The Hidden History of Information Management

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The fictional heavy-metal band Spinal Tap immortalized the “fine line between clever and stupid.” It’s a similar situation with information access: there’s a fine line between rich and broke. Put another way (by the late cognitive psychologist Hebert Simon): “a wealth of information creates a poverty of attention.”

Today the poverty of attention seems especially pressing. Technology makes it easier and cheaper to store information of all kinds, far outpacing our ability to convert that information into meaning and knowledge. On the plus side for B&A readers, this situation seems likely to keep information architects gainfully employed for some time to come.

But on a broader cultural and historical level, what strategies has society employed to collect, manage, and store information, even with the constant threat of oversupply, and still make this information accessible and meaningful to people over time?

An answer to that question—in fact, many answers—can be found in Glut: Mastering Information Through The Ages, a sweeping new book from Alex Wright about the history of the information and information management systems across disciplines, time, and even across species (bees, ants, primates, eukaryotes.)

Wright, a librarian turned writer and information architect, is no stranger to the Boxes and Arrows community, and in fact, he draws on material from two B&A articles (on IA and sociobiology, another on Belgian bibliographer Paul Otlet) in his new book, now set in a broader narrative. Glut is an informative, ambitious, and at times frustrating work, as Wright juggles three different roles in shepherding his material: tour guide, curator, and essayist.

Wright The Tour Guide

As a tour guide, Wright is a patient, well-informed, and focused narrator, exploring the roots of information systems including writing, classification schemes, books, and libraries. In this mode, his sweeping connection-making is somewhat akin to the work of science historian and BBC documentarian James Burke (a fan of Glut) in its quest for hidden connections between seemingly disparate subjects and causes.

Wright informs us at the outset that he will avoid the lure of utopian techno-futurism and excavate the story of the information age by looking “squarely backward.” Just how far backward? Two billion years ago for the information architecture practices of multi-cell organisms, and for Homo sapiens, try the Ice Age (about 45,000 years ago.) That, Wright tells us, is when our cave-dwelling ancestors started banding together for survival in the face of tougher hunting conditions.

While today we think the biggest challenge of glut is the ensuing time and attention management crunch, Glut reminds us that information acquisition did not come easy in the early days of empire building. A central challenge for many cultures was the amassing of material for that key information storehouse—the library—and trying to protect these centralized physical and intellectual assets from violent destruction:

“From ancient Sumer to India to China to the Aztec kingdom, the same pattern manifested again and again: first came literacy, then the nation-state, the empire, and ultimately the intellectual apotheosis of the empire, the library. When empires fall, they usually take their libraries with them.”

Among some of the other intriguing stops and observations along Wright’s tour:

  • Beads and pendants served as a very early symbolic communication for Ice Age Homo sapiens, allowing people to create bonds and achieve more complex social connections.
  • “Meta” text of a sort dates as far back as 2300 BC; archeologists have found 2000 tablets including lists of animals and locations as well as listing other tablets.
  • Google’s controversial book-scanning effort seems not far afield from the acquisition policy described by Wright for the Alexandrian library: “The Alexandrian rules built the great library not just as an act of imperial generosity but also through fiat, confiscation, and occasionally, subterfuge.

Wright The Curator

Part of Glut feels like an information management museum in book form, and Wright evinces a strong curatorial preference for the quixotic. There’s a sense that he hopes to shift our cultural focus from history’s hit makers to a number of lesser known but meritorious information management ideas from the past that deserve further airtime today.

For example, when Wright works his way up to recent computer history, he avoids focusing on the already well-told and well-documented human-computer interaction story of ARC, PARC, and Apple. Instead, he favors lesser-known milestones in the history of hypertext, with a fresh look at Ted Nelson and several groundbreaking experiments at Brown University (Wright’s undergraduate alma matter).

The Brown University story culminates in a project called Intermedia, which included many features that Wright finds lacking in today’s Web framework, including bi-directional linking (both pointers and targets “know” of the link), and real-time dynamic editing and updating. The project vanished for lack of federal funding in 1994, just before the World Wide Web stepped onto the global stage.

But central exhibit in this wing is Otlet, the 19th century Belgian bibliographer whom Wright dubs as the Internet’s forgotten forefather. Otlet is best known as the developer of the Universal Decimal Classification (UDC), a flexible and faceted library classification system in widespread use today worldwide across 23 languages.

Glut focuses on Otlet’s vision for something remarkably similar to today’s World Wide Web, and his efforts to realize it with a kind of manual database comprised of 12 million facts kept on index cards in an office he called the Mundaneum to which readers could submit queries for a small fee.

Otlet hoped that ultimately anyone would be able to access all human knowledge across forms—books, records films, radio, television—remotely from their own homes on multi-windowed screens, and even went so far as to the words “Web” and “links.”

Due to financial constraints and dwindling government support, Otlet found his Mundaneum squeezed into progressively smaller accommodations including a parking lot until he finally shuttered the project in 1934; a few years later, Nazi troops carted it away.

Wright argues that in some ways, Otlet’s ideas not only foretold but also surpassed the current Web: “Distinguishing Otlet’s vision… is the conviction—long since fallen out of favor—in the possibility of a universal subject classification working in concert with the mutable social forces of scholarship.”

Wright The Essayist

One of Wright’s central themes is the pas-de-deux between networks and hierarchies, and the need to balance Web 2.0’s bottom-up, technology-enabled crowd wisdom with a classic sense of the individual expertise, scholarship, and merit guided by human hand.

Decrying what he describes as the utopian view that “hierarchical systems are restrictive, oppressive vehicles of control, while networks are open democratic vehicles of personal liberation,” Wright pursues a throughline across time in which networks and hierarchies are seen not only as competitive but also as potentially complimentary and reinforcing—even essential to one another:

“Networked systems are not entirely modern phenomena, nor are hierarchal systems necessarily doomed. There is a deeper story at work here. The fundamental tension between networks and hierarchies has percolated for eons. Today we are simply witnessing the latest installment in a long evolutionary drama.”


Wright the essayist is an elusive fellow: he combines humanism and pragmatism, and eschews the received techno-hype that is coming back into vogue in the Web 2.0 era. Yet he does not seem prepared to grab the bullhorn from Wright the historian or Wright the curator. Among the arguments Wright puts forward, as best as I can tease out:

  • Google’s page-rank algorithm risks reducing the presentation of information to a popularity contest; previous models throughout information management show the possibility of a more balanced and durable approach between classification by human hands (top down) and social meaning (bottom up).
  • Today’s Web links are inferior to the bi-directional hypertext linking explored in projects at Brown and envisioned by Ted Nelson and others, in which one linked resource would “know” about other links to it. The current state of hypertext doesn’t realize its full promise of helping to navigate information overload in a way that might better help advance human knowledge.
  • Aspects of the Web’s infrastructure (other than nascent Web 2.0 tools) favor one-way consumption rather than two-way discourse, and there’s an ongoing risk of excessive control by corporate interests and unseen technology gatekeepers.

On the book’s very last page, Wright touches on Wikipedia as a modern-day meeting ground for the pull and tug between networks and hierarchies, and notes Wikipedia’s creation of a new hierarchal review process to bolster its credibility. Coming so late and remaining so brief, the discussion seems an afterthought rather than what could have been a convergence of the book’s themes.

Information architects—and anyone curious about the roots of information management—will find much of interest in Glut’s thought-provoking tale. Given the stimulating and contrarian nature of Glut’s ideas, one only wishes Wright would occasionally return from the corridors of the time tunnel and bring his well-informed perspective back to our present age.


To get deeper into the book, “read the excerpt”:



About the Book

“Glut: Mastering Information Through the Ages”:
Alex Wright
2007; Joseph Henry Press
ISBN-10: 0309102383

Change Architecture: Bringing IA to the Business Domain

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“Information architects hold the potential to become master Bead Game players who help companies play the right music to succeed. But gaining a seat at the business table requires that we change aspects of our usual perspective.”

In Herman Hesse’s Nobel-prize winning novel, The Glass Bead Game, skilled players tap into a symbolic language that encodes all of human knowledge into a kind of music to be played and shared: [1]

These rules, the sign language and grammar of the Game, constitute a kind of highly developed secret language drawing upon several sciences and arts, but especially mathematics and music (and/ or musicology), and capable of expressing and establishing interrelationships between the content and conclusions of nearly all scholarly disciplines. … on all this immense body of intellectual values the Glass Bead Game player plays like the organist on an organ. [2]

Today, as the world of knowledge increasingly resides encoded in digital form, stored in databases, and accessed through the web, information architects hold the potential to become master Bead Game players who help companies play the right music to succeed. But gaining a seat at the business table requires that we change aspects of our usual perspective.

As IAs, we are not just architecting information; we are using information to architect change. In “traditional” information architecture, the target of work is usually a website or a web-based application. Change architecture steps outside of these bounds. The domain is not limited to a web team; it expands to include today’s dynamic business environment and the way people, processes, and tools interact and interoperate. The target is no longer limited to web browsers; rather, it is the minds of those people charged with understanding the broader business landscape and contributing to better business decisions.

When seen from a change architecture perspective, the IA’s existing toolkit—normally used to discover and capture information, re-categorize content for easier consumption, and visualize ideas for shared understanding and action—naturally supports this expanded business domain. IAs can help companies reap the benefits of positive change by reducing fear of change, creating hope for the future, enhancing adaptivity to change, and architecting applications and processes that enable business success.

Thinking about change architecture raises new questions:

  • How can we clearly communicate with clients about the ways information architecture paves the way for positive change?
  • What role do digital (or even physical) assets—including site maps, work flows, and visual explanations—play in helping a team and a company share a vision for change?
  • How do we help our clients, and their employees or customers, adapt to and embrace change?
  • How can we change the perception that IA is just a step in a website production process?

Not just for websites anymore

In fact, a number of information architects are already applying IA methods to business problems beyond the web. A few recent cases in point:

  • At Vanguard, the mutual fund firm, information architects Richard Dalton and Rob Weening stepped into the company’s strategic planning process to synthesize and visualize findings from extensive client interviews and make recommendations to internal business decision-makers about solving key pain points. Dalton and Weening faced initial skepticism about the ability of IA to overcome what they call the “web design” stereotype in the strategic planning arena. [3]
  • At Dynamic Diagrams, a Rhode Island-based information architecture firm, the company’s “visual explanation” services are often employed by companies with complex business processes or products to help put an internal team on the same page. The Dynamic Diagrams team advocates the use of “isometric” illustrations that bring perspective—in both the literal and figurative sense—to large-scale information and process issues. [4] “When applied correctly,” note several members of the firm in the Interaction Design Journal, “the introduction of depth makes the information easier to grasp by appealing to our intuitive understanding of space.”
  • At EZgov, which helps bring government services online, information architect Peter Boersma and other internal team members convinced decision makers to incorporate user-centered practices into the company’s software development process. Their persuasion tools include workflows and process maps overlaid by visual design. [5]

Commenting on his experience, Boersma notes that visuals, when converted into life-size objects such as posters, can help convert an abstract realm into something tangible that the team can talk about: “Visual explanations, when designed well, are the proverbial pictures that are worth more than 1000 words; they make lengthy explanations unnecessary. But, more importantly, they allow for discussion by pointing at things and indicating relationships by drawing lines in the air, when the visual is projected or hung on the wall.” [6]

The physical form, scale, and transmission of visual explanations can become extremely important as the medium for “spreading the news.” Dalton and Weening created one large-scale information map, and then hundreds of smaller “placemat” versions that were distributed to business units. [7] Depending on a particular IA’s skill set, these visual assets may be developed directly by him or her, or they may be developed in close collaboration with a visual designer.

Anecdotal evidence points to an evolution of IA as a unique approach to business consulting that combines analysis with tangible digital assets and actions. While business consulting comes in many flavors, information architects bring a particular set of top-down and bottom-up tools and capabilities to the table. IA practitioners may not necessarily think of themselves as change architects or persons engaged in change architecture, but there is a common thread of working to make changes in the process and/or perceptions of a collaborative team.

Learning more about change

As IAs, we know a lot about working with information. However, we need to learn more about attitudes toward change. Areas of knowledge that could be incorporated into change architecture include business strategy, business process intelligence, and cultural psychology. Change architecture could also benefit from the lessons of change management, a business consulting approach with roots that pre-date the emergence of the web.

One of the key models in change management comes from Kurt Lewin, one of the founders of modern social psychology. Lewin suggested a three-phase approach of change, which has been distilled into the following framework: Unfreeze, Transition, and Refreeze. Here’s a quick look at each phase:

Unfreeze: People tend to create a comfort zone where habits, patterns, and processes repeat in a somewhat static, fixed way. This gives them a sense of familiarity, control, and purpose. As Charles Handy writes in an essay, Unimagined Future: “Most of us prefer to walk backward into the future, a posture which may be uncomfortable but which at least allows us to keep on looking at familiar things as long as we can.” [8] There is an instinctive and understandable resistance to change. Old patterns have a powerful ability to propagate across a culture, achieving a kind of cultural lock-in and monopolizing the way people think about possibilities. Before someone becomes change-ready, they often need to be “unfrozen” from their static environment.

Transition: Transitioning marks the journey across the chasm of change. People and organizations reconfigure themselves from an old formation to a new one (“re-form”), through many different and often difficult realignment steps and stages. The first step is often the hardest, and leaders need tools to help people to avoid “change shock”, feel hopeful about change, and acclimate to the new possibilities.

The writings of creativity expert Edward de Bono are an excellent source of transitioning tools. He draws the following analogy in his book, Parallel Thinking: “Your existing cooking-pots may allow you to cook all the meals you have always cooked, but if one day you want to cook dim sum, then you may need to get a proper steamer system.” [9]

The practice of IA provides transitioning tools that can help people limber up their thinking and explore new structures, new terminology, and new approaches. For example, card-sorting sessions, interactive prototypes, and visual explanations safely simulate change in advance and let people “try it on for size” before the full change arrives.

Refreeze: Aims to bring a renewed sense of confidence and comfort to the person or organization’s changed environment. Refreezing also helps bolster the changes, so the organization avoids falling back into the earlier frozen patterns. (Alas, refreezing is perhaps not the best word choice. In today’s constantly changing environment, one shouldn’t strive to achieve another frozen state, but rather an integration of stability and dynamism.)

Big change, small change, and loose change

Lewin’s change model brings to mind major top-down changes. But what about the smaller-scale everyday decisions that drive the tempo and tenor of business? In their article, “Who Has The D? How Clear Decision Roles Enhance Organizational Performance” in the January 2006 issue of the Harvard Business Review, Bain & Company consultants Paul Rogers and Marda Blenko offer a compelling framework for clearing decision bottlenecks. [10]

They call it “RAPID,” for the sake of a catchy acronym (even though the terms are ordered differently), and define five key roles in the decision-making process: those who recommend a course of action based on discovery and analysis, those who offer input on the recommendation, those who review and agree to the recommendation, those who ultimately decide on the recommendation, and those who perform the decided action.

Although the Rogers and Blenko article focuses on role-definition, not information architecture, it has a number of implications for our field. For one, information architects are often asked to perform a recommendation role. The often-hazy path leading from recommendation to decision and action has historically been a source of great professional frustration to many IAs, who may chalk up shortcomings in that terrain to “politics.” From a change architecture perspective, the conflict inherent in this decision-making process may be seen instead as an opportunity. While people often disagree over the possible outcomes and pace of change, we need to understand that conflict is an attribute—not a side effect—of the decision-making process. In addition, business decisions increasingly play out across a distributed team that never actually converges face-to-face. Decisions hang in the ether and, in the words of Rogers and Blenko, “get stuck inside the organization like loose change.”

If we IAs become attuned to this situation, we’ll come to understand that the assets we create for fostering understanding are well-suited to helping clear these decision-making bottlenecks and improving the decision “throughput” across the company. Teams that are divided by office, country, continent, and culture can be placed on the same page. IAs are in a position to not only inform the situation, but also proactively propose a workflow to define the path leading from a recommendation to “performing” that recommendation. With these approaches, an information architect can become a kind of Black Belt in architecting and navigating big, small, and even loose change within an organization.

Is change architecture worth changing for?

Using the paradigm of change architecture, IAs can become more aware of the idea that when we step onto the business stage of a project, we will first need to unfreeze aspects of the situation and the environment, and ultimately make the path from recommendation to action visible to the participants.

Change architecture could even be applied to the trade of information architecture itself. When I began as an information architect 10 years ago, such matters were outside my field of vision; I thought of my role only in terms of providing information and documentation. Today, I recognize that practicing information architecture in an organization—either as an employee or as a consultant—requires intervention, persuasion, and leadership.

For many IAs, even the idea that the first phase of a new project engagement requires unfreezing to create a change-ready state would itself represent a major change. But information architecture may be a domain that is ready for a sea change. The signs are there: the internal soul-searching that has taken place on IA mailing lists and conferences, the seeming confusion about the overlap or gap between IA and design, and the struggle to find a shared language. Could it be we are unfreezing, heading toward transition?

Learn More

Podcast with Bob Goodman on Change Architecture “Bob also shares his thoughts about Web 2.0 and the value add this new approach to the web will bring to organizations. As well, we discuss different approaches to IA and Usability including card sorting and Bob’s experiences with Listening Labs.”


[1] The connection of the “Glass Bead Game” and its players to the domain of “information visualization” was recently noted by Alan Marcus, “Visualizing the Future of Information Visualization”, Interactions, (March/April 2006): 42-43.

[2] Herman Hess, The Glass Bead Game, (New York: Picador, 2002), 15.

[3] Robert Dalton and Rob Weening, “A Foray Across Boundaries: Applying IA to Business Strategy and Planning”, (Power Point presentation.)

[4] Paul Kahn, Piotr Kaczmarek, Krzysztof Lenk, “Applications of Isometric Projection for Visualizing Web Sites”, Information Design Journal, (Volume 10, No. 3, 2000): 221-229.

[5] Peter, Boersma, “Integrating IA Deliverables in a Web application methodology”, paper adapted from ASIS&T Bulletin publication, February/March 2005.

[6] Peter Boersma, e-mail exchange, March 2006.

[7] Dalton and Weening, “A Foray Across Boundaries.”

[8] Charles Handy, “Unimagined Future,” in The Drucker Foundation : The Organization of the Future, ed. Marshall Goldsmith (San Fransico: Jossey-Bass, 1996): 377.

[9] Edward, Debono, “Parallel Thinking,” (London: Viking, 1995),

[10] Paul Rogers and Marda Blenko, “Who Has The D?,” Harvard Business Review (January 2006): 53-61.