Mapping the Heavens by Peter Whitfield

About this book
Peter Whitfield’s Mapping the Heavens (British Library, 2018) is a heavily illustrated guide to the history of astronomical mapping.  It’s 183 pages long and around 50,000 words in total.  I was asked to produce a single name and subject index of around 600 lines in a three-column layout, with run-on subheadings.  The book covers astronomical mapping from its earliest notions in prehistory to present-day astrophysics, but from a historical rather than a technical viewpoint; it is intended to be accessible to the general reader.  Although the main subject of the book is very specific, this book has great breadth and depth, ranging from stone circles to photographs from interplanetary probes, and taking in most of western European art on the way.   The importance of astronomy to religious practice – particularly in respect of measuring time and establishing calendars – was also a key theme of the book, as was the interrelationship of astronomy and astrology until relatively recently in the history of the science.  I’m unreasonably fond of maps and quite fond of astronomy, so was very pleased to get this commission.
Approaching the index
In practical terms, I was glad to be able to get a printout of this book from the publisher – it’s a largish format book with lots of illustrations and it was really helpful to be able to read through and mark up the paper copy.  Doing this work on my lap, rather than a table, was a mistake though and generated various aches and pains.   I am not a scientist, so I did a bit of preliminary work on the internet brushing up my understanding of astronomical terms.  Having read through the book, I developed a mind-map of the key themes and sub-themes, and their relationship to each other – here’s a photo.  The colour-coding helped identify thematic links and overlaps.
Mindmap for the index of Mapping the Heavens.
Mindful of my experience with Captain Cook, I made use of Ann Hudson’s formula for calculating how many entries I’d need on a page, on average, to achieve an index of this length, hoping not to have to reduce the total number of entries hugely after I’d finished.
A key challenge was ensuring that I’d properly understood the relationship between certain technical terms, and using dictionaries and the internet to help understand these terms and how they should relate to each other in the index.  For example, the terms brightness, luminosity and magnitude were all used in relation to the light of stars.  Investigations showed that brightness can refer to stellar magnitude (ie how bright a star appears) and also to luminosity (how bright a star appears in a certain spectrum) I thought brightness might well be a sought term for the non-expert reader so included it with see references to luminosity and to magnitude, stellar.  Magnitude and luminosity were also included as subheadings under stars.
As well as technical terminology, I had some problems with synonymous terms.  Star maps and star charts were used fairly interchangeably in the book to refer to the same thing, although sometimes they were used to distinguish between the geometric, astronomical plotting of star positions in two dimensions, and the pictorial, astrological images of the starry sphere.  There was obviously no point in having two separate headings for star maps and star charts, especially as they would be so close to each other as index entries, so eventually I hedged my bets with the main heading star charts/maps.
The breadth of content, given the apparently focused main topic, meant that I had a lot of entries.   The book makes reference to religion and theology, mathematics and geometry, artistic methods and materials, and the history of publishing, as well as giving accounts of the development of astrology and astronomy.  Possibly inevitably, I had to cut down the length of the index during the editing phase.  I had entered more subheadings at the first entry stage than I had done for previous books;  for a number of headings, I was able to save space by removing the subheadings where the total number of locators allowed.
The interrelations of the sub-themes of the book lead to a lot of double entry to avoid too many see references.  This made the index longer but, I think, probably more usable.  Trying to balance including a greater range of sought terms against the improved usability of double entry was quite difficult for this book.
There were a lot of unfamiliar names in this book, and I made heavy use of cutting and pasting to enter them, and did a great deal of careful checking at the editing stage.
Mainly, this book was extremely lovely to look at and a clear, informative account of how and why we have attempted to model the stars and planets over the years.  I learned a lot about astronomy and cartography, and their interaction with the worlds of art, religion and commerce.
I made use of Sky’s labelling systems again and used them to flag illustrations, queries and headings that I thought might not be needed.  I also worked out how to use the filtering system to exclude that last group from the final index, without having to save a copy first and then delete them all, which made life much easier.
Lessons learned
I’m still making too many entries at the first stage, although this is probably better than too few, but at the edit stage there were quite a few headings that seemed very unlikely sought terms.  I also need to think at the term selection stage about how much of my index to devote to double entry of terms, rather than including a wider range of headings.  I also need to do more playing with Sky and see what else it can help me do.

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