A Thought on Indexing and Power

Tonight I was reading a book on indexing and abstracting–Brian O’Connor’s Explorations in Indexing and Abstracting (1996)–and had to stop and think about one of O’Connor’s guiding principles: “a subject is not an inherent element of a text.”

What do you mean? I thought. Doesn’t every text have a subject? Well, first of all, no. Many texts don’t have a subject, or they merely imply a subject, or they contribute to a composite subject. Ok. So then I wondered: isn’t this just hair-splitting? I had to think about it a bit more to realize that O’Connor’s point is bigger than that. The subject does not inhere in the text. You have to examine the text to understand its subject–or lack thereof. You have to master it.

But mastery is something else entirely; something not hair-splitting, but hair-raising. Mastery is the exercise of power.

The huge and ever-expanding power of technology companies in our lives today underlines an enduring cliché: information is power. But raw information is useless. Real power rests in the hands of information brokers: those who can master texts well enough to make the information they contain accessible to those who need it. This is the most significant reason why Google is so powerful. We all desperately want and need the information on the internet, but no one can sort through it all. We need a tool, therefore, that can match the questions in our heads to the answers other people have written down, and Google has done it better than anyone else.

I mention Google and the power of tech companies only to point to my insight from tonight’s reading. As a historian, I have learned all too well that both recording and interpreting information are vital instruments of power. Indexing, abstracting, describing, and organizing are instruments of power, too, which connect the recorders with the interpreters. Because the subject is not inherent in the text, to describe it is to power over both the writer, who may not have meant what the indexer says they did, and the reader, who may not ever be able to understand what the author meant because of the indexer’s choice.

This is an awesome power. It should not be taken lightly.

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