Week 6: Readings and Comments

by Zach Tomaszewski

for LIS 699-2, Fall 2001, supervised by Dr. Luz Quiroga

This week I read a number of the ASIS Bulletins, including one issue devoted entirely to interviews with top IAs. The main theme I picked up from these, especially from the IA columns, is that IAs still don't know how to define their field. My personal feeling is that this vagueness plagues all new fields of study. I know that many branches of science originally began as strains of philosophy. As these fields progressed, they accumulated their own collection of works and practitioners. Once there was sufficient practicing "mass," it becomes "obvious" what defines the field by what those in the field were actually doing. With this "mass," the field was no longer just a branch of philosophy, but rather its own discipline. And as disciplines grow, they subdivide and become ever more insular.

Currently, I think IA is so multi-disciplinary because it is so new. It does not have a sufficient "mass" of past works and practitioners to practically and democratically (in a way) define itself. The number of different definitions depend on each particular IA's past experiences. Those from computer science and user interfaces may think IA is really just a subsection of human-computer interaction: it is simply putting up a soft user interface to allow humans to access the system. Usability experts may think IA is just a part of what they do--structuring data to make it more usable. And of course those from library science view it as just another step in a long tradition of organizing information for rapid and accurate retrieval. Some day I imagine these different opinions will fade as IA becomes its own discipline. Then it will no longer be librarians and computer scientists and graphic artists bringing theirs skills to define IA, but rather new practitioners educated in IA from the beginning. Philosophically, there will likely still be debate on just what IA is (just as there still is now about librarianship after thousands of years of practice), but the debate will not feel so vital as other issues of practical problem-solving.

I also caught up with a backlog of SIGIA-L mailing list posts. Here's some highlights:

Most of this seems to be focused on practical application, rather than simply debating the nature of IA.

I made very little progress on Principles of Animal Taxonomy this week. One interesting thing I did read was the difference between a key and a hierarchy. In a hierarchy, each subclass is produced by dividing the superclass. In a key, each subclass is formed by the overlap of two (or possibly more) superclasses. What I found really interesting is that these two structures can be interchanged. I've had vague thoughts about hierarchies before to this effect before, but reading it this way was something of an epiphany. (I'll explain this more when we meet; it helps to have some diagrams.) I don't know what I'm going to do with this insight, but I know it's important.

Another book I started this week was Wayfinding in Architecture. (It's always easier to start a book than finish it!) I think this book is going to be quite helpful. So far, it has explored the nature of spatial orientation and wayfinding. Chapter two culminates in a definition of wayfinding that includes both knowing where one is and knowing how to get to a destination. If both of these elements are missing, a person is lost or disoriented. Of course I think both are necessary to be fully comfortable. For website design, a strong, consistent site image and transparent URL design probably correspond to helping people determine where they are. Good navigation and obvious structure can help people determine what they need to do to get to their destination.

Another interesting topic is the book's differentiation between linear and spatial cognitive maps. Linear maps are those that follow a certain path, while spatial include an entire area. Generally, people start with linear maps and, through active exploration, expand their maps to include more area until it can be said to be spatial. I remember from Web Site Usability, Jared Spool comments that it seems users rarely develop a cognitive mental picture of a website; rather they make decisions at each page or junction based on the options at hand. I think what is more likely is that users are creating only sparse linear maps; given enough time and active exploration, they would probably be able to develop a more comprehensive understanding. However, it is unlikely they will spend that much on a site, and this development is surely affected by the obviousness of the structure.

I think I have too many threads going this week. I'd like to try to thin things out a bit for next week. Also, it'd be nice to have a plan for an implementation project, rather than a vague notion.

Post-discussion Issues:

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