Information Systems & Innovation Group
Department of Management
London School of Economics
Managing Consultant, Local Knowledge
Book Review: Information Architecture - Designing Information Environments for Purpose
Information Architecture: Designing information environments for purpose Edited by Alan Gilchrist & Barry Mahon, Facet Publishing in association with TFPL Ltd, London, 2004, 288 pages, hardback, ISBN 1-85604-487-4
This is not a book that is intended to be read cover-to-cover, and the editors make this clear in a handy reading guide. The authors collected here come from a range of backgrounds and organisations across the public and private sectors, but predominantly (like the two editors) from what I would call the information management consultancy industry. The preface by Peter Morville purports to be 'a brief history of information architecture', covering the period from 1994 (back before we were even talking about 'information landscapes' at the peak of the eLib Programme ) to 2002. Peter certainly has claim to experiencing some key developments of Internet-based information resources, but he writes from a perspective that fails to include many of the significant developments occurring outside that community in the USA. In particular, the preface (and the whole book for that matter) includes no mention of the work by JISC (and all the UK institutions that have contributed to that work) to develop the Common Information Environment, and the institutional and national standards and services that will support it; this despite the preface which welcomes the 'distinctly European perspective' brought to the discipline by this book.
Inevitably, with a collection of articles there is some repetition of basics and disjointedness of style. Also unsurprisingly, the essential substance of several of the articles in the book, (if not exactly 'author pre-print archives'), can be found for free online, such as the case study of the SeamlessUK Project (Chapter 3) by Mary Rowlatt et al, which is described in similar detail way back in Ariadne issue 19 . (Readers can do their own searches for the rest). The strength or added value, therefore, of gathering these articles together in a book, (given they are accessible on the Web), must be the framework it provides to tie these parts into a coherent whole, for an intended reader who wants to create, or manage, (or just understand) these rather intangible things we call 'information environments'. The editors do something to outline a framework and one possible approach, but it could have been vastly improved by much more than the scant sixteen pages they contribute in the form of an introduction and prefaces to the four main sections of the book, on the design environment, software environments, managing metadata and the user interface. Overall the book does not seem highly focussed on what I would choose as a definition of information architecture, or the process of designing information environments and the technologies to support them, as the title suggests. My anticipation that I would find help with some of the information architecture problems I am currently wrestling with myself turned to disappointment when I read further.
The articles stray into such nearby territory as that of how to specify and procure software (Chapter 4) - sadly without addressing the issues of how to evaluate open source software alternatives alongside commercial offerings. Coverage of such related activities is not a wholly negative feature, for readers who need a primer on truisms such as, 'The price [of a software product] is never the price'. I can certainly think of library middle managers who are daunted by smart-suited systems vendors and could learn from this. But they would almost certainly not describe themselves as 'information architects'. The section on metadata and interoperability is also a useful overview - of some interoperability concepts. The article by Derek Sturdy (Chapter 7) will help to demystify XML and its potential uses to some library professionals (the ones who suffer from angle-bracket-phobia ), by connecting it to their own language of taxonomies and authority files.
So, this book may give readers who have been stuck for too long in a library in a university some interesting insights into how the other half lives; but it will not tell them all about how to 'do' information architecture. This is a collection of articles, more of them useful in their own right than not. The contents list, preface and introduction are available online  for potential readers who wish to decide for themselves how many of them they will find useful. However the book and the editors fail to relate them into a coherent structure that describes 'information architecture' clearly - to me at least. To analogise with the more traditional sort of architecture (of the built environment), it has some very good descriptions of bricks, girders and some clever ways of fixing them together; but it will not turn anyone into Antonio Gaudi or Frank Lloyd Wright.
- Dempsey L., Kilgour A., Kirriemuir J., John MacColl J., eLib Starts to Deliver, Ariadne, issue 1, 1996.
- Rowlatt, Mary et al, A new profile for citizens' (or community) information?, Ariadne, issue 19, 1999. http://www.ariadne.ac.uk/issue19/rowlatt/
- Sperberg-McQueen, CM, Trip report, ACH/ALLC 2003 / Web X: a decade of the World Wide Web Annual joint conference Of the Association for Computers and the Humanities And the Association for Literary and Linguistic Computing, 3 June 2003
- Gilchrist, Alan and Mahon, Barry (editors), information architecture designing information environments for purpose (contents), Facet Publishing, 2004
Date published:30 July 2004