A back-of-the-book index to images of ancient Greek vases

Before I dive into this, here’s my experimental image index that is discussed in this post. You can see some sample pages from the text using Amazon’s “look inside” feature.

Over the summer I took a class on indexing and abstracting. As part of my final project, I indexed some of the images of Greek vases in the book The History of Greek Vases, by John Boardman (London: Thames & Hudson Ltd, 2001). It seems kind of quaint to produce a back-of-the-book image index; maybe that’s just because I’m too steeped in digital stuff. Indexes are crucial for print materials, and I know it would have been useful to my art historical research to have the subjects, vase types etc. indexed. However, this probably isn’t the most practical of endeavors. Any good index to the text would probably index image captions, or the locators would at least get you close enough that you could find that one image you remembered that showed Perseus with a detached Gorgon head in hand. This exercise was more just to see what would happen if indexed multiple attributes but proceeded as if I were just creating a traditional subject index to a text. What would the index look like? What would the cross-references be like, and how would the image index differ from an index to the text?

Method and Meanderings
I didn’t index drawings, maps, or photographs of sections of vases; I focused on images depicting vases in their entirety, and on the descriptive information about them that was included in captions. The locators in my index are for page numbers, although each image was numbered in the text. It just seemed easier to navigate to a page than to an image number.

When deciding what aspects of the images to index, I took inspiration from the access points used by the Beazley Archive at Oxford University. Some of the elements by which one can search the Beazley pottery database are:

  • Fabric
  • Technique
  • Shape name
  • Date range
  • Inscription type
  • Inscription
  • Artist name
  • Scholar name
  • Decoration description
  • Collection name
  • Publication name

There are even more than that, and it’s pretty impressive. Not all of these categories would be useful for my purposes (a back-of-the-book image index), but several of them (inscription type and vase shape name, for example) are especially useful for various types of art historical research in this field.

I looked at the VRA Core 4.0 metadata schema and noted which of its elements might correspond to those used by the Beazley Archive. The Beazley’s “fabric” element combines VRA’s “cultural context” and “style/period” elements. “Technique” corresponds to VRA’s “material” and “technique”. VRA does have an element for “inscriptions”, but it’s not clear to me if the “type” attribute for the “text” sub-element could be used to indicate the type of inscription (e.g. epoisen or egraphsen signatures). I was mainly using VRA Core as a point of reference, to get an idea of the types of attributes generally deemed important in creating descriptive metadata for images. (at the time, I didn’t know about Cataloging Cultural Objects, but since VRA Core is based on it I don’t see that as a big deal). I also considered the facets of AAT, and what they indicate about elements that can be combined (e.g. style and period).

The attributes I finally chose to index were:

  • artist name
  • vase shape
  • technique
  • decoration
  • inscription
  • subject (both “things” depicted (e.g. warriors) and mythological figures (e.g. Achilles))

I don’t think any of the vases in my sample set ended up having inscriptions. I chose to index only these six elements because I had a limited amount of time to devote to this. If I was indexing images in an online setting I would definitely want to use more access points.

It was difficult to differentiate between imagery that could be both a subject and a decorative element. Many of the vases I was indexing were decorated with rows of animals in a repeating pattern. This is a common motif, so I needed to decide on a policy for how to index it. At first I was making very specific subheadings indicating the type of vase on which the pattern was appearing, but then I realized that this was creating too much work, and it probably wouldn’t be all that useful. It was also starting to conflate the “fabric” and “technique” elements with the “subject”, and I wanted to keep them separate in hopes of having a less chaotic index.

So, for a vase that had a motif of lions in a row, I decided to just give the locator after the heading (“lions, 30-31”). However, if there was a vase with a lion in any other, non-decorative context, I made a more specific subheading (“lions – being hunted, 20”). I worried that it would be confusing to have some locators listed after the heading, and then a subheading with more locators. So I decided that if any subheadings were required, I would instead list the decorative appearances of the subject with the subheading “as decorative element”. Hopefully more examples will make this clearer:

Sphinxes were only used as decorative elements in the vases I indexed. So the entry for sphinxes is:

sphinxes, 20, 33, 41, 45, 46

Lions were used as decorative elements on some of the vases, but sometimes they were part of the narrative scene. So my entry for lions is:

  being hunted, 20, 23, 30-31
  as decorative element, 29, 33

Problems / Discussion
Many of my locators appear multiple times within the same entry for a couple of reasons. First is the fact that one page could contain multiple images of different vases with the same subject matter, technique, or fabric. Second: most vases have multiple sections of varying imagery. I may have been indexing too deeply, but I thought that failing to index all the different aspects of the subjects depicted would be akin to giving the researcher a list of undifferentiated locators. A good example of this is the heading for “warriors”. Since I was creating a heading for “hares – being hunted by warriors” it made sense to have “warriors – hunting hares” instead of just listing all the pages for warriors. Why not give the user as much information as possible? Additionally, my entry for “hares” has duplicate locators because in one section of the same vase (on page 33) the hares are a decorative motif, and in another section they are part of a narrative scene in which warriors are hunting them. (confused yet?!)

As mentioned above, deciding to index both “subject” and “decorative elements” caused problems for me when the two were hard to differentiate. I wanted my imaginary user to be able to use the index to find lion freizes and not have to go through a bunch of locators just to find irrelevant images of lions NOT in freizes. But then again, I always expect too much of my information resources.

In hindsight, I think my index would be more useful if I had created separate indexes for each attribute I was indexing. But there are pros and cons to having the index divided by facets instead of in one long alphabetical sequence. One of the books I examined had one index for mythological figures and one for objects that are commonly attributed to specific gods/goddesses (I thought this was awesome). The book I was indexing had three separate indexes: (1) Artists, Groups, and Wares; (2) Mythological and Divine figures; and (3) General (three indexes in a mere 3 pages!). Though it makes sense to divide the index this way, it could lead to confusion if it spanned more than 3 pages. A user could be looking for Odysseus in the wrong index and not know it unless each page was very clearly marked with a header (I think I remember committing this error as an undergraduate). Another benefit to having one long alphabetical index is that it didn’t force me to always differentiate between the aforementioned troublesome decorative elements and subjects, which overlap so often on the same pot.

In real life, it would probably be best to keep the index as simple as possible, only providing sub-headings when the list of locators for certain topic/shape/artist got excessively long. Nevertheless, if my methods in this exercise could be used on a larger scale, the index would be very useful. Of course that’s unrealistic because of how time-consuming it is, and how “everything is online” now. Back-of-the-book image indexes aren’t unheard of, though. I inspected the indexes in the back of Boardman’s book and another book on Greek art. One of them only listed very general topics (“women” or “fighting scenes”). The other gave some sparse subheadings (and I think this one was the better index overall, though neither of them had any “see” references!).

Indexing a set of images in a book is a good way to become familiar with the basic issues of image description and index construction. It requires decisions that appear simple on the surface, but force you to carefully consider the nature of your subject and the needs of your potential users. You’re forced to make decisions about what to index, how deeply to index, and how to best express what you’re indexing…and those are all just as important in the online environment. So this is a good exercise for a rainy day when you need a rest from computer eye strain.

Also, I think it would be interesting to survey scholarly texts in any image-focused field and try to get an idea of how people deal with images in back-of-the-book indexes. Projects for the future!


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