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The art of the cross-reference.

By ROBERT McHENRY.

qv_slug150AS YOU KNOW, the abbreviation “q.v.” stands for the Latin quod vide, “which see.” This is a standard form of cross-reference, suggesting that the reader of some text will find additional information about the matter at immediate hand at some other place in the text. That other place is, or should be, clearly specified in the words that immediately precede the marker. (There may be more than one referent, in which case the form is qq.v., for quae vide, again “which [which has no plural form] see.”)

Properly used, q.v. is a strong signal that what is being pointed to is germane and substantive. Hence the mildly imperative tone. Somewhat less peremptory is see also, with its implied “if you wish; if you have time; could be interesting.” Some texts go a step farther and provide cross-references that exist only for the sake of a kind of obsessive completism, with no promise of any utility. Thus, for example, those encyclopedias that mark, often by the ideogram ☞, any term in the text that is also an entry title in its own right. This is roughly equivalent to “oh, and we also have….”

To a degree, the set of cross-references in a text comprises a sort of index-on-the-installment-plan (remembering that to index something is to point to it). They are more useful in being right there in the text, thus immediately informing the reader that the text has more to say on the present matter, but they are less useful in being blind to the reader’s detailed needs.

An index, too, can be more or less useful. An analytic index, which notes various facets of an entry term, e.g.:

———————Einstein, Albert
————————in Aarau, 40, 131
————————academic career, 45-46
——————————administrative, 184-185, 239, 240, 249, 312-313
——————————applications for university positions, 45-46…

is likely to take a reader to what is sought much quicker than had all the page citations simply been strung out after the entry “Einstein, Albert.”

At the other end of the utility spectrum are entries of a kind I noted in my science textbook in 4th grade:

——————Grippe, see influenza…

——————Influenza, see grippe

Kurt Vonnegut gives an amusing example of an analytic index that offers perhaps too much help in his novel Cat’s Cradle:

Aamons, Mona:_’ the index said, ‘adopted by Monzano in
order to boost Monzano’s popularity, 194-199, 216a.; childhood in
compound of House of Hope and Mercy, 63-81; childhood romance with
P. Castle, 72f; death of father, 89ff; death of mother, 92f;
embarrassed by role as national erotic symbol, 80, 95f, 166n.,
209, 247n., 400-406, 566n., 678; engaged to P. Castle, 193;
essential naïveté, 67-71, 80, 95f, 116a., 209, 274n., 400-406,
566a., 678; lives with Bokonon, 92-98, 196-197; poems about, 2n.,
26, 114, 119, 311, 316, 477n., 501, 507, 555n., 689, 718ff, 799ff,
800n., 841, 846ff, 908n., 971, 974; poems by, 89, 92, 193; returns
to Monzano, 199; returns to Bokonon, 197; runs away from Bokonon,
199; runs away from Moazano, 197; tries to make self ugly in order
to stop being erotic symbol to islanders, 89, 95f, 116n., 209,
247n., 400-406, 566n., 678; tutored by Bokonon, 63-80; writes
letter to United Nations, 200; xylophone virtuoso, 71

In that same novel a professional indexer strongly advises “Never index your own book.” To do so, she says, is to reveal too much of oneself.

The indexer tries to anticipate not only what a reader may seek but how he or she will formulate a query.

It is true that there is a subjective aspect to indexing. The indexer tries to anticipate not only what a reader may seek but how he or she will formulate a query. In the index to that same book about Einstein (plucked at random from my shelf), two pages are given over to the entry “Einstein, Albert,” which — when you consider — might have served as the single index entry, with hundreds of subtopics and thousands of page citations ranged below it. Short of that, though, one faces the question of what goes there and what goes elsewhere. And there is a further question of what goes there and also elsewhere. “Relativity,” as an example, doesn’t appear under “Einstein” at all; it has its own entry. How, we may wonder, was that decided? And why no “see…”?

Encyclopedias, one might assume, must be indexed. But they have not always been. The Encyclopædia Britannica, for instance, was published without indexing until the seventh edition (1830-42). More surprisingly, the original form of the fifteenth edition (1974) had no separate index at all. Instead, cross references, organized rather like index entries, were appended to most of the articles. This method ultimately proved unsatisfactory because so many terms in the text that would have provided entries for a conventional index had nowhere to go. Thus, while the article “James, Jesse” named his murderer, the reader who only had heard the name Robert Ford had no way to discover why that name is (by some, anyway) reviled. In 1985 the encyclopedia was revised and most of the cross-references collected, along with thousands of previously missing terms, into a two-volume conventional index.


'How to Know'Robert McHenry is the former editor-in-chief of the Encyclopædia Britannica. He is the author of How to Know (Booklocker, 2004). His work has appeared in the Chronicle of Higher Education, Skeptical Inquirer, the Chicago Tribune, and the American. He is the “Q.V.” columnist at The Fortnightly Review, where he provides notes and comment on reference work.

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