IA is Not New

By on March 31, 2014

One of the problems with working in digital is that we tend to think we invented everything. We sit around and imagine we’re breaking amazing new ground, when we’re often just retreading ground that was broken long before.

Consider the much-ballyhooed discipline of “content modeling” (a phrase which I admittedly use freely).  This used to be called “data modeling.” I wrote a sidebar for Sara WB’s book where I essentially said the same:

Many of the challenges you find in content modeling are basic data modeling problems, and the relational database crowd solved those decades ago: Don’t duplicate data. Tend toward atomicity—small particles of content. Compose complex objects by combining simpler objects. […] None of this is new, but it might be a new way of thinking for you.

What’s different now is just that you don’t need a database designer to do this – you can do it in your own, humble CMS, without help.  So, old problem, just a new solution.   But, again, we tend to think we’re changing the world, when we’re really just re-solving problems which have largely been solved, or finding different ways to do things and thinking that this makes it a new thing.

This is never more true than in the information architecture space.  “Information architecture” is a great label, but it’s one that has gone by less glamorous terms for a long time: “library science” and “cataloguing” and “classification.”  I imagine some people think “taxonomy” is a purely digital term (or even the funny made-up name for a Drupal module).

What I don’t see much of in this space is people reading the classics – going back to the basics of how this discipline has been done for centuries.

  • How many people have heard of S. R. Ranganathan?  He was an Indian mathematician who essentially invented faceted classification back in the 1920s.
  • How about Henry E. Bliss and his seven principles of classification?
  • And the oh-so-pedestrian Dewey Decimal System?  There was a guy, Melvil Dewey.  He was writing about classification back in the late 1800s.
  • Back in the 1700s, Swedish scientist Carl Linnaeus just might have invented taxonomic classification when completed the humble feat of putting all the plants and animals in order.

Yes, these people are long-dead, but there’s some great reading there.  If you’re interested in IA, I defy you not to be fascinated by Ranganathan’s “colon classification” system, or his “original” facets: PMEST (his idea of the “personality” of an object is pretty fantastic).

It’s also interesting to see the historical emphasis on labeling – they didn’t have computers that could slice-and-dice facets back then, so they had to label, and there was a science for coming up with the “category number” for any combination of facets.  (Put another way: you don’t know how good you have these days…)

I’m going to recommend two books here:

  • The Accidental Taxonomist
    by Heather Hedden
    This is a masterpiece, that will make you understand that there is an enormous body of work behind taxonomy and indexing that predates the Internet by decades, if not centuries. Heather Hedden will make you understand that the problems of IA are not new – book indexers have been struggling with them ever since Alexandria or Gutenberg.  You need to understand the basic concepts of terms, the concept of broader and narrower, authority files, related terms, etc.  (If you have Drupal experience, you will come away from this book with a new-found understand and appreciation for Drupal’s taxonomy module.)
  • Classification Made Simple
    by Eric Hunter
    This is a relatively short textbook which will give some perspective on the historical basis for how we organize things.  Ranganathan and Bliss are covered extensively, and you’ll understand the comparative pros and cons of facted vs. enumerative classification schemes, and how you can synthesize properties into notations to almost get the best of both worlds.

For giggles, read the footnotes and indexes in those two books.  It’s humbling.  I quickly came to realize that I didn’t know jack squat, and the Dunning-Kruger Effect slammed into me like a dump truck.

(To make it worse, spend five minutes skimming George Lakoff’s “Women, Fire, and Dangerous Things,” and take a second to appreciate how much research has gone into the science of mental classification, which has been a thing since humans have existed.)

Now, don’t misunderstand me – I’m not saying that we don’t know anything.  Furthermore, I’m not saying that the Internet doesn’t bring about some very unique aspects to information architecture.   We are doing some neat stuff, sure, and we’re expanding this discipline in some important ways based on the current environment in which we exist.

But what I am saying is that 90% of the ground we’re “breaking” has already been broken.  And if we took a second to look, we’d understand that we’re really just standing on the shoulders of giants.

More than that: if you really love information architecture, go learn some history.  For me, reading about guys like Ranganathan isn’t just educational, it’s…fun.  It’s thrilling.  It’s fulfilling.

The bottom line: we are continuing an amazing legacy, and knowing the long, dusty road that has led up to where you are walking right now will make you appreciate your discipline so much more.

Put another way, when you finally scale the peak of your discipline and reach the summit, don’t be surprised if you find a bunch of librarians who have been sitting there for years.


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  1. It IS surprising how little digital technology learns from the past - the Greeks were thinking about usability and form vs. function pretty deeply when making pottery. Thanks for the monday morning reading list rabbit hole.

  2. Thank you Deane for putting the taxonomic-digital-things into perspective. It's always good to begin with the classics and the basics.

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