of the American Society for Information Science and Technology   Vol. 28, No. 2    December / January 2002

Search

Go to
Bulletin Index

bookstore2Go to the ASIST Bookstore

 

Copies

Hot Topic

Information Architecture in Library and Information Science Curricula

by David Robins

David Robins is assistant professor, SIS, University of Pittsburgh, 135 N. Bellfield Ave., Pittsburgh, PA 15260; telephone: 412/624-9441; e-mail: drobins@pitt.edu

The term information architecture (IA) is among the latest buzzwords in the library and information science (LIS)/usability/human-computer interaction (HCI) community. It is attractive to the LIS community for a number of reasons, as we will see. IA is also somewhat controversial because it is a new term for skills and knowledge already in existence. In this paper, I will discuss how IA is being handled in some LIS programs, and then I will suggest some mappings between traditional LIS curricula and the marketplace for information architects.

But first, my academic compulsion requires that I define IA. From my own experience designing websites and from others' experience and writings, I can make some sense of what IA is. IA is difficult to define because it means different things to different people. IA, however, is currently used to describe the design of user experience for Web-based environments. Elements of the user experience include navigation systems, documents and graphic design. In order to create user experience, an IA must have skills ranging from document markup to project management to database design. Certainly, some of the very skills that are the traditional staple of LIS education are among those considered central to IA. For example, information organization is the foundation for document management and navigation systems in large websites, much as it is for collections of paper-based documents. Since IA seems to be closely linked to LIS, let's take a look now at how IA is being integrated into formal curricula.

Current Standing in Curricula

One of the problems with identifying which schools offer programs or courses in IA is that IA may be taught under different names, which is not to say that people should change course names such as "Website Development" to "Information Architecture." I am simply making the point that pieces of IA are probably being taught at LIS schools and may not be found by doing searches on each school's website. Part of the reason that schools are not rushing to adopt the term IA into their curricula is that the term may be considered a fad, or at least an ill-defined area of study. Universities, by and large, are not agile enough to create degree programs or even concentrations that might only be relevant for a few years.

Nevertheless, IA is being offered in one way or another in higher education. Most programs and courses are offered at the graduate level. Many are offered in LIS programs, but there is competition from other disciplines. For example, both Capitol College and the Illinois Institute of Technology offer an MS in Information Architecture (Capitol College, 2001; Illinois Institute of Technology, 2001). These programs offer a largely technical approach to IA (e.g., networking hardware and software and databases), and stress neither the user experience nor formal approaches to the organization of information as might be done in LIS schools.

The LIS schools that have committed resources to IA pay considerable attention to user issues. The Indiana University School of Library and Information Science, for instance, offers a masters in information science (MIS) with a concentration in "User-Oriented Information Architecture and Interactive Design." Indiana's MIS program does not ignore technology, but includes it in the context of how it can be brought to bear in solving user information problems.

Kent State University's (2001) new interdisciplinary Information Architecture and Knowledge Management program represents a different approach to IA. They have combined expertise from six campus units (Communication Studies, Computer Science, Journalism and Mass Communication, Library and Information Science, Management & Information Systems and Visual Communication Design) to provide more coverage of the topic.

Other LIS schools that offer courses with "information architecture" in the title or description include the University of Pittsburgh (2001) and the University of Michigan (2001). These programs offer an array of classes that would easily support an IA curriculum, including courses in XML and Digital Libraries.

In my experience as a faculty member in LIS schools, the faculties have been concerned that their curricula offer students the best possible chance at quality employment after graduation. In order to do so, faculties develop courses such as those offered at Pittsburgh, Michigan and California. The marketplace for LIS graduates is changing, but it might be a good place to start when deciding how much curriculum to commit to IA.

Mapping IA Curricula to the Marketplace

We can't talk about the marketplace for information architects without admitting that the future is uncertain. The economic downturn that began in late 2000 and the September 11th attack on the United States have left many of us wondering about the future. Yet, whatever the future holds, we must assume that Web development, and information technology in general, will continue to provide opportunities for information professionals. The Occupational Outlook Handbook (2000) offers the following projection for librarianship:

    Slower than average employment growth, coupled with an increasing number of MLS graduates, will result in more applicants competing for fewer jobs. However, because MLS programs increasingly focus on computer skills, graduates will be qualified for other, computer-related occupations. (www.bls.gov/oco/ocos068.htm#outlook )

Furthermore, there will be very little expansion of jobs in traditional library settings:

If this projection is true, LIS educators need to be sensitive to new opportunities in the marketplace to which they can send students. The kinds of skills, knowledge and abilities being expressed in job ads for information architects (and related job titles) include the following (all of which are quotes from job advertisements):

Education

  • (minimum ) Bachelor's degree and five years experience in field or equivalent, including one year IA experience or equivalent
  • (preferred) Master's degree in related field and seven years experience or equivalent

Experience

  • Leading clients through the discovery, analysis and design phases of interactive projects
  • Information design, usability, interface design, flowcharting, storyboarding, human factors
  • Successful experiences working with and presenting to clients and setting and managing client expectations
  •   Experience managing and mentoring staff

Qualities and Knowledge

  • Strong creative and organizational vision for interactive projects
  • Knowledge of Internet technology and interactive capabilities
  • A demonstrated ability to communicate effectively in written and oral form
  • Understanding of time management and the correct use of resources in a dynamic, multi-project environment
  • Attention to detail
  • A professional demeanor and positive attitude, with strong problem-solving and analytical skills
  • Relies on limited experience and judgment to plan and accomplish goals
  • Familiar with standard concepts, practices and procedures within a particular field

Responsibilities

  • Define, characterize and prioritize the audiences that a project is meant to reach.
  • Gather the communication and functional objectives by leading client working sessions, reviewing the competitive landscape and conducting creative brainstorming sessions with the project team.
  • Organize content and develop categories, naming schemes and navigational hierarchies.
  • Collaborate with art directors and engineers to create effective and intuitive user interfaces.
  • Create user flows, schematic drawings and documentation to illustrate the structure and functionality of a project.
  • Organize and spearhead usability testing. Communicate and collaborate with the project manager, engineers, designers and site authors in all stages of production.
  • Keep to schedule and budget maintained by project managers.
  • Mentor information architects when working together on projects.
  • Review and approve all documentation completed by information architects when mentoring and working together on projects.

Undoubtedly, the kinds of qualifications needed for the types of jobs described above may change over time. The critical task for LIS educators is to distill what can be taught "in-house" and what cannot. In any case, we can teach some courses immediately because they are already in our curriculum. Other courses will take time to develop, depending on existing faculty.

Skills and Knowledge in Context: Mapping IA to Existing Curricular Elements

Information architecture is a natural fit for LIS curricula. IA is about the organization of information, information technology, usability and user studies, information retrieval and, ultimately, knowledge management. None of these areas should be much of a stretch for LIS schools. Organization of information could be extended to include taxonomies for IA and knowledge management. Metadata for document management and discovery is also related to organization of information.

Information technology (IT) has been a part of LIS curricula since libraries began using computers for catalogs. Courses involving website development and evaluation were offered in many schools soon after graphical Web browsers first became available in 1992. The weakest link in the IT chain is the lack of LIS faculty who can teach programming and database skills for active pages in dynamic websites. I am not suggesting that there are no programs or faculty capable of doing so, but overall, there is a weakness there. In addition, LIS programs typically do not attract students with sufficient technology background to learn advanced techniques. However, capable faculty might drive up enrollments of higher quality students.

All LIS programs offer courses that have their roots in reference work. These courses have a variety of titles, but they are all about service, and many explicitly state their user orientation. Some of these courses are already including user studies as course content, and some are analyzing and developing resources based on usability. These courses may be part of an IA program or concentration. The same may be said of information retrieval programs.

Another way to include IA in a curriculum might be by specifying a curriculum capstone course as IA. Since IA is, in one sense, a culmination of many LIS skills and knowledge, a project-based course at the end of students' coursework might be a useful demonstration of their level of mastery.

Conclusion

Whether IA will be a permanent fixture in LIS programs or simply a passing fad will depend on the marketplace. If LIS educators feel that a sufficient market for information architects exists, then they might develop curricula around that market. It is too early to determine if the market is there. But there is certainly enthusiasm, and the Special Interest Group on Information Architecture in ASIST is living proof. SIG-IA's listserv is very busy. Similarly, ASIST has hosted at least two meetings dedicated exclusively to IA. There is clearly momentum in this fledgling field, and it represents a potential elixir for LIS.

For Further Information

How to Order


ASIST Home Page

American Society for Information Science and Technology
8555 16th Street, Suite 850, Silver Spring, Maryland 20910, USA
Tel. 301-495-0900, Fax: 301-495-0810 | E-mail:
asis@asis.org

Copyright 2001, American Society for Information Science and Technology