B  U L  L E  T I  N

of the American Society for Information Science and Technology         Vol. 29, No. 3        February/March 2003

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IA, Therefore I Am
by James Kalbach

James Kalbach resides in Hamburg, Germany; he can be reached by e-mail at kalbach@scils.rutgers.edu

Information is a defining characteristic of modern society and itself a valuable commodity. Not surprisingly, many fields and professions attempt to understand and manage information. The advent of the Internet – the Web in particular – wrought unprecedented changes in the information industry: suddenly the number and types of information workers and specialists increased.  Information architecture (IA) is one such newly crystallized field that emerged from the first generation Web. Yet unfamiliar to other information-related disciplines, IA is poised to become a key information profession in the 21st century. 

But do we really need another information-related discipline? Andrew Dillon, Bulletin IA columnist, explored this issue in his first column, "I Think Therefore IA?" (December/January 2001). He wrote, "Can we really create a field whose sole purpose is, as some suggested, to ensure adequate navigation of Websites?"

The relationship of IA to other disciplines is unclear. Without its own traditions, standards and literature, IA necessarily borrows from surrounding fields. Related areas include computer science, information science, knowledge management, graphic design, interaction design, information design, usability, ethnography, brand strategy, content development and wayfinding, to name a few of many. In this light, IA is an apprentice to existing disciplines and seeks to benefit from established practices and theories.

The relationship between IA and librarianship, however, is of particular interest. According to a poll conducted in 2001, a large percent of information architects (IAs) have a background in librarianship, compared to other professional backgrounds (http://argus-acia.com/iask/survey011121.html). With only a blurry line separating the two fields, many practicing IAs find themselves asking “Is IA the same as librarianship, only in digital environments and with a hipper name?” Likewise, librarians who come in contact with IA may ask “How is what I do not IA?”

With much common ground between the two, such questions are difficult to answer definitively. At the highest level, both seek to match an information need with an information resource. Both also share a strong responsibility for effectively finding and using information with a strong focus on organization and classification. But, significant distinctions can be made, which in part point to the need for IA and justify its existence.

IA Background

Historically, Richard Saul Wurman is reported to have used the phrase information architect as early as 1975. More recently, Rosenfeld and Morville popularized the term in conjunction with developing information-rich Web sites in Information Architecture for the World Wide Web. The “official birth” of the field, however, could be said to have occurred at the IA Summit meeting in Boston in May 2000, sponsored by ASIST. Subsequent IA Summits (San Francisco, 2001, and Baltimore, 2002) have further moved the field along. The founding of Asilomar Institute for Information Architecture (AIfIA), a non-profit volunteer organization dedicated to advancing and promoting IA worldwide, marks a certain crystallization of the field (www.aifia.org).

Though the theme of the first IA Summit was “Defining the Craft,” there is still little agreement on how IA should be defined. One could say this emerging field has been overly concerned with definition and self-scoping since its inception (see for example “Defining the damn thing,” at www.iawiki.net/DefiningTheDamnThing). Definitions range from Elaine Tom's “a map of the underlying information structures” to Wurman's “the building of structures that allow others to understand" to Rosenfeld and Morville's “the combination of organization, labeling, and navigation schemes within an information system” and John "Squishy" Shiple's “the blueprint of the site upon which all other aspects are built – form, function, metaphor, navigation and interface, interaction, and visual design.”

The role of the information architect is unclear as well. Peter Morville’s “Big Architect, Little Architect” dichotomy pits a generalist responsible for the design of an entire information product (big IA) against a specialist concerned with a limited set of problems (little IA) (See: http://argusacia.com/strange_connections/strange004.html). At the heart of the issue is where responsibilities begin and end.

In practice IAs essentially perform some or all of the following tasks:

    • Help define the vision of the information product by gathering and defining stakeholder requirements, content and desired functionality.
    • Organize information on a comprehensive level, usually in something called a site map, content map or information model. This may include developing a controlled vocabulary or thesaurus.
    • Determine content positioning and interaction at the screen level. This is often captured in wireframes or gray-scale dummy screens that prototype navigation, content relationships and user interaction before the final design is added. A written technical specification usually accompanies such a work product.
    • Perform user research (interviews, observations, demographic research, market segmentation, etc.) and usability testing (heuristic evaluations, usage analysis, user testing, etc.).

Though the literature specifically addressing IA is thin, a body of writings is quickly emerging. See the reading list at the end of this article for books on IA. Other outlets of professional writing are Boxes and Arrows (www.boxesandarrows.com), a Web journal devoted to issues in IA launched in March 2002, and a special issue of JASIST on IA (v. 53, no. 10). Substantial professional exchange takes place on a lively listserv sponsored by ASIST SIG-IA, giving great momentum to the IA community (see http://mail.asis.org/mailman/listinfo/sigia-l for more details).

Differences Between IA and Librarianship

Matter. Though it is possible to contend that IA grew out of the Web, it is not limited to the Web. IA can be applied to a wide array of information products, including CD-ROMs, software applications, personal digital assistants, pocket PCs, information kiosks, cell phones and other mobile devices, to name a few. Some might even include the structuring of off-line media, such as airports or even cities in the broadest definitions. In general, current mainstream IA deals with information in digital environments, with an emphasis on websites and Web-based applications.

Though titles such as cyber-librarian and digital librarian are becoming more common, librarianship is generally concerned with traditional document formats and graphic records. Even the digital formats that a cyber-librarian handles are more stable than dynamic database-driven content that an IA might manage, for instance. Medium, then, gives rise to differences between librarianship and IA.

Of significance here is the effect IA can have on authorship. For example, when structuring information for a content management system, IAs might determine the amount and type of content to be published, as well as the format in which it will be presented. This directly impacts how authors write content. Librarianship, on the other hand, focuses on gathering, evaluating and managing existing resources. A library is in this sense is a document management system and rarely does a librarian’s activities directly affect authorship.

Time. IA work is usually project-based with a specific, foreseeable objective. The average life cycle to launch a large website, for instance, is usually less than a year. IAs often work on highly accelerated time scales. By contrast, librarianship is concerned with the ongoing maintenance of a bibliographic system over time. In an extreme example such as the archival library, this time span may be centuries. Time, then, assumes a significantly different role within each field.

Furthermore, IA does not have nearly the same traditions and standards as librarianship. Solutions are generally customized to fit a specific situation. There is often a focus on creativity and originality, and methods can be adapted as needed. Librarianship is concerned with mastering existing systems, which can be strict, complex and carry decades of history. Compliance to standards is highly valued and critical. This is not to say that librarianship cannot be creative, rather that the majority of practicing librarians generally do not create completely new organizational systems (e.g., taxonomies or controlled vocabularies) on a regular basis. An IA probably does.

Space. Librarianship is generally concerned with a place: the library. This significant community building is more than a repository of information. Children play at public libraries, students study in academic libraries and employees read the newspaper in corporate libraries. Libraries as institutions fulfill an important need for a quiet, common location, and librarianship takes this into account. Librarians are taught, for instance, library management and administration, which includes issues of the physical building. IA does not share this concern for a physical place, focusing instead on creating information spaces within digital environments.

Energy. While both professions focus on finding information, IA is far more responsible for the user experience and the user’s interaction with information than librarianship. Some have even called IA “interactive LIS,” referring to the role interaction design plays within IA. IA work manifests itself in highly visual deliverables that serve as the basis for the final display of information. This probably accounts for IA’s love affair with usability. 

Librarianship tends to focus on fundamental organization of information with such activities and devices as cataloging, cross-referencing, authority control and so forth. While certainly critical to helping patrons locate resources, this deep structuring of information is in general not something the user sees or is aware of, at least not in the sense that a website navigation, for example, is interactive and highly visible to the user. The deep structuring of information is generally not the focus of an IA on a broad scale yet, but has recently come into the spotlight. Librarian-turned-IA Peter Morville, for example, hopes to leverage elements of librarianship, such as controlled vocabulary and thesauri, within the IA profession (See his site www.semanticstudios.com).

Personalities. Librarians often know patrons quite well, even on a personal basis. The primary user group of a library is generally geographically bound in some way to the library. Their needs and behaviors are well known, or at least easily observed.

IAs rarely know their target groups on such a personal basis. Instead, IAs infer behavior from surrogate user records such as log files and marketing research. Even interviews and usability tests bring an IA in contact with only a fraction of the total user base for a given product.

This is to say that IAs in general work with anonymous users and librarians generally do not – thus, the impetus for user-centered information architecture. IA does not, for instance, have the luxury of bibliographic instruction, a staple of library work. With this aid librarians can skirt developing explanation-free systems: if patrons at first do not understand, just teach them. Though service-oriented for sure, most libraries are content-oriented rather than user-centered in their fundamental organization. IA, on the other hand, necessarily aspires to be user-centered, at least in theory.

Community Connections

A brief, informal analysis of cross-linking between websites dealing with librarianship and IA was conducted for this essay. Twelve leading IA Web logs (blogs) were compared to 10 personal sites dealing with librarianship (see box). In particular the links to other resources where the owners of the sites find relevant information were compared. These lists are sometimes labeled “Recommended Links” or  “How I stay informed” or something similar. On the whole, this set reflects what the website owner believes to be the most essential links on the topic, which are often to other blogs.

The 12 IA sites had a total of 313 such external links with an average of 26 links each. There were 127 unique destinations. The top 20% of the destinations from the IA sites accounted for 43% of the total outgoing links, or nearly half of the total destinations. The library Web logs had a total of 248 links with an average of about 25 per site. Of these, 116 links had unique destinations. The top 20% of the links from the library sites accounted for 129 of the total 248 links, or 52%. Again, the top sites account for about half all destinations.

In general the affinity of linking within each group was relatively strong – most of the sites examined linked to the other sites within the same group. Linking between the two groups, however, is extremely low. A total of two links from IA Web logs led to a resource dealing with librarianship (0.4%), and only three links from the librarianship sites linked to IA sites (0.4%). In total there were only six unique destinations in common. 

It is clear, then, that the intersection between key online Web logs within each field is minimal. Further, though IAs might attend the Internet Librarian conference and librarians might attend the IA Summit, there seems to be only a sporadic exchange of knowledge and resource sharing between the two groups otherwise. This probably is not due to a lack of awareness, however; IAs are certainly conscious of librarianship, and it is assumed that many librarians have at least heard of IA. Therefore, the two groups do not necessarily interact on a regular basis because they do not directly share the same concerns and problems. Which is to say that IA and librarianship are two separate fields.

This may not be the case in the future, however. IAs are discovering faceted classification and metadata for e-commerce purposes, while librarians are discovering the problems of interaction design and usability of information in online environments. There are many ways in which mutual benefits can and should be explored.

What Librarianship Offers IA

Deep structuring of information. Controlled vocabularies, thesauri, metadata and the like promise to be a focus of second-generation IA. A rich literature on such topics already exists within librarianship, just waiting to be adapted to new digital situations.

Tradition and standards. IAs need to start developing less disposable solutions and stop working with localized and improvised methods. Librarianship could serve as a role model for creating solutions for information systems with longevity.

What IA Offers Librarianship

User-centered approach. In practice libraries are not user-centered, though much of the thinking in the field is. In spite of a great deal of research in areas such as the reference interview, librarians often fail at understanding information needs from the user’s perspective. Patricia Dewdney and Catherine Sheldrick Ross’ well-known article “Flying A Light Aircraft” (See RQ, 34(2), 1994) demonstrates this deficiency well.

User experience and information interaction. The advent of graphical use interfaces, particularly the Web, necessarily changes they way people seek and use information. Librarians can learn a great deal from work already done within IA on information interaction and the user experience. For example, the user experience of most OPACs is particularly in need of help.

The flow of information between IA and librarianship requires a bi-directional exchange – both sides must actively export as well as import knowledge. From the brief analysis of Web logs, above, in addition to the author’s personal observations of both fields, there seems to be a lack of a real interdisciplinary connection. This paper, then, serves as a call for more cross-pollination of ideas and activities between the two fields.

Finally, the differences pointed out in this article can help many attempting to make sense of either field. Academia has already started to pay attention to IA, and education for IA will become an issue in the near future. Students planning a career or a course of study require reasonable boundaries around each discipline. For administrative purposes, educators need to know where IA, which as of yet has no academic home, fits into a broader curriculum. Additionally, employers must understand the limits between skill sets for recruiting, hiring and staffing purposes.


In sum, the differences noted above warrant the conclusion that IA and librarianship are two different fields, with different problem sets, practiced in different contexts. But they are complementary and the two groups have a great deal to learn from one another. I also contend that IA is a necessary, valuable new field. Looking ahead there may be common ground where IA and librarianship do come together, such as with digital libraries. In the mean time we should consider ways that bridges can be built to avoid duplication and redundancy while at the same time capitalizing on existing knowledge.

For Further Reading

  • Morrogh, E. (2002). Information architecture: An emerging 21st century profession. Upper Saddle River, NJ: Prentice Hall.
  • Reiss, E.L. (2000). Practical information architecture: A hands-on approach to structuring successful site. Harlow, England: Pearson Educations Ltd.
  • Rosenfeld, L. & Morville, P. (1998). Information architecture for the World Wide Web. Cambridge, MA: O’Reilly.
  • Rosenfeld, L. & Morville, P. (2002). Information architecture for the World Wide Web (2nd ed.) Cambridge, MA: O’Reilly.
  • Wodke, C. (2002). Information Architecture: Blueprints for the Web. Indianapolis: New Riders Publishing.


Web Logs and Sites Reviewed for This Article

(All were accessed between 1-15 September 2002.)

IA Sites and owners

  • Library sites and owners

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