Friday, 1 July 2011

LIKE26 Event – Information Architecture is the new Librarianship?

Yesterday evening we had the privilege to hear from Martin Belam, Lead User Experience and Information Architect at the Guardian.

As Martin started talking, I was struck by the similarity of what he was describing and the beginning of many of the interviews I’ve had with cataloguers – he was telling us about how he used to obsessively organise his record collection as a teenager.  Albums by band, within that by year, with singles from that album in front of the album, in order of release...

As he carried on, however, his career diverged sharply from that of most cataloguers I’ve met.  No library school here.  Martin went to work in his local record shop.  However his information organisation skills soon came to the fore again, as he started optimising their stock control database to fit better with the way people worked.
In his next role, at the BBC, Martin ‘did SEO (search engine optimisation) stuff before it was called that’.  He updated a massive spreadsheet with all the search terms people might/were using and the url’s of BBC web pages relating to them and sent them off to the search engines (Alta Vista, Lycos, AllTheWeb, remember those?).  Over time this list on a spreadsheet developed into a taxonomy.

Another way in which Martin’s career differed from that of many cataloguers that I’ve interviewed, is that much of his work was driven by his desire to make systems work better from the users’ perspective.  He created user profiles (one was called ‘Mandy’) to represent users knowledge, interests and skills, and did user testing to observe users trying to find things on the BBC websites.  He commented that seeing people use things that you see as really simple, and struggling with it, is a real eye-opener.
When Martin felt he’d got burned out from the pace at the BBC he left, moved to Crete (“as you do” he said) and did freelance work as an Information Architect.  You could get more work with that label, apparently, rather than ‘producer’ which was what the BBC called him.

Martin then worked for Sony in Austria (“it was interesting seeing how a Japanese firm worked in an Austrian setting”).  He said the major thing he learned there was that all the effort was being invested in producing great things for end users and customers – and none at all on internal systems.  
The Guardian then offered him a role he couldn’t turn down, and he now spends a lot of his time “imagining future web pages” and seeing if people like them.  On a more prosaic level he was also involved in rebuilding their CMS from scratch, starting with getting Software Architects and Editors together to agree a common language and standards.  He also does a lot of training and promotion for Editors, based around “Tags are Magic!”. 

All the functionality of the Guardian’s website is driven by tags.  They have 9,000 of them, and any two tags can be combined to create a new one.  Any articles tagged with a tag will automatically appear on a webpage, so a new page can be created without any manual content management  working taking place.  Anyone can create a new tag – but they have a Tag Manager to oversea this and make sure they are sensible ones!
The tags exist in a hierarchy of folders, and can have one-to-one, parent-child and one-many relationships – so its quite complex ‘under the hood’.

One type of tag that they don’t have, which he’s realised could be useful, is an ‘audience type’ set of tags.  Using this would mean they could collate and target related content towards a particular audience (eg children).
During conversations after Martin’s excellent talk, someone pointed out that the Guardian has a great mix of advanced IT systems, advanced Information Management/taxonomy, Information design/creation/publishing, all working well together, and  Martin is a great example of the ‘librarian’ of the future.  It’s both a long way from cataloguing – and at the same time, it seems to me it’s much the same.  The same skill set – organising information, classifying things seeing how users need to access information and making it available to them. 

In a reply to one of my tweets, Liz Jolly pointed me to this post as being very useful when considering the parallels between librarianship and information architecture - Liz is Director of Library and Information Services at a UK university.
It was very heartening to hear that information management skills are alive and well in such diverse organisations - the Guardian today at LIKE26, and Clifford Chance at BIALL Conference 2011.
- Nicola Franklin


  1. Thank you for the write-up Nicola. I can't claim credit for all the things you've listed there, a lot of them just happened at the same time as I've been at The Guardian. There is an interesting (if quite technical in places) essay about how we did the domain model for our content management system by Matt Wall and Nik Silver on InfoQ called "Domain-Driven Design in an Evolving Architecture" -

  2. Hi Martin
    Thank you for commenting, and the link, which I'm sure will be very useful to lots of intranet content managers and others reading the blog :) Also thank you for such an entertaining and humerous talk last night, it was great!

  3. it's very nice article. very usefull for me. thanks very much

  4. Thanks Nicola, it sounds like an excellent evening.

    I am curious to know which (if any) professional bodies Martin Belongs to, and why.