Libraries Are Where You Go to Help Make Sense of The World

After a break of a couple of years, I’ll be doing a couple of sessions at ILI 2016 next week; for readers with a long memory, the Internet Librarian International conference is where I used to go to berate academic librarians every year about how they weren’t keeping up with the internet, and this year will perhaps be a return to those stomping grounds for me ;-)

One of the questions I used to ask – and probably still could – was where in the university I should go to get help with visualising a data set, either to help me make sense of it, or as part of a communications exercise. Back when IT was new, libraries used to be a place you could go to get help with certain sorts of information skills and study skills (such as essay writing skills), which included bits of training and advice on how to use appropriate software applications. As the base level in digital information skills increases – many people are able to figure out how to open a spreadsheet on their own.


But has the Overton window for librarians offering IT support developed with the times? Where should students wanting to develop more refined skills – how to start cleaning a dataset, for example, or visualising one sensibly, or even just learning how to read a chart properly on the one hand, or tell a story with data on the other – actually go? And what about patrons who want to be able to make better use of automation to help them in their information related tasks (screenscraping, for example, or extracting text, images or tables from hundreds of pages of PDFs); or who want help accessing commodity “AI” services accessed via APIs? Or need support in writing scientific communications that sensibly embed code and its outputs, or mathematical or musical notation, particular for a web based (i.e. potentially interactive) journal or publication? Or who just need to style a chart in a particular way?

Now it’s quite likely that, having been playing with tech for more years than I care to remember, I’m afflicted by “the curse of knowledge“, recently contextualised for libraries by Lorcan Dempsey, quoting Steven Pinker. In the above paragraph, I half-assume readers know what screenscraping is, for example, as well as why it’s blindingly obvious (?!) why you might want to be able to do it, even if you don’t know how to do it? (For librarians, there’s a couple of things to note there: firstly, what it is and why you might want to do it; secondly, which might be a referral to tools, if not training, what sorts of tool might be able to help you with it.)

But the question remains – there’s a lot of tech power tools out there that can help you retrieve, sort, search, analyse, organise and present information out there, but where do I go for help?

If not the library, where?

If not the library, why not?

The end result is often: the internet. For which, for many in the UK, read: Google.

Anyway, via the twitterz (I think…) a couple of weeks ago, I spotted this interesting looking job ad from Harvard:

Visualization Specialist
School/Unit Harvard College Library
Location USA – MA – Cambridge
Job Function Library
Time Status Full-time
Department Harvard College Library – Services for Maps, Media, Data, and Government Information

Duties & Responsibilities – Summary
Reporting to the Head, Social Sciences and Visualization in the unit for Maps, Media, Data and Government Information, the Visualization Specialist works with staff and faculty to identify hardware and software needs, and to develop scalable, sustainable practices related to data visualization services. This position designs and delivers workshops and training sessions on data visualization tools and methods, and develops a range of instructional materials to support library users with data visualization needs in the Social Sciences and Humanities.

The Visualization Specialist will coordinate responsibilities with other unit staff and may supervise student employees.

Duties and Responsibilities
– Advises, consults, instructs, and serves as technical lead with data visualization projects with library, faculty teaching, and courses where students are using data.
– Identifies, evaluates and recommends new and emerging digital research tools for the Libraries and Harvard research community.
– Develops and supports visualization services in response to current trends, teaching and learning–especially as it intersects with Library collections and programs.
– Collaborates in developing ideas and concepts effectively across diverse interdisciplinary audiences and serves as a point person for data visualization and analysis efforts in the Libraries and is attuned to both the quantitative and qualitative uses with datasets. Understands user needs for disseminating their visualizations as either static objects for print publications or interactive online objects to engage with.
– Develops relationships with campus units supporting digital research, including the Center for Government and International Studies, Institute for Quantitative Social Sciences, and Harvard Library Central Services, and academic departments engaged in data analysis and visualization.
– Develops, collects, and curates exemplar data sets from multiple fields to be used in visualization workshops and training materials

Basic Qualifications
– ALA-accredited master’s degree in Library or Information Science OR advanced degree in Social Sciences, Psychology, Design, Informatics, Statistics, or Humanities.
– Minimum of 3 years experience in working with data analysis and visualization in an academic setting.
– Demonstrated experience with data visualization tools and programming libraries.
– Proficiency with at least one programming language (such as Python and R).
– Ability to use a variety of tools to extract and manipulate data from various sources (such as relational databases, XML, web services and APIs).

Additional Qualifications

Experience supporting data analysis and visualization in a research setting.

Proficiency using tools and programming libraries to support text analysis.
Familiarity with geospatial technology.
Experience identifying and recommending new tools, technologies, and online delivery of visualizations.
Graphic design skills and proficiency using relevant software.

Many of the requisite skills resonate with the calls (taunts?) I used to make asking library folk where I should go for support with data related based questions. At which point you may be thinking – “okay, techie geeky stuff… scary…not our gig…”.

But if you focus of data visualisation many of which actually relate to communication issues – representation and presentation – rather than technical calls for help. For example, what sort of chart should I use to communicate this sort of thing? How can I change the look of a chart? How can I redesign a chart to help me communicate with it better?

And it’s not just the presentation of graphical information. Part of the reason I put together the F1 Data Junkie book was that I wanted to explore the RStudio/RMarkdown (Rmd) workflow for creating (stylish) technical documents. Just the other day I noticed that in the same way charts can be themed, themes for Rmd documents are now starting to appear – such as tint (Tint Is Not Tufte); in fact, it seems there’s a whole range of output themes already defined (see also several other HTML themes for Rmd output).


What’s nice about these templates is that they are defined separately from the actual source document. If you want to change from one format to another, things like the R rticles package make it easy. But how many librarians even know such workflows exist? How many have even heard of markdown?

It seems to me that tools around document creation are in a really exciting place at the moment, made more exciting once you start to think about how they fit into wider workflows (which actually makes them harder to promote, because folk are wedded to their current crappy workflows).

So are the librarians on board with that, at least, given their earlier history as word-processor evangelists?

See also: A New Role for the Library – Gonzo Librarian Informationista, including the comment Notes on: Exploring New Roles for Librarians. This also touches on the notion of an embedded librarian.

And this, from Martin Bean, previously VC of the OU, several years ago…