Article Summary for Lecture #9—Mai

In “Analysis in indexing: document and domain centered approaches” Jens-Erik Mai discusses different approaches used by indexers to determine the subject matter of, and assign index terms to, documents. He argues that, by focusing strictly on analysis of the document and failing to take into account context and users’ needs, the prevalent document-centered approach is “problematic.” Mai instead suggests a domain-centered approach that shifts the focal point from the document to the context of the domain—i.e., “an area of expertise, a body of literature,” or “a group of people who share common goals.” This new approach adds to the traditional two-step indexing model of analyzing a document to determine its subject matter and assigning index terms to the document by including analyses of the relevant domain, the indexer’s perspective, and user needs prior to examining the document itself. Document analysis, contends Mai, is complex. The overall benefit of the domain-centered approach is that it “offers a framework to manage the complexity” and achieve “effective results.” (600, 605, 609)

Mai begins by defining the different approaches used among indexers and discussing the strengths and weaknesses of each. A document-oriented approach, says Mai, attempts to determine subject matter solely from the document itself—context and users’ needs are not considered. Differing only slightly is the document-centered approach, which, while still focusing only on the document when defining subject matter, bears in mind users when assigning index terms. Finally, a user-oriented approach calls into question users’ information needs both in determining subject matter and in assigning terms. Mai draws upon the work of Hjorland and Albrechtsen by combining their domain analysis theories with the user-centered approach. Domain-centered indexing is a more effective approach, Mai argues, because it provides indexers a “clear frame of reference for making decisions” that is “consistent with users’ use of information.” (599-600, 609)

Mai differentiates between the two steps involved with document-centered indexing when discussing the weaknesses of that approach. He claims that standard practices can be applied to step two—assigning terms—but, when it comes to defining a document’s subject matter, universal techniques simply are not applicable. This is because within a document-centered approach subject matter is based solely on analyses of a document’s attributes—title, table of contents, chapter headings, etc.—an ambiguous process, which, according to Mai, is often “left open to interpretation.” Since document attributes do not fully disclose subject matter, the indexer is forced to render judgments based on limited information. To do this a degree of “contextual knowledge” is required, which, in Mai’s view, provides the warrant for his domain-centered approach. (600-602)

Mai’s position on indexing is that context is key. Context is an essential ingredient in developing an understanding of a document’s intended uses, which, in turn must be understood before its subject matter can be ascertained. His idea of domain is simply a way to construct the various contexts within which documents are analyzed. Contexts will therefore differ among domains and, so, slight variations in an indexer’s approach will be required. User needs and indexer perspectives, according to Mai, are additional parts of the contextual knowledge surrounding a document. When viewed at the document level, his approach works from the outside in, the steps of which are 1) analysis of domain, 2) assessment of users’ needs, 3) determination of indexers’ roles, and 4) analysis of document’s subject matter. Mai presents a very compelling case. The traditional approach, due to the inherent limitations involved with establishing subject matter solely from a document, seems flawed. A broader contextual knowledge of users, indexers, as well as documents seems a better formula for generating more appropriate and practical indexing results. (603-609)

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