Thursday, February 3, 2011

Inside an Indexer's Brain: Pilgrimage to a Structure

I’m making an index for a fascinating book about three different shrines to the Virgin of Guadalupe in Mexico and the United States. Ethnography, sacred space, co-performative witnessing. Wow.

This is an organically organized scholarly book, very well-written. But not in any way easy to index. The author writes in stories and geography, visiting the sites she is studying and showing us the people who interact with them. All I can do as I start the index is to follow her.


The Virgin of Guadalupe originated in a vision in 1511 on a hill called Tepeyac in what is now Mexico City. The hill has since been transformed in various ways, and since the text is focused on sacred space, these buildings and spaces are important. In the introduction, I followed the author and indexed “Tepeyac” for the discussion of the Aztec empire and the origins of the cult.

So here I am in the middle of chapter one, and the author has gone back to the colonial period. Of course, the Virgin of Guadalupe is the metatopic of the book, so I can’t index everything under her, and she’ll be implied in all of my other headings. So I index “colonial period” for this section, along with the names of the churches that were built in the area during this time.

Then I find postindependence church-state relations, and futz a bit deciding where to put that (Catholic Church? Mexico? Its own heading? All three?). I postpone that decision because I’m not sure how much this will come up later in the text. Lots of notes to myself right in the index.

So far I feel as if I understand the text, but I’m not quite happy with my index entries. They feel pretty random. However, I forge on, reminding myself that my own book tells me to be patient at this stage. Forging on.


The next section is about religious tourism in the twentieth century. Now they’re building the Plaza de las Americas and the Modern Basilica. John F. Kennedy visits. Oh, now they’re building a shrine modeled on this one outside of Chicago. The Mexico City one has strong ties with the Chicago shrine. Okay…lots more names to index…

And I suddenly realize what my uneasiness was about. All of the sections about the Mexico City shrine, even though it has gone through multiple transformations and names, need to be together in a main heading. I didn’t land on that right away because the author doesn’t consistently use one phrase (at least not so far).

Whew. I feel so relieved. Everything is shifting around.

What to call it?

I still don’t know what to call it.

And actually, I don’t need to decide right now. Such an important concept, for all kinds of writing, not just indexing. Get the idea down in whatever words appear. Go back later and find the exact perfect right wording.

Sometimes the heading I first write down can sound pretty silly. I was indexing a textbook on multimedia, and every chapter had a section talking about how to tell if that kind of project is good. I wanted to gather all of those discussions in one place, and I couldn't for the life of me figure out anything to all it except “Is it good.” Yes, really. I indexed the whole book, blithely adding pages to my “Is it good” heading. I finally decided to call it “Quality hallmarks” at the very end.

Okay, I resolve to ask the author what the best all-encompassing phrase for this shrine area should be. Meanwhile, I just call it “Mexico City Guadalupe shrine.” Not too silly this time.


And suddenly indexing this chapter has become much easier. This is a complex book. My growing index is littered with notes to myself, including lots saying “reword!”. I will probably go through this same process multiple times before I’m done. But I’m on my way. The peregrinos in the book are following their pilgrimage paths to the Virgin of Guadalupe. I feel like I’m on a pilgrimage to the structure of this book.


  1. Do Mi, this is wonderful. You may be the first indexer-blogger. I love it!
    Heather E.

  2. "Get the idea down in whatever words appear. Go back later and find the exact perfect right wording." - Fantastic advice! Trying to name it while you're trying to capture it takes you out of the creative mindset.

    You're such an inspiration.... and a fantastic teacher!

  3. Hi Do Mi

    Sometimes I find notes to myself start to crowd out the important stuff, so the things I need to reword get marked with a star*. In the case of a phrase, it's boxed brackets []* marked with a star. Thought I'd share a shorthand tip, esp. if your writing is as bad as mine.

    My project today is to make an organizational charge of my filing system. Too many people are using it and its getting misfiled! I thought it was actually very similar to what you're doing in that patterns and structures emerge as you move within it.

  4. @Heather: Yay! And the neat thing is that writing the post got me unstuck in several ways.

    @Kellie: Exactly--you have to stay in the flow of writing. Edit later. And thank you! :-)

    @Shanna: When I'm in Word or on paper, I use square brackets too. When indexing I'm in my wonderful indexing software, Macrex, and I have special coded notes that are easy to spot and search. And I love your description of "moving within" your filing system and seeing patterns emerge. That also reminds me of the Digging for Treasure process, moving within your expertise and watching the structure rise. Very cool.

  5. For me, there is always a point where the index seems to dissolve--and then it re-crystalizes.

  6. This is great, Do Mi!
    I'm looking at a new chapter entitled "Under the Shadow of the Mushroom Cloud." It's really about nuclear power, but I love that wording, don't you? It's definitely a challenge, figuring out this rewording stuff. "Nuclear power" is so boring. Maybe I'll leave it as "mushroom clouds" for now ... ;-)

  7. Like Blythe says, there is always a point where it feels like everything is dissolving, and then it reforms itself. Love the process descriptions.

  8. @Blythe and @Jan: yes, exactly. And you have to be patient until it happens, while still actively processing. Tricky.

    @Pilar: Love the mushroom clouds!

  9. Glad to find this, Do Mi. Congrats on starting the blog. Of course the V of G is much loved here.

  10. Hi Miriam! Thanks for coming by! Yes, this book is fascinating.


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