The origins of Information Architecture

“Information architecture (IA) is a professional practice and field of studies focused on solving the basic problems of accessing, and using, the vast amounts of information available today.”

The term “Information Architecture” was originally used in a presentation by Richard Saul Wurman at the American Institute of Architecture conference of 1976. Here he defined the phrase as,

The structural design of shared information environments.

The art and science of organizing and labeling web sites, intranets, online communities and software to support usability and findability.

An emerging community of practice focused on bringing principles of design and architecture to the digital landscape.

Today, IA is most commonly used in the design and construction of websites and other digital media. However, IA’s origins go back at least two decades before the World Wide Web was launched in 1989.

In 1964 an IBM research paper, “Architecture of the IBM System/360” (Amdahl et al 1964), defined architecture as,

the conceptual structure and functional behavior, distinguishing the organization of data flows and controls, logical design, and physical implementation.

And, if you want to get really conceptual about it, the Library of Alexandria in Egypt in 330 B.C. organized its collection of valuable information in the safety of the library and recorded it in a bibliography spanning 120 scrolls. Not the most useable information catalog, but you do what you can with the resources available!

Next, the Dewey Decimal Classification, originally published 1876, revolutionized the information organization of libraries and is now the most widely used classification system in the world.

How did we get from the Dewey Decimal Classification to modern day IA? With the rise of the internet in 1989 came a need to organize vast quantities of information in a way that was accessible to people all around the world.

In their book, Information Architecture for the World Wide Web, Rosenfeld and Morville discuss how modern IA should support the accessibility and communication of information.

The information architecture simply doesn’t get in the way of people who wish to create content, but it does actively support getting that content in all sorts of volumes, sizes, and degrees of structure. It displays content captured elsewhere — ratings, comments, biographical information, and so on — in new settings, such as member’s directory entries, and in new forms, such as cubes. It provides an open canvas for experimentation that leads to innovation. (Page 425)

With that, we have come to the modern definition of IA, a professional practice and field of studies focused on solving the basic problems of accessing, and using, the vast amounts of information available today.

Information Architecture is more than just structure, it is enabling human interaction and access to unlimited amounts of information in a wide range of topics. It is the foundation of sharing knowledge in the modern age.

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