NASA Project Mercury Tracking Station and Kano NASA Project Gemini tracking Station.
Very kindly, John shares with members of Technical Writer In Action his experiences related to the Indexing world and the importance for technical communicators.
TWIA: Thank you very much for joining me in this interview.
John Noble: I’m pleased to contribute Angel.
TWIA: Where are you from?
John Noble: Originally from London (England) I now live in Wales and work from home as a freelance indexer.
TWIA: Can you tell us a little bit about yourself?
John Noble: There is little enough to tell. I served 9 years in the Royal Navy where I trained and worked with radio and radar equipment at sea and on Shore Wireless Stations. On leaving the RN I worked for Cable & Wireless Ltd with HF transmitters and receivers. Subsequently I switched to working in libraries, as an engineering and science specialist librarian.
TWIA: What is your current position?
John Noble: I took early retirement and began working from home as a freelance indexer. As such I work mainly in the arts and humanities, although I have indexed a few Civil Engineering titles. I prefer the arts and humanities to be honest.
TWIA: What is your educational background?
John Noble: Just ordinary schooling to a pre-university level. The school was very academically oriented.
TWIA: Could you tell us about your experiences in the Royal Navy?
John Noble: I joined the navy just before my 18th birthday and following basic training I was assigned to courses leading to work on radio and electronic equipment. This was in the days before semiconductors. It included basic metalwork in the workshop and a lengthy theory course in the classroom. My first ship was aircraft-carrier and my job was to work on an air early warning (AEW) radar set. Maintenance on the antenna was sometimes exciting as it was the highest antenna on the ship and there were regular checks to be made in all weather and sea conditions, and the dipoles needed scraping and revarnishing every so often in harbour. My next job was in a shore radio HF receiving station. There followed work in a gunnery radar training station, and then a move to another shore wireless station in Singapore, this time with HF transmitters. My last job was a move back to radar again but this time in an anti-submarine frigate.
TWIA: According to my research you participated as a Telecoms Technician for several NASA Projects; could you share some of your experiences with us?
John Noble: I left the navy in 1963 and telephoned Cable & Wireless (a British telecoms Company) and asked if they had any work for a person who had worked on HF transmitters and receivers and I mentioned the equipment I had worked on. “Well as it happens we do have a job for someone like you, – how would you like to go to Zanzibar?” They happened to a technician short of complement in the NASA tracking station. C&W provided the point-to-point telecoms link to get the telemetry data back to the United States at Houston and Goddard. At that time it was still the early manned satellite Project Mercury.
I was there for 4 months, no mission was in progress, but at the end of that period there was a revolution on the island and the tracking station had to close down. American staff were all evacuated within 24 hours, British staff had to wait a week before being taken to Mombasa by a Royal Navy survey vessel. I was eventually transferred to a regular C&W posting in Bahrain and after furlough was appointed to the C&W Nairobi station. Because of previous experience with the American radio equipment in Zanzibar I was temporarily posted to the NASA tracking station in Kano (Nigeria), again because of an imminent Gemini Mission and the lack of a staff member. I cannot remember the Mission number, but it was in January 1966. This time there really was a mission in progress and it was fascinating listening in to all the voice communication with the satellite. When it was over I flew back to Nairobi to the everyday life of a busy Central Telegraph Office.
TWIA: I am curious about the revolution in Zanzibar, can you share with me more experiences about that?
John Noble: I sailed in HMS Owen in January 1964 from Zanzibar to Mombasa. It felt very strange. I was in my first civvy job after leaving the RN. I had been working on the NASA satellite tracking station for Cable & Wireless providing HF communications to pass the telemetry data back to the United States. As well as me (ex REM) there was a ex PO RE whose name I cannot remember and an ex-RAF radio technician among the C&W Project Mercury Contract employees. On January 12th ’64 I woke up to find that there had been a revolution. A group of us UK civilians moved into one large house so that we were together and could be contacted and instructed by the UK High Commission on what to do. There were actually no attacks on Europeans but it was a bit hairy all the same. On 15th January we were told to get ourselves to the harbour where we were taken out to HMS Owen. We managed to smuggle the prison governor out in the bottom of the car, as he was, to put it mildly, not popular with the revolutionaries. He was known as ‘Topper’ Brown, and that was not because of his head-gear. Owen was covered in dozens of civilian refugees, male and female, adults and children. We were decanted from Owen the next day in Mombasa. The crew were calm and helpful, and were all we might have expected of the RN in those circumstances. As I said at the beginning: it felt really strange to be a passenger in a RN ship when only seven months beforehand I had been a crew member in HMS Blackpool visiting Mombasa of all places. So, what can I say: it has to be – Three Cheers for H.M.S. Owen! and my own very belated and hearty thanks to any crew members from that time who may be reading this.
TWIA: During those projects, have you produced any technical documentation related to those projects?
John Noble: Not at all, I was just a knob twiddler.
TWIA: You are a very experienced Indexer/Proof-Reader. Do you recall how your interest in indexing originated?
John Noble: I was not a very keen technical person and never took any courses or examinations to improve my knowledge. After 6 years I decided to make the big change and take a course in librarianship. I wanted to get away from technical things. Did my course and began seeking work. I could not get away from my past so easily. The only library willing to employ me wanted me to be an engineering subject specialist, and that is what I became, working with the Engineering Faculty of a sizeable London Polytechnic. I was in that job for about 15 years. In 1988 I succumbed to a stress related illness and took early retirement. I still needed to find a source of income, and the main tool of a subject librarian is an index. I found, that with the help of books about indexing and dedicated indexing software I could make indexes that satisfied publishers.
TWIA: How important is indexing?
John Noble: People ask me – “don’t computers do all that kind of work nowadays?”
They can do keyword searches very well. We use internet search engines for that all the time. When there is an as yet unpublished book to index, the indexer has to think and put himself or herself in the mind of a future reader of that book. “What might they be looking for?” “How might they frame their question?” They have a term in mind that is not in the text, it may be a synonym or some other alternative term.
That alternative term needs to be in the index to direct the reader to the term used by the author. Computers do not work like that; they can only search for terms that are already in the text. A human mind that can think like a reader is what is needed.
The quote at the head of this interview by William J. Casey is very telling: “If there is no index, the book is probably not worth reading.” The book might be worth reading but, if there is no index – how do you find the information that you want? How do you find out if the book includes material that you need? The title may not help, and even if it is spot on, how can you find out if what you want to know about is included inside the book, or journal article? You need an index to get you started, otherwise it may all seem very interesting but at the end of the reading you may have learnt nothing. You need an index to be able to decide for yourself whether or not the book is going to be worth reading.
TWIA: Should all types of publications be indexed? How do you decide?
John Noble: It is a matter of economics. Certainly I believe all non-fiction needs an index. Even some works of fiction can do with an index, especially books in a series about a central character. I am thinking of the Patrick O’Brian Aubrey/Maturin books about the Royal Navy in the Napoleonic Wars and similar series works.
TWIA: In your opinion, how important is indexing as it relates to technical publications?
John Noble: I would find a handbook or a manual very difficult to use if it did not have an index. What I have said above about general non-fiction applies equally to longer technical treatises.
TWIA: What comprises a truly usable and quality index for a technical publication?
John Noble: Accuracy in all aspects and a means of approaching information using alternative terms to those in the text. Not all minds think alike.
TWIA: What are the basic techniques of indexing?
John Noble: Accuracy and the ability to get inside the mind of a future reader. Perhaps that is more of an art than a technique. There are books on the subject which are listed on the websites of the national societies, and they can be bought direct from the society or inevitably, through Amazon. Get the officially (Society) recommended ones.
TWIA: How important is indexing for online help/online documentation?
John Noble: It is equally as important as it is with print based media. – see my answer to the next question although the format and the use of ‘free text’ search may require a different approach. There still has to be a way to accommodate the fact that the searcher may use a different term to that which is in the document.
TWIA: Are there any likely changes that may affect how documents are indexed in the next few years?
John Noble: e-books and electronic/digital documents are the current challenge, and how to get around the problems of key-word search as opposed to coverage of themes and concepts. I am reminded of the old “Dissertation Abstracts” – it had a computer produced index which listed every occurrence of a noun irrespective of relevance and context.
TWIA: What advice would you give those looking to improve their skills indexing documents?
John Noble: Check with your local/national society of indexers – see my answer to the last question below: – they will have training programs that anyone can join. They tend to cost money and time, but what, if it is worthwhile, doesn’t?
TWIA: If a person or company needs your services, how can you be contacted?
John Noble: firstname.lastname@example.org
TWIA: Do you have anything specific that you want to say to Technical Writer In Action members?
John Noble: I am really an ‘arts and humanities’ man now, but check out the websites of your national, or near national indexing societies: the American Society of Indexers (ASI), The Society of Indexers of the UK and Ireland (SI) and also the Australian and New Zealand and South African and Canadian societies. They all have websites and they will all have lists of indexers that are available together with their main subject areas. That is the point of contact for you if you are looking for someone to provide an index for your own work. There are also indexing societies in non-English-speaking countries.