[Series] Declassified: Information Architecture Edition

Welcome to the inaugural post of our Declassified series. This series will feature two writers laying out the basics of one class that is similar at two different schools. The point is to allow interested students to get a peek into the coursework that the MLIS offers, and also to serve as a checks and balances system for our programs; is your Metadata course the same as mine? Why, or why not? This is one way that we can actually attempt to open up the curriculum of library school and discuss it. Hope you enjoy – feel free to add comments reviewing the featured course at your institution also.

If this is an alt-LIS area that you might be interested in check out this bundle of apps/sites to check out curated by Micah.

Annie and Micah are happy to present “Declassified: Information Architecture Edition”


School:  Indiana University-Indianapolis

Course Title: Information Architecture for the Web

Professor: Bill Helling (adjunct)

Textbook(s): Huddleston, Rob. (2008). HTML, XHTML, and CSS: Your visual blueprint for designing effective Web pages. Visual. ISBN: 9780470274361 [AMZN]

Pros/Cons: This class isn’t strictly just Information Architecture. We are being taught info arch within the frame work of web building. The pro’s are that we are learning good skills to have like XHTML and CSS, learning how metadata is used in this setting, understanding how to make a site accessible, learning how to cater to the users, creating and using controlled vocabulary and probably a lot more. Not to mention, we’re working on a final project for a real client, so the pressure is on to make it good!

The con’s would probably be that we don’t explicitly learn about info arch in just a theoretical manner; however the basic ideas about info arch that we learn in this class are applicable beyond the web. Another con is that many people go into this class with varying levels of experience with html and css. Either it’s too basic or it’s too advanced, so the professor has to teach to an in-between level.


  • learn current XHTML markup
  • develop proficiency in Cascading Style Sheets (CSS)
  • understand basics of web page layout, design, labeling, and navigation
  • understand how to make a web site accessible

Learning methods:
It’s taught in a computer lab, so the first part of class is lecture. Sometimes we’ll do in class exercises together, or have time in class to work on our projects. It’s really helpful to do class exercises together because the lecture really sinks in. Then when the professor sets us off to work on our own, we’re encouraged to turn to our neighbors to ask for help if needed.

Assignments: We are assigned to build websites that eventually will give us the skills for our final project. The final assignment is designing and making a website for a real client. This semester it’s for a photographer so it should be a good experience working with what the client wants and making it happen.

For our final project we created a blueprint of our site, a list of our controlled vocabulary, and a wire frame. This wire frame is a basic layout, not intended to look pretty yet, it’s just to get the links in place and to establish a directory.

Sample Blueprint
My blueprint for a very simple website

The course objective: Focuses on web site development. Students study information architecture as an approach for site organization and design, and learn about project management for complex web development tasks. In lab sessions, students work with advanced markup languages and scripting and develop sites, typically for real clients.

The syllabus of our class can be found here.

Comments: I love this class! This class is a pre-requisite for the digital libraries class, so that’s why I am taking it. I didn’t have too much experience with web design beforehand, so I’ve learned a lot about what goes into making a website. There’s much more than just how the site looks and functions. This is where the information architecture comes in. I see information architecture as the way that we build the structure and hierarchies within our information systems. In a website, it’s your directory, how does the user get from point A to B? I feel like learning about it within the framework of web design has helped the theories make sense to me.

Another special thing about this class is that it’s the first class that I didn’t buy the text book for. Someone was crafty enough to find a nice copy online and emailed it as a .pdf to all of us. This is also the first class that I have had with students who were not in the library information science field. We have students in the human computer interaction program who are taking this class as an elective. I’m hoping to take a human computer interaction course next year. This goes to show an overlap between these two disciplines, which I think is really cool.

I want to clarify that there is an Information Architecture class, not for the web, that is taught at the IU Bloomington campus. From looking at the syllabus there, it goes more into detail about the theories of info arch and isn’t as hands on. If someone has taken that class, please correct me if I am wrong. I am partial to my current class because of the hands on aspect, I think it makes the class more fun. I would be lying if I said that I haven’t already started using what I’ve learned in real life.


School: Florida State University

Course Title: Introduction to Information Architecture

Professor: Dr. Lisa Tripp

Textbook(s): Information Architecture: Blueprints for the Web (Second Edition) – Christina Wodtke and Austin Govella. [Kindle Version AMZN]

Pro/Con: Lots of hands on work building information architecture around a site of your choice or design. Requires some level of technical skills and comfort with software/web apps.

Pre-Reqs: Information Organization (core course); Design and Production of Networked Multimedia (basic HTML and CSS).


Building blocks of Info Architecture:

  • defining the user
  • implementation and use of metadata for wayfinding/search
  • user-centered design
  • sitepaths, sitemaps and wireframes

Learning method: The class is taught using Elluminate since our degree is entirely online. The students all log in, typically there is a Q&A or review to open the class, followed by a 30-50 min. lecture with slides (which all students can hear and see through the Elluminate software – the only thing missing is the physical instructor and a classroom surrounding), then breakout sessions for group work where we critique and assist one another on our individual projects (using text chat and speaking like in Skype), and finally a review of any questions, and any upcoming work.

Assignments: Four basic assignments which can be viewed in detail on the syllabus below. The main project is to work through the steps of info architecture (building personas/scenarios, sitepath, sitemap, lo-fi wireframe, hi-fi wireframe and a narrative essay) with a website or mobile app that each student chooses/imagines. Most students make up a fictional site based on their interests.

Syllabus: Dr. Tripp was kind enough to allow me to post the syllabus here [PDF].

Comments: Information architecture is something I was interested in before I heard about this class, so having the opportunity to take it was really exciting for me. Also, I had taken Digital Media Concepts and Production with Dr. Tripp my first semester in the program, and I can honestly say it was because of that class that I am writing this on this blog right now. Really got me started on this digital media LIS path, which, it turns out, I absolutely love.

I chose to design a site called “HackLibSchool.com” and so a lot of my assignments were directly related to my “real life” activities and insights through writing and reading here – I know, super original, huh? I am about 3/4 through the final project and am happy to share it with you all, so you can see the type of work that is expected and done in a class like this at FSU. See links/embeds below.

This course was the first time I was offered the chance to use an e-textbook, so I went ahead and purchased the Kindle version which I access on my iOS devices. I. Freaking. Love. It. I will be totally honest here – this is the first textbook in the history of my MLIS degree that I have actually really read and engaged with and I attribute it entirely to the fact that I am totally comfortable with the e-format and delivery system since I already do 90% of my daily reading (RSS, news, Emails, texts, social media) on a digital device. Also, I think this textbook is actually just a really well-written and easy to follow text, of which you don’t see many in the MLIS.

Overall, I think that learning the principles of conscious design and layout were incredibly helpful to me imagining the web as the different types of social spaces that it is becoming, especially for the future of library, archive and museum webspaces. As I’m about to graduate and am surveying the field/job prospects, I think IA could be one of the “alt-LIS” fields that is a potential non-traditional career path for folks with Master’s in Library and Information Studies. And I want to one of them.

Deliverable 1 and 2 Persona and Scenario

Deliverable 3 – Sitepath

Deliverable 4 – Site Map

10 replies

  1. Oh man I love the declassified series idea! Great post!

    Here are my two cents from the IU – Bloomington campus, and our information architecture of the web class is a little different. You can find the syllabus here: http://warren.info/dr/?q=node/11

    The main differences are we use a different text book, watered down theory is mixed in, and we have more assignments. You start by building a resume, and then add to it as you learn more, the final project is a wireframe and site for a client. Part of the problems with this class are related to who has been teaching it for the last few years, but we don’t have a whole lot of hands-on time, and some of the information was a little dated. Still it’s a class that I also recommend to folks who are unfamiliar with HTML and CSS.


    • Carolyn – it’s interesting that at IU Info Arch is so tied to web design (HTML and CSS). At FSU that is a totally different course called “Design and Production of Networked Multimedia.” Do you and/or Annie think this is a valuable way to approach IA, by learning web design at the same time? In my opinion, it makes much more sense to break the two apart, as IA has a lot of really different skills and is much more of an aesthetic approach than web design.

      Are web design and IA two different animals? Discuss…


      • I want to say yes and no. There are some basic principles of IA embedded in web design, but that class is really just trying to teach us IA by using websites. There is no way that this class would be comprehensive enough to teach someone web design skills. There’s a lot of web design that we don’t go into because it’s not relevant to our course. Additionally, there’s only basic theory that we can learn because of the web design aspect of this class. I’m actually ok with that, if I want to learn more about one or the other, I could take more course work geared towards that. I don’t think I’ll come out of this class as a web designer, but I will have a working knowledge of what info arch is and some tangible skills. Does that make sense?

        I’m going to go out on a limb here and say that I think that IU has a very traditional kind of approach to the MLIS degree. We don’t have the same course offerings as an online school, and it sounds like Micah’s school offers more internet friendly classes. Our core classes are VERY traditional: Library management, collection development, reference, and intro to research.

        So maybe some of these more technologically based classes are taught in a traditional way, not as design oriented, which is too bad! My new academic librarian hero, Steven Bell is all about design thinking and believes libraries and library schools need to incorporate it.


        • Just to clarify – FSU offers a variety of traditional and progressive librarianship courses – I just avoided all the traditional ones and took all the progressive/alternative ones!


        • I definitely agree with Annie here. We do have a regular IA class which I would recommend taking instead of IA for the web. Because IA for the web is a watered down IA and web design class I feel like I missed out a little in both worlds. Granted, I did learn something, but I think a web design class and an IA class separate from each other would be more beneficial for students. Students who take both find it a bit redundant and you aren’t able to get the depth you’d expect in a graduate program.

          Also going along with what Annie said, IU does seem to structure itself as a very traditional library science school. There are individual classes and instructors that break the mold but the way our courses are set up that is not the case. I’m in a web programming PHP class right now and it is very hands-on and significantly more innovative (but I do find it odd that it has no prerequisites, ie build a website with PHP but we don’t require you to know how to use html…)


  2. What a timely post! I’m thinking about signing up for an info arch class for fall, but my school (UNT) recommends that you take a web design course first.


  3. At Drexel University, Information Architecture and Web Design are two distinct classes. You do not need to know any XHTML or CSS for the IA class. Also, the IA class’s final project was to design a mobile app or a mobile website, while the Web Design class had us designing 2 websites.
    While IA concepts were touched upon in the Web Design class, they are taught in great detail in the IA class. I really liked the fact that we were designing for a mobile device because that is become a major arena for Internet access and information retrieval these days and likely to grow exponentially in the future.
    The two IA classes outlined above seem more structured than my IA class at Drexel. I chalk that up to different professors, different teaching styles, different teaching experience. I would have liked more structure, though, because we had to ask the professor a lot of questions before we fully understood what was required for an assignment. Others may call that freedom but I find it to just be ambiguous.


  4. I’m nearing the end of an Information Architecture and Interaction Design course at Pratt SILS where the focus is on analysis, design strategy, and even a little marketing. It is certainly more low-tech than I expected and the instructor, David Walczyk, who is a usability and people centered design methods specialist, made a point on the first day of the class to say “this is not a web design course.” From reading the posts above, it seems that people have different ideas about what the parameters of IA are. I think separating the underlying methodology of the ‘architecture’ from the ‘construction’ makes sense to me (this is what happens in architecture-architecture). I think that the majority of IAs are probably hired by large companies, institutions, or organizations that already have IT teams and probably work more as design strategists than programmers. That said, I think having XHTML and CSS skills are valuable in an IA context. I wonder what employers hiring IAs expect? Could required skills vary to the same degree as the institutional conception of what IA is and how it is taught?


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