Librarians in the Wild: Information Architecture

Librarian 2016-08-17

 

As I explained in my previous post, the Librarians in the Wild series will highlight non-library fields that are a good match for librarians looking to expand their career horizons. Given LITA’s technology focus, I thought it would be appropriate to focus this first post on Information Architecture.

 

What is it?

At its core, the field of Information Architecture is concerned with helping people (users) find what they’re looking for, typically in an online or application environment. Sound familiar? According to the Information Architecture Institute (IAI):

A good IA helps people to understand their surroundings and find what they’re looking for – in the real world as well as online. Practicing information architecture involves facilitating the people and organizations we work with to consider their structures and language thoughtfully.

Information Architecture is not focused on building systems; it is concerned with fulfilling user needs. Yes, technical know-how is useful, and usually the process results in some sort of system or application being built, but IA is about designing an experience that fulfills the user’s information needs.

 

Where do I fit in?

Information architecture is a tough field to pin down as far as job requirements and necessary skills; responsibilities can vary widely depending on how technical a focus the particular employer needs. Information architects can be required to do everything from profiling users to conceptually organizing data based on system goals to building actual software applications and databases. There is some concern that automated website design tools are threatening the relevance of the Information Architect, but I think that’s a positive for someone who is trying to break into the field as a non-programmer: the more these applications take over the grunt coding work, the more important the ability to think critically about the organization of information becomes.

Librarianship skills are written into the DNA of Information Architecture: as this article from UX Booth explains,

Information architecture, as we know it today, began around the 1970s, far before the rise of web and mobile apps or the popularization of user experience design. It has roots in numerous fields and methodologies that UX practitioners still draw on today, including library science, cognitive psychology, and architecture.

You don’t necessarily have to be coding master to break into this field; there are jobs out there that require a more conceptual approach and can therefore provide a good bridge for a librarian looking to make the jump into the IA field. Here are some specific skills that you can play up:

  • Any cataloging experience is a huge plus. Knowledge and application of metadata standards, taxonomies, and classifications are highly useful.
  • Play up the user-centered aspect of the job. Find a way to describe what you do in terms of focusing on user needs and creating/updating processes and programs to solve them.
  • Being able to communicate with and understand a user base is also a good skill to point out. There can be a big difference between what a user wants and what a user needs, and librarians know this all too well. Reference interviews, readers’ advisory programs, and similar activities can work as examples of a focus on user needs and the ability to tease them out.
  • While programming knowledge is not absolutely necessary, any experience in that area is good to have, especially as it pertains to web design. Even a familiarity with HTML can help prove that you will not be completely out of your depth.

Why would a librarian want to work in information architecture? Well, for starters, it is a growing field where jobs tend to pay well. It is also a discipline that takes some of the principles of librarianship and applies them to system design. Your job as an information architect is to get inside a user’s head, figure out how they think and what information they need, and then design a system that helps that user achieve her goals as efficiently and completely as possible given environmental constraints. As a librarian with technical leanings that sounds pretty interesting to me.

 

How do I find a job?

Well, that’s the tricky part. Information architecture jobs can be listed under a variety of titles and fields. Check out this sample search page: Solution/System Architect, Architectural Project Manager, Chief Information/Technology Officer, Business Systems Analyst are just some of the positions advertised. I have also seen this type of job advertised under “user experience designer” and similar titles. It can be a bit of a creative search. There are also opportunities to learn more about the field and network with people who are working in it: IAI, for example, offers a networking sitea mentoring program, and local support groups. Or how about volunteering to curate their resource library?

 

If you want to learn more about Information Architecture, you can check out the links throughout the article. Here are a few more:

 

Was this article helpful? Is there anything you would do different for the next post in the series? Are there any fields in particular that you would like to see discussed?

 

Public Domain image courtesy of user Shyamal, Wikimedia Commons. Originally published in The Literary Digest.