Is it just me, or is there really something a bit odd about the term “Table” Of Contents? I guess it really is a table in the same way that real tables are tables: columns of information arranged in rows. In this case just two columns, chapter title (though chapter number could make a third column) and then the relevant page numbers. I think my beef is really with the use of the full term as the main heading on the contents page in a book. The words “Table of” should always be omitted. They add nothing to the proper heading “Contents” and look ugly, and being redundant, intrusive. I always think the presence of the words “Table of” are a marker of the amateur publisher. (Nobody ever said that these value judgements which proliferate in book making are not snobbish or élitist.) While I’m at it, the use of leader lines has exactly the same effect on me.

Here, (via The Digital Reader) is a piece from .TxtLab about Rethinking the table of contents. This is all fine, but seems to me in the end to be nothing more than play. Does knowing there’s some enhanced relationship between paper and ephemerality in this text provide me with any information that I can make use of? Despite the heading the authors’ experiments don’t seem to have anything to do with rethinking the TOC.*

The contents list is in essence a part of the index; or to put it the other way round, the index is a continuation and expansion of the contents list. They are both techniques for finding your way around the book. (I wonder if this has anything to do with the European practice of putting the Contents at the back of the book?) There is obviously potential to automate the contents/index function in an ebook. In a print book you turn to the front or the back of the book and seek information on where you might find information about a certain topic. With a digital text you can potentially find every reference to that word; but that’s likely to be too much information. What you need is to find significant occurrences of the word or group of words, or actually not the word so much as the subject. You don’t really want an function that’ll find you “morbidity” without also bringing you “approaching death”. What you need is an index, compiled by an intelligence which has foreseen exactly the sorts of question you are asking of the text. This could potentially be invisible, summoned only by clicking on a word which would conjure up all the similar references to morbidity and to approaching death etc.

Does a list of chapters for a novel really help, even if they are hyperlinked? I tend not to be conscious of being engaged in Chapter 17 as I read along, and really just want to be able to get back to the page I was reading when I started noodling around in the text trying to remember just why Uncle Bob was such a problem. I dare say it doesn’t cost much to hyperlink your contents list, so that a reader can in fact flick straight to Chapter 17 however rarely a reader might need to do that. But surely more could be done. Maybe we want a return to eighteenth century practice with its “In which the hero . . . ” sort of chapter summary at the head of each chapter. In non-fiction this would be even more useful. Of course it all costs money: if you are going to provide this sort of hyperlinking, someone has to think it through, plan it out, and execute it so that when you do click on something you really do get there (and a pet peeve, are actually able to get back to where you started from).

Again I’ll say, remember we are (still) in the early years of the ebook. In the beginning all ebooks were just clones of the printed volume, and maybe the existence of so many unhelpful volumes out there inured us publishers to the idea that that was OK. But it’s not OK: to fulfill the potential of the ebook, so much more housekeeping needs to be done. But market forces are the real driver. Until such time as readers vote with their pocket books I suspect we’ll just continue short-back-and-sides-ing them.

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* Is it odd that in marking up a manuscript we publishers will happily refer to this section of the book as the TOC, despite our prejudice (well maybe it’s mainly my prejudice) against Table of?