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Information Architecture for the World Wide Web, Second Edition by Peter Morville, Louis Rosenfeld

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Tablets, Scrolls, Books, and Libraries

Humans have been structuring, organizing, and labeling information for centuries. Back in 660 B.C., an Assyrian king had his clay tablets organized by subject. In 330 B.C., the Alexandria Library housed a 120-scroll bibliography. In 1873, Melvil Dewey conceived the Dewey Decimal System as a tool to organize and provide access to the growing number of books.

In modern times, most of us become familiar with the basics of information organization through our experiences with books and libraries. Table 1-1 shows how the concepts of information architecture (IA) apply to the world of print and the World Wide Web.

Table 1-1. Differences between books and web sites

IA concept

Books

Web sites

Components

Cover, title, author, chapters, sections, pages, page numbers, table of contents, index.

Main page, navigation bar, links, content pages, sitemap, site index, search.

Dimensions

Two-dimensional pages presented in a linear, sequential order.

Multidimensional information space with hypertextual navigation.

Boundaries

Tangible and finite with a clear beginning and ending.

Fairly intangible with fuzzy borders that “bleed” information into other sites.

As we go beyond books to collections of books, the comparisons become even more interesting. Imagine a bookstore with no organization scheme. Thousands of books are simply tossed into huge piles on table tops. Such a bookstore does, in fact, exist: Gould’s Book Arcade in Newtown, Australia. It’s shown in Figure 1-1.

Gould’s Book Arcade (image courtesy of Seth Gordon)

Figure 1-1. Gould’s Book Arcade (image courtesy of Seth Gordon)

From a philosophical perspective, you might feel that this casual jumble of books represents a refreshing break from the rigid structures of everyday life. And this bookstore really can provide a wonderful browsing experience filled with adventure and serendipity. But if you arrive seeking a specific book or if you have a particular author or topic in mind, you’re almost guaranteed to have a long and painful needle-in-the-haystack experience.

Compare the chaos of this bookstore to the order of a library (see Figure 1-2). Even on the surface, the contrast is like night and day. But look deeper and you’ll see that a library is more than a warehouse for books, magazines, and music. There are complex systems and well-trained professionals operating behind the scenes to select, evaluate, label, describe, structure, and organize the collection so that users of the library can find what they need. And though the library’s information environment is highly structured, the subject-oriented approaches of the Dewey Decimal and Library of Congress classification schemes also support exploratory browsing and serendipity.

Browsing in a library (image courtesy of )

Figure 1-2. Browsing in a library (image courtesy of http://intergate.sdmesa.sdccd.cc.ca.us/lrc/stacks.jpg)

In short, a major way that libraries and librarians add value to printed materials is by placing them within the framework of an information architecture that facilitates access to those materials. Information architects perform a similar role, but we typically do it within the context of web sites and digital content. Of course, there are major differences between libraries and web sites. Table 1-2 shows just a few.

Table 1-2. Differences between libraries and web sites

IA Concepts

Libraries

Web sites

Purpose

Provide access to a well-defined collection of formally published content.

Provide access to content, sell products, enable transactions, facilitate collaboration, and on and on...

Heterogeneity

Diverse collections with books, magazines, music, software, databases, and files.

Huge diversity of media types, document types, and file formats.

Centralization

Highly centralized operations, often within one or a few physical library buildings.

Often very decentralized operations, with subsites maintained independently.

Developing an information architecture for a library presents many challenges, but a library is a relatively well-defined environment, and there is much collective experience and wisdom to draw upon. Web sites, on the other hand, present an array of new challenges. Virtual spaces are more flexible than physical spaces and can therefore be more complex. And at this point we have precious few guidelines for creating information architectures for digital spaces.

Obviously, we’ve made some gross generalizations in these comparisons, and have oversimplified to illustrate key points. As you try to communicate information architecture concepts to others, you’ll probably have to do the same.

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