Search for a definition of “librarian” and you’ll find that the best you get is essentially “anyone employed in a library.” That’s not a particularly helpful definition if you want to understand what a librarian actually is. A more useful definition of librarian is someone who organizes, retrieves, maintains systems that enable access to, or teaches people how to use information. Boiled down, librarians connect people with the information that they’re seeking.
We often associate librarians with a time when physical books and microfiche were the sole repository of authoritative information. The term “information architect” is more often associated with the world of digital records and information that lacks physicality. There are many definitions floating about for information architecture and most of them are simultaneously correct—if confusing in their diversity. But the key functions of an information architect are to organize, categorize, tag, and arrange information in such a way as to make it as easy as possible to connect someone seeking information with the information that they want. As applied to websites, this entails assigning metadata to information, dividing it into logical categories, optimizing data for accurate indexing by search engines, and developing navigation systems by which a website user can either be guided to desired information or indicate where they are in relation to the rest of the site’s content.
Librarians can be said to practice the art of library science, that is, the study of how to categorize, catalogue, and locate resources. In a world of physical books, compact discs, DVDs, and the like, this involves assigning metadata to each asset so that it’s easily locatable within the physical confines of the library building (or across multiple buildings in the case of an interlibrary loan program). A librarian might assign a book to the category “fiction” ensuring that the book is shelved with other fiction books. Using an alphabetical ordering rule, the last name of the book’s author determines precisely where within the fiction book section that the book may be found. The book and its associated metadata such as title, author, broad classification (e.g., fiction vs. non-fiction), publication date, publishing company, and catalog number are entered into the catalog system by the librarian.
The information architect (IA) generally works in the electronic realm in which the methods by which information may be accessed are very different. In a physical library, there is generally only one path that can be taken to locate and retrieve desired information assets: the catalog is searched, and the physical location of the book is determined. The asset is either where it’s supposed to be located or it’s not. An IA must contend with the multiple pathways by which information can be searched for and located. For example, an IA might maintain a taxonomy for records that they manage, assigning keywords within that taxonomy to each record. A record might be associated with one keyword, or 50 (or more). Under such a system, a website user could conduct a search for all records that contain a particular keyword. Such a search is capable of returning groupings of related results in a way that a traditional library card catalog never could. An IA must account for the fact that for online records, there isn’t a single path between the user and the record being sought. There are many.
Dice, Slice, Reassemble
An information architect has a further complication to deal with that traditional librarians don’t. The basic components of a library are set: there is a building containing reading rooms, a catalog system (usually a computer terminal), an information/circulation desk, and shelves stocked with physical records. These components have described all libraries for hundreds of years. Aside from the technology on which the catalog is based, little has changed.
The IA, on the other hand, has to contend with the ultra-dynamic nature of online technology that changes on a scale of months, not decades. This usually pushes the IA to break information into fine-grained nuggets so that it’s amenable to consumption by online systems that tend to reassemble data based on smaller constituent fragments. Information dissected this way can be reassembled dynamically to create new, agglomerated documents that the authors of the original records had never conceived. This is the modern mash-up, a new paradigm for information, and one that would be foreign to the traditional librarian.
Despite these significant differences, the librarian and the information architect are more similar than they are different. In then end, they both practice their craft with the intent of efficiently connecting people with the information that they seek. But only one is going to shush you for talking too loudly in the stacks.