Bulletin, August/September 2006

An Academic's View

by D. Grant Campbell

D. Grant Campbell completed his Ph.D. in English before moving into the field of information studies. He currently teaches in the Faculty of Information and Media Studies at the University of Western Ontario. His research interests include metadata systems, classification systems and controlled vocabularies. Reach him at gcampbel<at>uwo.ca

I am an academic and have been one for over 20 years, apart from some truancy in the 1990s. I started research in literary studies and then moved to information studies; I have therefore attended and spoken at conferences in a number of different areas, including the American and Canadian Societies for Eighteenth-Century Studies, the International Society for Knowledge Organization, the American Society for Information Science and Technology and the Canadian Association for Information Science. Both my research and teaching lie in the areas of classification, metadata and electronic text design. I attended my first IA Summit in 2004 and have been attending every year since. In this article, I will outline some of my thoughts as an academic towards the field of information architecture, particularly as manifested in the annual IA Summits.

Why Did I Go?
I submitted an abstract to the IA Summit in 2004 for several reasons. Information architecture as an area of research had been lurking on the periphery of my attention for some time: I had the vague idea that information architects were deeply involved in the act of bringing Web information to users. IA seemed to pull together many aspects of information design that have all too often been separate: user studies, user cognition, information policy, search engine design, interface design, metadata and classification. 

The chance to see classification and metadata issues discussed outside the library environment particularly intrigued me. Discouraging evidence was piling up that LIS research remained isolated from other domains of inquiry, and I was growing restless and discouraged. All the roads labeled “metadata” and “classification” seemed to lead back to library science, and much as I admire and respect library science, I occasionally want to see how other people are solving problems of information organization, information filtering and overload, user needs, labeling, categorizing, ordering, sorting and displaying.

I also knew that two of my friends were going that year; I therefore wouldn’t have to have dinner alone. And Texas is warmer than Ontario in February. Many career decisions have been made for poorer reasons.

The People
When I arrived at the opening reception for the 2004 Summit, I was struck immediately by the crowd’s air of intensity: an air which I’ve since discovered is a central feature of the Summit. Groups form and discuss information issues voraciously, sometimes with loud voices and laughter, and sometimes quietly, with intense stares. People have formed friendships with attendees of previous Summits and watch for them anxiously: cries of joy, far more abandoned than one finds at the ASIS&T Annual Meetings, are common, as are rapturous hugs and a tendency to talk in that verbal shorthand that is common with people who are completing each other’s thoughts, without troubling to bring outsiders up to speed.

At first, I thought the delegates were displaying insular snobbery; later, I came to realize that this behavior arose from an intense hunger to be among other information architects. Practitioners of IA spend much of their professional lives explaining what they do to others and patiently justifying their roles to skeptical project stakeholders who know nothing about information. At the IA Summit, they are among friends; what looks to the outsider like snobbery is in fact intense gratitude and relief. Delegates are often in tears on the last day and at the closing session of the 2004 Summit, an information architect got up before the assembly and burst into an impromptu rendition of “You Light Up My Life.”

The culture of IA Summits reminds me of a dartboard. At the center of this intense group stand the “stars.” Information architecture is a young profession, and the dynamic individuals who got it going are still very much alive and very much in evidence at the Summit: Jesse James Garrett, Lou Rosenfeld, Peter Morville (frequently called “PeterMo”) and Peter Merholz (“PeterMe”). Moving out from that center, we find a group of information architects with many years of experience: Margaret Hanley, James Melzer, Fred Leise, Samantha Bailey, Karl Fast, Amy Warner, Liva Labate, Javier Velasco, Dave Heller and many others. They live and work all over the world. A significant number of these people are alumni of Rosenfeld and Morville’s pioneering IA firm, Argus Associates, and get together to reminisce about Camelot and all its glories. These people attend every year, and present frequently; their presence and contributions provide the base of continuity that gives the IA Summits their unique aura.

At the outer edge of the circle we find a wealth of people who come and go: researchers like myself, looking for ideas and insights; practitioners looking for solutions to specific problems; thoughtful people from government, industry, the non-profit sector and the health professions trying to make difficult information decisions with very little training or experience, in urgent need of ideas and advice.

The Sessions
Most of the Summit attendees care deeply about the Summit, and attend as many sessions as possible. Many are also “wired” in the most pervasive sense. It’s not just a matter of technology. Delegates at any conference bring laptops and cell phones and palm pilots and blackberries into sessions, and straining to hear the speaker above the tapping of computer keys and the bleeping of nearby cell phones is nothing new. But information architects bring their fixation with technology to a new and fascinating level. They don’t “play” with their gadgets in the way that my undergraduate students play solitaire and do instant messaging during my lectures. Instead, their endless tinkering is part of a quest: a deeply committed quest to reinvent research, innovation, communication and thought through imaginative use of information technology. 

This commitment to technology is very democratic and exists alongside a monastic commitment to simple tools of the job, such as index cards, post-its and white boards. They’re not interested in the latest piece of proprietary software; they’re interested in the latest inventions for communicating with each other at low cost and high efficiency. They post to the Summit weblog throughout the sessions and post pictures of the slides and the delegates to Flickr. This intense need to imitate the Borg every living minute of the day should be irritating. Somehow, it isn’t, probably because it grows from information architects’ intense engagement with their surroundings, rather than a passive-aggressive retreat from those surroundings. The IA Summit is a Web 2.0 culture, struggling to evolve, and it’s hard not to get caught up in the belief that all this blogging is making a new world.

Topics of the sessions range from case-study accounts of specific challenges and the solutions that were found through to presentations of new software and new services and on to theoretical speculations on the origins of IA and its future. Plenary speakers such as Stewart Brand, Brenda Laurel and David Weinberger have addressed many different theoretical prisms, from pace layering to industrial design, for viewing IA practice. Conferences often have a topic du jour: a concern that has attracted intense interest and is represented by multiple sessions that attract good crowds. In 2004 it was successive facet searching; in 2006, it was user-centered tagging.

Conscious efforts have been made to widen the range of papers offered in various ways. My first presentation – a qualitative study of information practices of gays and lesbians – was accepted because it pushed IA issues of facet analysis into areas that lie outside the corporate sector. At the last Summit in Vancouver, a new research track was added to provide an incentive for researchers looking for a venue for peer-reviewed information research.

Certain stylistic trends have surfaced amongst the various presentations over the years. While many people attend the Summit to address or find answers to specific problems, the biggest crowds are for the dynamic speakers that have become Summit favorites: Jesse James Garrett, Peter Merholz and Karl Fast, among many others, have all acquired a reputation for dynamic presentations that blend practice and theory in entertaining and engaging ways.

In addition, the slide presentations at IA Summits kick serious butt. I may have been the only person at the 2004 Summit to use a Microsoft PowerPoint template; I haven’t used one since. The slides at an IA Summit frequently cross the line into art, with their subtle and imaginative use of visual rhetoric. The best slide presentations use a minimum number of words, and use animation, diagrams and color not just to communicate concepts, but to exercise wit and humor, and to facilitate learning and comprehension on various levels of cognition.

The IA Summit has also developed traditions of its own, tailored to its own unique culture. The IA Slam typically takes place over an afternoon, in which the audience divides into groups to brainstorm solutions to a presented problem, using only paper, markers and post-its. Frequent birds-of-a-feather sessions are scheduled to attract people interested in common topics. And every IA Summit closes with a session called “Five Minute Madness,” in which delegates are allowed to speak on whatever subject they like, to a maximum of five minutes. When the delegates don’t actually break out into song, they fearlessly raise objections to some facet of the conference’s program or organization; they rail at the quality of the IA mailing list; they pose suggestions for future conferences and air on-the-fly theories about where the conference has to go; they acknowledge sessions they loved; they welcome people from other countries or those who had far to travel. In the five-minute madness, and indeed throughout the Summit, emotions run close to the surface: enthusiasm, laughter, excitement, disdain, anger and, above all, intellectual engagement flash out like lightning.

What do we have, then? We have a collection of intelligent, highly motivated, intense information professionals, all busy reinventing the information profession in non-library contexts. They are, as a rule, good communicators; they mingle research and practice; they bring a problem-solving and brainstorming approach to pragmatic and philosophical questions of information and society; they carry on their debate in person and online, using advanced Web interaction tools. They are frequently strong personalities, who enjoy debate and are not afraid to express disagreement. Although I have no empirical data to support this conjecture, I sense that the IA community is significantly younger than the information studies community in general. I would guess the average age of the IA Summit attendees to be lower than, for instance, that of the attendees at the ASIS&T Annual Meeting.

Where do academics fit into this? Well, I’ve been able to establish a niche, doing crazy things that seem to provoke thought and discussion: using information architecture to prolong the useful information life of people with Alzheimer’s disease; using facet analysis to enhance access to gay, lesbian, bisexual and transgendered information sources; extending pace layering theory into ecological theory. More and more academics are expressing interest in IA, and more and more schools are making IA part of the regular curriculum, some even offering degrees in it. Skepticism remains in many quarters, and I am often asked two questions: What is information architecture? And why should I care?

What I Get from Information Architecture
As an academic, information architecture as a field continues to puzzle me, and the IA Summits continue to intimidate me. But there are a number of reasons why I keep coming back, why I participate in the planning of the conference when I can and why I’m eager for IA to develop a bigger presence in the broader arena of information science research.

First, the IA Summits give me the chance to see the intellectual tools of my trade being used in a new, stimulating and sometimes frightening way. Throughout my library school training, facet analysis was considered one of the more obscure features of information organization. It surprises me to see Ranganathan on PowerPoint slides or to hear people arguing over coffee about the theory of integrative levels. Sometimes it frightens me to see people tearing these theorists and theories apart for whatever they can offer to solve current problems. I feel scandalized, as if I’m watching a huge, complex work of literature being cheerfully opened, the pages torn out, and fragments dipped in wallpaper paste to make a piñata. What, I wonder, do these satisficing professionals know about Ranganathan’s concepts of phase relations or his theory of lamination?

But whenever I start feeling that way, I force myself to relax. When information architects use complex theories, they usually know more than I give them credit for. And as for Ranganathan’s theory of lamination, I’m just a wee bit shaky myself. Occasionally, I feel tempted to roll my eyes when people talk about tagging and say to myself, “that’s just indexing. We librarians learned all that years ago.” It takes a real effort to acknowledge that my response arises from defensiveness: a frightened reaction to the realization that my intellectual work has moved into an arena with enormous social, technological and economic differences from the library world that I was trained to serve. After three days among information architects, I’m apt to feel completely untrained in areas where I am supposedly an expert. 

Second, working in the area of information architecture has given me a chance to interact with people who approach problems and solutions in a very different way from those immersed in the academic environment. People bend over backwards trying to answer the ever-present question, “What is information architecture?” The question never gets answered, I suspect, because information architecture is less a field than an intellectual approach, much like philosophical approaches such as phenomenology, structuralism and deconstruction. Information architects do not deal with common information subjects, but instead approach information problems, in all their complexity, within a common problem-solving culture. This culture is different from academic culture in three important ways:

  1. Research and practice are intertwined. Many information studies academics would indignantly protest that they too are committed to the intermingling of research and practice. Yes, but IA pushes it to a whole new level. Practitioners don’t just sit and listen to research; they do it. When, in 2006, we introduced a research track to the IA Summit, the end results surprised me: the Research Track was virtually indistinguishable from the rest of the conference. While there were definitely some sessions that were more oriented to practice than others, there was in the end no clear distinction between scholars and practitioners, and the existence of the Research Track as a separate entity was easy to forget. An academic who comes up with a practical solution to a nagging problem can present at the Summit and attract enthusiastic listeners. Similarly, a practitioner can present on George Lakoff’s Women, Fire and Dangerous Things, distilling Lakoff’s dense theories of categorization and culture to an audience of practitioners and academics alike. At the IA Summit, researchers and practitioners do not just use each other’s findings; they adopt each other’s methods.

  2. The dissemination practices are different. Despite the gallant efforts of e-print and preprint archives, peer-reviewed publications take a long time to write, a long time to pass through the review process, and a long time to appear in print. Information architects are not willing to wait that long. As a result, the important thought in information architecture comes not from the peer-reviewed journals, but from important blogs, aggregated through RSS feeds and attracting widespread commentary. The peer review comes not from a formal process, but through the gradual affirmation of compelling arguments through hyperlinks picked up by Google’s PageRank system and tags in services like del.icio.us.

  3. The paradigms of work are different. Because information architecture grew out of a consulting environment, it tends to favor collaboration over isolated achievement, brainstorming over patient application of tried-and-true principles and communal solutions to a problem over individual contributions to a literature. Academics, particularly those who, like me, come from the humanities, have to shed their isolationist tendencies if they’re to work productively with information architects. They also need to justify this work in academic departments that value peer-reviewed journals, particularly at tenure time. If younger, pre-tenure academics involve themselves in the information architecture community, they will need to develop methods of extracting their work from time to time and publishing it in journals. Innovations like the Research Track for the IA Summit are making this easier to do, and hopefully we will see many more academics participating in the IA Summit in the years to come.