“Information Architects: The Secret librarians of the internet” talk at LIKE26

 by Martin Belam, 5 July 2011

Last week I spoke at the 26th meeting of LIKE, the London Information and Knowledge Exchange. With the title “Information Architects: The Secret librarians of the internet”, the talk was based on both “Come as you are” and “Tags are magic!”, giving an overview of how I became an Information Architect, and some detail on how we tag up our content for the Guardian website.

As you’d expect from an audience of information professionals, there were some smart questions at the end. There was a great deal of interest in how we tag our content, and I ended up going into extra detail about how we can “batch tag” content when we create new topic keywords, and how we can “merge” tags when we find we have ended up creating two different keywords for similar concepts. We’ve got around 9,000 topic keyword tags, and some of those on the night who manage taxonomies thought that was a rather frugal number. We could clearly expand the number very rapidly if we wanted, but our tag manager Peter Martin makes sure that we only have keywords with an editorial purpose.

I was asked who I thought did news taxonomy well. In the public arena the New York Times have made huge strides with their topic pages, and I’m impressed with what I have seen of the way that agencies like Thomson Reuters and Associated Press manage their news. The Times have also done some sophisticated taxonomy work behind their search.

The semantic web dream, of course, is an interoperable taxonomy of news, where we can all easily interlink and reference each others stories, and between us provide a better news service to users that is story and interest dependent on their terms, rather than brand dependent on our terms. Despite the fact that it would save us all money, it is a difficult sell in a competitive market.

Oh, and I short-circuited the inevitable question about paywalls by answering it myself before anyone asked.

There was also unexpected interest in the guerrilla usability testing techniques that I talked about. We are decades into the “IT revolution”, and pushing close to the twentieth anniversary of the birth of the graphic world wide web browser. Yet there are still businesses and organisations that really believe they can design workable systems and solutions for people without checking with the end user first. The overall cost in lost productivity and customer dissatisfaction must dwarf the big numbers quoted “lost to the economy” because of a teachers’ strike or train delays or exceptionally hot or cold weather.

I also got to throw in one personal anecdote of my early experiences at a library. I remember, when I was a child, going upstairs to the “grown-up” reference section to consult books for a project on airplanes. I carefully copied down some facts and figures about airlines, and by hand faithfully reproduced the designs on their tailfins. A task that then was considered “learning”, and now, in an age of Wikipedia and CTRL+C & CTRL+V, would be considered a dull menial task you wouldn’t wish on an unpaid intern.

A few people have blogged write-ups of the evening: Donald Lickley at Sue Hill Recruitment, Nicola Franklin at Fabric Recruitment, and knihovnik2000. You can find out more about LIKE in an article Virginia Henry wrote for me in FUMSI.

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