Throughout this book, we have emphasized the importance of separately considering fundamental organizing principles, application-specific concepts, and details of implementation. The three-tier architecture we introduced in “The Concept of “Organizing Principle”” is one way to conceptualize this separation. In “The Implementation Perspective ”, we contrasted the implementation-focused perspective for analyzing relationships with other perspectives that focus on the meaning and abstract structure of relationships. In this chapter, we present this contrast between conceptualization and implementation in terms of separating the content and form of resource descriptions.
In the previous chapters, we have considered principles and concepts of organizing in many different contexts, ranging from personal organizing systems to cultural and institutional ones. We have noted that some organizing systems have limited scope and expected lifetime, such as a task-oriented personal organizing system like a shopping list. Other organizing systems support broad uses that rely on standard categories developed through rigorous processes, like a product catalog.
By this point you should have a good sense of the various conceptual issues you need to consider when deciding how to describe a resource in order to meet the goals of your organizing system. Considering those issues will give you some sense of what the content of your descriptions should be. In order to focus on the conceptual issues, we have deferred discussion of specific implementation issues. Implementation involves choosing the specific form of your descriptions, and that is the topic of this chapter.
We can approach the problem of how to form resource descriptions from two perspectives: structuring and writing. From one perspective, resource descriptions are things that are used by both people and computational agents. From this perspective, choosing the form of resource descriptions is a kind of design. This is easy to see for certain kinds of resource descriptions, notably signs and maps found in physical environments like airport terminals, public libraries, and malls. In these spaces, resource descriptions are quite literally designed to help people orient themselves and find their way. But any kind of resource description, not just those embedded in the built environment, can be viewed as a designed object. Designing an object involves making decisions about how it should be structured so that it can best be used for its intended purpose. From a design perspective, choosing the form of a resource description means making decisions about its structure.
In “The Structural Perspective”, we took a structural perspective on resources and the relationships among them. In this chapter, we will take a structural perspective on resource descriptions. The difference is subtle but important. A structural perspective on resource relationships focuses on how people or computational processes associate, arrange, and connect those resources. A structural perspective on resource descriptions focuses on how those associations, arrangements, and connections are explicitly represented or implemented in the descriptions we create. Mismatches between the structure imposed on the resources being organized and the structure of the descriptions used to implement that organization could result in an organizing system that is complex, inefficient, and difficult to maintain, as you will see in our first example (Example: Description structured as a dictionary).
The structures of resource descriptions enable or inhibit particular ways of interacting with those descriptions, just as the descriptions themselves enable or inhibit particular ways of interacting with the described resources. (See “Designing Resource-based Interactions”, and Interactions with Resources) Keep in mind that resource descriptions are themselves information resources, so much of what we will say in this chapter is applicable to the structures and forms of information resources in general. Put another way, the structure and form of information resources informs the design of resource descriptions.
From another perspective, creating resource descriptions is a kind of writing. I may describe something to you orally, but such a description might not be very useful to an organizing system unless it were transcribed. Organizing systems need persistent descriptions, and that means they need to be written. In that sense, choosing the form of a resource description means making decisions about notation and syntax.
Modern Western culture tends to make a sharp distinction between designing and writing, but there are areas where this distinction breaks down, and the creation of resource descriptions in organizing systems is one of them. In the following sections, we will use designing and writing as two lenses for looking at the problem of how to choose the form of resource descriptions. Specifically, we will examine the spectrum of options we have for structuring descriptions, and the kinds of syntaxes we have for writing those descriptions.