Index as rhetoric – a Q&A with the NGV’s Megan Patty

Sydney School cover

A form of storytelling, as well as a way of systematising knowledge, the index is an intensely human feature of the book publishing craft, so why not celebrate it? Megan Patty, the National Gallery of Victoria’s Publications Manager, talks with Uro’s Maitiú Ward about the unusual indexes of two of our titles: Mongrel Rapture and the recent Sydney School, which uses its index as a wraparound cover.

Megan Patty:      Does your imprint index often? If so why?

Maitiú Ward:    Indexing is a time consuming process, and it's also not something that's necessarily appropriate to much of what we produce, which tends to be image rich and not necessarily aimed at a research audience. As we're moving into more academic publishing, however, it's something we're doing more of. It has interesting potential – not so much as a research tool, necessarily, but perhaps in other ways, for example in narrative terms, or even decorative terms, in as much as the aesthetic of the index carries with it a particular kind of meaning and graphic legacy [related to enlightenment ideals, scholarly tradition, various attempts to systematise knowledge in an authoritative way]. Much like any part of the suite of conventional elements of non-fiction books, it's one of the things we're liable to find an excuse to experiment with as a publisher.


MP:      Do you think your indexes differ to a traditional index, i.e. do you use a professional indexer and ‘stick to the rules’.

MW:     No – I like to think of Mongrel Rapture’s index for example as rhetorical. It's implicitly highly selective in the terms it indexes ("Kylie Minogue", the colour "Red", the word-concept "Not"). It seems to capture something of the culture and sensibility of ARM. It has a voice and it wants to say something.

We've recently developed another "index" as a wraparound cover treatment for a book on the history of the University of Sydney's school of architecture, design and planning. This was also a very selective collection of terms/words/names. It's a distillation of the history contained within, a way of broadcasting to potential readers what the book is all about (or what we and the editors think is most likely to be of interest in the book), more so than a research tool (although it can function in this way, too).

 Mongrel Rapture index

MP:      Does the content of the index reflect your intention for Mongrel Rapture or rather the practice of ARM?

MW:     The index was an inside job – it was developed by Mark Raggatt, who is now a director of the practice. He was also co-editor though, so I guess you could say a little of column A, a little of column B...?


MP:      Tell me about the entry for ‘Not’ (its rather lengthy!) and ‘As If”

MW:     That question merits a long and complex answer, so I'm going to duck it! For a start, see Harriet Edquist's essay p1381, 'Docta Ignorantia: Paradoxes of Faith, Doubt and Architecture'

Or, the crowdsourced cheat sheet on "via negativa":


MK:      Have you had any feedback on this particular index, and any closing thoughts?

MW:     Oddly, no! You're the first person to take an active interest in it. Curious....

With ePublication making search queries simple for research purposes, indexing might seem a little anachronistic, but as a way of grouping and mapping concepts within a book, rather than necessarily just names/terms, it's quite a potent device and one that doesn't yield (yet!) to brute computing power (although of course having a digital minion at your disposal does help to get things started). From that perspective, indexes have always been subjective, to a degree, so all we've done with these two examples is make that subjectivity more explicit.

Arguably, it's the subjective processes (the judgement applied in determining the relevance of concepts and terms and their relationship groupings) that actually makes the index useful and meaningful; it's another intensely human feature of the book publishing craft, a kind of storytelling that robots can't easily replicate, so why not celebrate it?