Picture This: Data Visualization as a New Direction for Librarians


This post was contributed by Mr Edward Lim, a business librarian at NTU Libraries.

The role of the librarian has developed over the last few decades. Research has shifted from finding single articles on a bookshelf, to filtering through millions of records and data points. This same transition toward data-driven research is occurring in the business world – so information professionals must be aware of the needs around big data research, storage, visualization, and usage.

With industries such as healthcare, marketing, government, and supply chain demanding access to expert analysts, data evaluation and visualization must become a priority for schools. No longer is it sufficient for a researcher to have a rudimentary understanding of spreadsheets – he must understand how to collect, measure, and critically analyze large data sets. And most importantly, he must know how to present this data through a compelling story.

Using Tableau and other data visualization tools to interpret data

As the demand for big-data analysis grows, so does the need to visualize it.

Why use data visualizations? Because numbers have a story to tell – and for people whose eyes glaze over when they see too many numbers in a row, charts and infographics are a great way to keep their attention.

While explaining a trend, using words and digits can quickly become a formidable task. A simple visualization will present the trend clearly and concisely. When it comes to data, a picture truly is worth a thousand words.

Tools such as Tableau, JMP, and even good old Microsoft Excel make data visualization nothing more than the click of a few buttons. Once data has been opened in Tableau, it takes a single click to transition the data into a line graph, bar chart, or heat map. The speed at which one can add and remove metrics, switch between visualizations, and develop new metrics through calculations, allow researchers to quickly analyze metrics and their correlations with one another. By plotting, graphing, and comparing unique measures and dimensions, an analyst is able to catch trends, variances, and outliers in a data set.

Magic Quadrant for Business Intelligence and Analytics Platforms. JMP is owned by SAS. You will note that Tableau and Microsoft are currently deemed as ‘leaders’ in the field of business intelligence and analytics. Source: Gartner (2016).

Magic Quadrant for Business Intelligence and Analytics Platforms. JMP is owned by SAS. You will note that Tableau and Microsoft are currently deemed as ‘leaders’ in the field of business intelligence and analytics.
Source: Gartner (2016).

Librarians provide clarity to the research process. By taking a lead role in the visualization of data on university campuses, librarians can play a pivotal role in improving the success of their institutions’ graduates and academic researchers.

Three ways libraries can maximize data visualization tools like Tableau

There have been a variety of case studies showing how librarians use Tableau and similar tools to enhance their value to constituents. These studies fall into three categories.

1. Provide educational workshops and seminars

For example, business students need a broad understanding of big data. Librarians can assist with the learning process by providing informational seminars and workshops on how to maximize Tableau and other data visualization programs. By observing and sharing data visualization best practices, the library can become a hub for those interested in mastering the art of storytelling with big data.

2. Create visualizations of public data

Librarians can develop dashboards around public data. For example, data.gov.sg in Singapore has been visualized on multiple occasions to better analyze cases of dengue fever, mosquito breeding areas, and a host of other public interests. By taking the time to visualize public data sources, librarians can begin to help solve tomorrow’s problems.

3. Visualizing library data

Many libraries use Tableau to provide a new way of looking at their own metrics – from types of content available in the library, to visitorship, to books most frequently circulated.

I recently learned from an exchange librarian from Xiamen University Libraries that they have created a customised report of borrowing history. This is sent at an individual level to graduating students, showing the books they have borrowed over the course of their undergraduate studies.

Over at Ohio State University, they have used Tableau since 2012 to support their library assessment work. Recently, they have come up with a visualization alternative for presenting LibQUAL 2015 library survey results! In addition, they have managed to embed “interactive, downloadable Tableau dashboards” on their library website. Creating these visualizations is an excellent way to demonstrate the capabilities of Tableau and increase the public’s interest in a topic that they may not otherwise notice.

The standard radar chart showing the aggregate results for the core survey questions, provided by Association of Research Libraries / Texas A&M University.

The standard radar chart showing the aggregate results for the core survey questions, provided by Association of Research Libraries / Texas A&M University.

 

Screen grab from ARL (2015) LibQUAL+ Confidential Pilot Experiences webcast of Sarah Murphy, coordinator of assessment for The Ohio State University Libraries, and Rachel Lewellen, assessment librarian at University of Massachusetts Amherst, discussing their experiences administering LibQUAL+ Confidential surveys at their libraries. This interactive visualisation is arguably a marked improvement over the radar chart in helping both librarians and non-librarians understand the LibQUAL library survey results.

Screen grab from ARL (2015) LibQUAL+ Confidential Pilot Experiences webcast of Sarah Murphy, coordinator of assessment for The Ohio State University Libraries, and Rachel Lewellen, assessment librarian at University of Massachusetts Amherst, discussing their experiences administering LibQUAL+ Confidential surveys at their libraries.

This interactive visualisation is arguably a marked improvement over the radar chart in helping both librarians and non-librarians understand the LibQUAL library survey results.

Data Visualization is the Future of Research – Are You Ready?

As data grows in prevalence, the need to interpret and visualize it becomes an increasingly essential part of the research process. This provides a valuable opportunity for librarians. By leading universities in their use of data visualization tools, librarians take on a pivotal role in the future of research.

While the role of the librarian previously consisted of organizing structured materials, it can now involve collecting and analyzing millions of data points. Although they are different tasks, the purpose is very much the same. By organizing big data, we help streamline the research process.

How do you plan to use data visualization in your position – and in your library?

Related Readings

  1. CPF statements give clearer picture of accounts
  2. Effectively Visualizing Library Data by Eric Phetteplace [pdf]
  3. Visualize Better Looking Data for Your Library