By Barbara J. D’Angelo, Student Member, Texas Tech. U., January 2006
When I switched professions from librarianship to technical communication two years ago, many friends and colleagues warned me that I would be leaving behind the comfort and safety of a profession in which I had been trained for one that was unknown. But despite their concerns, I was certain I was making the right decision and that I would feel right at home in my new profession both academically and in practice. I was not completely new to field; I had been teaching as an adjunct for a technical communication program for a few years and was familiar with the parallels and overlapping areas of concern and how my skills and knowledge as a librarian complemented and fit with my new field.
Technical communication and librarianship share a common foundation in mediating information. Technical communicators traditionally have been concerned with the production of information while librarians have focused on the organization and management of information. However, as information and communications technologies have broadened the definition of technical communication and librarianship, they have expanded opportunities and career choices for practitioners in both fields. Technical communicators may now be employed in such fields as information architecture, web site design and development, information design, instructional design, and many more. Increasingly, information and knowledge management have become concepts required for effective technical communication, requiring an understanding of effective organization, storage, and management of information. As Lou Rosenfeld and Peter Morville (1998) say in their book Information Architecture for the World Wide Web, “Believe it or not, we’re all becoming librarians.” Whether or not we become librarians, there are many principles, skills, and knowledge areas from library and information science that may aid technical communicators in the design of effective information systems and documentation.
Cataloging and classification
One aspect of information and knowledge management is the need to effectively organize data to help users find it. Organizing information facilitates access to it by providing users with context; how well information is organized allows individuals to understand and make sense of it or leaves them lost in a maze of irrelevant information overload. Principles from library science including cataloguing, classification, and indexing apply equally to electronic information and print. Library science’s long experience with developing and applying cataloging and classification schemes and controlled vocabulary in multiple environments and for multiple audiences can all serve to benefit technical communicators who are concerned with the creation of usable web sites and other information systems.
Organization systems are composed of schemes and structures. Organizational schemes determine how items are grouped together and arranged. For example, a catalog for an e-commerce web site may be arranged alphabetically by product name or grouped by categories. Organizational structure determines the relationship between individual items and groups. Hierarchies and databases are two organizational structures; on a web site, hierarchies may facilitate browsing while databases may facilitate searching. Together, organizational schemes and structures determine how effectively users will navigate through and find information.
Controlled vocabulary and metadata are structured language that facilitates the search for and retrieval of information. For example, library systems use subject headings or thesauri to not only standardize the language used to describe and classify items but to determine relationships among them. Digital information systems and repositories may also use subject headings or thesauri to facilitate database searching or they may use metadata. Metadata schemes, such as the Dublin Core, have been developed by librarians while other metadata systems have been developed for specific disciplines with the aid of principles of librarianship. What controlled vocabulary and metadata schemes have in common is the knowledge and principles of cataloging and classification that librarians have been developing and refining for centuries.
Information architecture has become an area in which many technical communicators have become increasingly involved. Information architecture is concerned with the structure of web sites and digital information systems: with how the information is organized, labeled, and designed to ensure effective navigation, retrieval, and use of information. Information architects and web site designers and developers are concerned with not only the visual presentation of information but also the organization and underlying structure of web sites to facilitate use and the finding of content. Making decisions about the best organization and classification systems for a particular web site can be complicated and requires an understanding of audience and purpose of the web site enhanced by the skills and knowledge of library science.
Information retrieval: the human side of information design
Every librarian can relate stories of being asked questions similar to “I’m looking for a book. It has a red cover but I can’t remember what it’s called or who it’s by but it’s about a car.” Despite our best efforts to organize and classify information, individuals have their own unique ways to categorize information. Individuals’ relationship with information and the media which distributes it can be complex. Information and knowledge management involve the processes and technologies used to store and manage data and human interaction with them.
Implementing effective information design requires an understanding not only of basic principles of cataloguing and classification but also understanding of how users—the audience—interact with information, with the retrieval system providing access to it, and with the medium used to present it. Technical communication can learn much from the research of library and information science in information retrieval to facilitate audience analysis and understand how users interact with retrieval systems and structures. Research into how users approach retrieval systems to find and search for information, for example, can aid technical communicators in designing more effective organization and classification systems. It can also aid them in designing effective usability studies to determine the effectiveness of specific system’s navigation, organization, and labeling.
Another tool from library science that may serve technical communicators in understanding and incorporating the human side of information design is the reference interview. Librarians are trained to ask leading questions to extract more precise information about what users are looking for, what their needs and expectations are, what they will be using the information for, what form they want it in, etc. In short, the reference interview is a form of audience analysis. The reference interview often results in the difference between success and failure in meeting the needs and expectations of users in finding the information they need. While technical communicators may not always have the opportunity to interview individual users, the principles behind the reference interview can be applied in general to determine audience needs and to understand the intangible aspects of information design. And similar to understanding of information retrieval research, comprehending the process of the reference interview can aid in developing effective strategies for usability testing of specific systems with individual users.
Another aspect of information and knowledge management that has received increasing attention is the storage and archiving of knowledge. New media have resulted in increasing amounts of information; much of it, both formal and informal, is in danger of being lost if not preserved and archived. While efforts to archive information on the World Wide Web are being implemented by the Internet Archive and Wayback Machine (http://www.archive.org/), individual organizations also find themselves with large amounts of data, information, and knowledge to store, manage, and preserve.
Librarians’ collection development practices and policy-making procedures can contribute an important foundation to decisions about archiving of electronic information as well as provide guidance for the management of it. Collection development and archival policies typically outline what, how, when, and where information is to be archived. Organization and classification of items is, of course, key to their future retrieval. But other factors contribute to archiving and storage of information. How does an organization decide what information or documents to keep for future use? In what form is the information stored and for how long? Archiving and preserving information and knowledge also must take into consideration the rapid development of new technologies and the obsolescence of the old (how many of us still own computers capable of reading 8” floppy disks?). Collection development and archival policies take into consideration the transfer of materials to new media to ensure their continued availability over time.
Criteria for establishing effective policies and guidelines for maintaining, storing, and preserving information are key parts of library science and archival work that can facilitate an organization’s and society’s ability to implement effective information and knowledge management practices.
Whither librarianship? Whither technical communication?
While library science and technical communication remain distinct fields, both have much to contribute to and learn from one another. Principles of organization, classification, controlled vocabulary, information retrieval, and archiving are just some of the skills and knowledge areas from library science that can contribute to and enhance technical communicators’ ability to work in information design and information and knowledge management careers.
About the author
Barbara J. D’Angelo is a lecturer in Multimedia Writing & Technical Communication
at Arizona State University, Polytechnic Campus, Mesa, AZ and a Doctoral Student in Technical Communication & Rhetoric at Texas Tech University, Lubbock, TX.