Visualizing the Future | TechKnowledge

Academic libraries have always enabled access to books, monographs, journals, and other resources. With datasets emerging as a new type of content for collection and analysis, many libraries are not only helping students and faculty acquire datasets, and hosting those they create, but debuting innovative services that assist graduate students and faculty with expressing their findings effectively through data visualization. These, in turn, make those libraries increasingly relevant to departments campuswide.

Data visualization services help position academic libraries as collaborative hubs

Academic libraries have always enabled access to books, monographs, journals, and other resources. With datasets emerging as a new type of content for collection and analysis, many libraries are not only helping students and faculty acquire datasets, and hosting those they create, but debuting innovative services that assist graduate students and faculty with expressing their findings effectively through data visualization. These, in turn, make those libraries increasingly relevant to departments campuswide.

“In the same way that we provide services and support to help faculty, students, and researchers get the most value out of the books and other resources we have, it makes sense to provide similar services that support data and [help] students and faculty extracting value from data,” notes Justin Joque, visualization librarian for the University of Michigan Library (UM). “Visualization [is] a good way to help people interact both with the data that we have and the data that we can help people find.”

UM has offered spatial and numeric data services for more than a decade. Over time, the library received an increasing number of requests for assistance with visualization services or instruction, Joque explains. About four years ago, his position was changed from spatial and numeric data librarian to visualization librarian, “when we realized it had become its own thing.”

Like many major research libraries, UM has been attuned to the demand for new data services and has responded with consultation, workshops, and specialized computer equipment for collaborative projects.

Workshops work

Duke University Libraries, Durham, NC, offer a comprehensive series of workshops on data and data visualization tools. At press time, 11 unique workshops were scheduled for October alone, covering topics such as Visualizing Qualitative Data, Intro to ArcGIS Pro, Intro to Stata, and Developing Interactive Websites with R and Shiny. The ongoing series began taking shape about seven years ago, with topics inspired by common questions the library’s Data and Visualization Services Department (est. 2007) was receiving, notes Joel Herndon, head of Data and Visualization Services for Duke Libraries.

“The series is much more formal than it used to be,” Herndon says. “Initially, it came out of our consultation services—common questions that would show up in our lab…or by email.”

In the years since, the series has continued to grow. Although attendance can vary by topic, workshops regularly draw 15–20 attendees, and those hosted in partnership with the graduate school’s Responsible Conduct of Research series regularly draw capacity crowds of 60 or more.

IT’S VISUAL NCSU’s Visualization Lab features a 270° immersion projection (top); Duke’s Brandaleone Lab for Data and Visualization Services offers powerful workstations with dual monitors.
Top photo courtesy of NCSU; bottom photo courtesy of Duke University Libraries

The workshops have created a virtuous cycle. Marketing these events via email, flyers, the university and library online calendar systems, and partnerships with departments on campus raises awareness of the library’s role as a campus hub for visualization services. Meanwhile, workshop attendees and users of the consultation services continue to help the department stay on top of current trends and needs across campus.

“It tends to be our staff teaching these workshops,” Herndon says. “We do have guest speakers occasionally, but, mostly, its library staff. And we’re representing things that we have expertise in. It also has been, for us, a chance to develop new skills. If we get requests and we’re not familiar with a tool or technique, it’s a chance for us to train up and to gain new skills that we can use to provide service on campus. The workshop series plays multiple roles—marketing, outreach, instruction, and staff development.”

New workshops this fall include “Increasing Openness and Reproducibility in Quantitative Research” using the Open Science Framework, as well as new classes on Python, plus regular updates/reworking of existing workshops to keep them current.

Both UM and North Carolina State University Libraries (NCSU), Raleigh, also offer a series of data visualization workshops for faculty and students. Recent workshops at UM have included an intro to MATLAB software, as well as sessions on JMP Pro and data processing and visualization with Python. NCSU’s schedule this fall includes introductory classes on the statistical programming language R and open source QGIS software, as well as multipart workshops on Tableau and D3.js. Both Herndon and NCSU director of visualization services Mike Nutt agree that demand for workshops on R has been growing recently.

Consultation situation

Like NCSU and Duke, the Digital Project Studio at UM’s Shapiro Undergraduate Library offers consultation, instruction, and support for data visualization projects and activities throughout the university’s North, Central, and Medical campuses.

Representatives from all of these major research libraries agree that faculty are generally steeped in whatever software or visualization tools are commonly used within their discipline. So, consultation services generally trend toward helping graduate students, introducing faculty to new tools, or offering assessment and advice on presentations.

“A lot of the initial questions that I get are of one or two types,” Joque says. First, many faculty or graduate students who are accustomed to working with a specific software platform may be having trouble achieving certain outcomes on that platform. So, they want advice on working within that platform to achieve those outcomes or suggestions regarding alternatives, he says. Other consultations can run the gamut from how to work with a journal that publishes in black and white when a visualization was originally rendered in color to faculty who want to design interactive websites with ­visualization features.

For one-on-one consultations, Duke’s Brandaleone Lab for Data and Visualization Services also regularly assists students working on class projects, honors papers, or dissertations, Herndon says.

“We see an even mix of grad and undergrad students.... For people who are working on assignments for courses, some of them are constrained and are told they have to be working with a certain tool or a certain method and need help with that,” Herndon says. “For people who are doing their own research…we do often get questions about ‘which tool should I use? Is there some other way to do this that would be easier or more effective?’ With data visualization, especially, when they have an outcome they’re interested in reaching—they’ve seen some type of data visualization but they’re not sure of what type of steps are necessary to reach that goal—we get a lot of those types of consultations.”

Striking visual

When it opened in 2013, the James B. Hunt Jr. Library made a statement about the role NCSU Libraries expect data and visualization to play in academia going forward. It features immersive spaces such as its Teaching and Visualization Lab, a black-box room with 94 linear feet of high-definition display covering three walls in 270° immersive projection, and the iPearl Immersion Theater, a 21' x 7' curved Christie MicroTiles digital exhibit space with touch panel interaction that greets all visitors at the library’s second-floor entrance. Separately, NCSU’s D.H. Hill Library’s Visualization Studio has 12 projectors (three per wall) in a collaborative environment that enables up to four different laptops to project on the walls simultaneously. (For more on the Hunt, see “Tomorrow, Visualized,” Library by Design, Fall 2013.)

“We’ve known that this has been bubbling and increasing in importance for a number of years, and…our research administrators think that the library can be the physical embodiment of data science on campus,” explains Nutt.

IN THE ZONE Drexel University's "Data Visualization Zone" at the W.W. Hagerty Library

“Visualization is an important part of the data science tapestry, because…it’s a way to communicate about large ­datasets and make [the information] understandable to a large audience,” he continues. “The library has the opportunity to be the place not just where knowledge is disseminated but where knowledge can be created, and data visualization can actually help support the research life cycle—not just the communication of research but the analysis and asking of questions” as well.

Although spaces such as the iPearl Immersion Theater are positioned to draw attention by virtue of high-traffic location, NCSU is also working to spark curiosity and introduce students to data visualization through its ongoing “Coffee & Viz” series, launched in 2015. Topics range from an “Introduction to 3-D Modeling,” held in September, to “Art at the Atomic Scale: Probing the Nature of Material Properties with Electron Microscopy” and “A Tour of the Solar System,” scheduled for October 27 and November 17, respectively, at the Teaching and Visualization Lab.

“Coffee & Viz has been...a runaway success for us,” Nutt says. “And I think if you are a library that is interested in having the kind of visualization spaces that we do—large scale, immersive visualization spaces—I couldn’t imagine trying to do that without something like the Coffee & Viz series.”

“These kinds of spaces are not something that your typical student or faculty member can walk into and immediately understand what the possibilities are,” he continues. “The Coffee & Viz series is very low barrier. It’s easy to show up at an informal talk.... It’s a way for faculty and students to walk into the spaces, see a great presentation that utilizes [one of] the spaces and, being able to see those uses demonstrated, can be the thing that sparks your ­imagination.”

Similarly, the uninitiated may encounter students and faculty working on their own projects on the second floor of UM’s James and Anne Duderstadt Center, which houses the university’s Art, Architecture, and Engineering Library and its Computer Aided Engineering Network (CAEN). The center offers reservation-based access to two 84" ultra-high-definition, 3-D-capable “VizHub” stations. Located in open study/collaboration areas, each VizHub is equipped with dual NVIDIA M6000 GPUs and dual 16-core Intel Xeon processors with 256 GB of RAM and 10Gbit ethernet connectivity. For projects or presentations that don’t require quite so much horsepower, the Duderstadt Center also has 11 wall-mounted 55" flat screen displays, equipped with CAEN computers in semiprivate collaborative work­stations for groups of up to five people.

Creative collision

The University of Connecticut, Storrs, is taking a similar, serendipitous approach during a $20 million remodel of its Homer D. Babbidge Library. Year one of the five-year project was just completed, and, at press time, a data visualization lab was soon to open, featuring a display wall with 12 4k, 55" screens and access to library resources and software including Tableau, ArcGIS and Adobe suites, R, and more. Located on the newly remodeled first floor, the visualization lab is part of an array of creative work spaces, including a new Maker space outfitted with 3-D printers and laser cutters, a recording studio, and the new Andrew W. ­Mellon Foundation grant–funded Greenhouse Studios—a new interdisciplinary research unit at UConn designed to facilitate collaboration among librarians, faculty, students, IT specialists, web developers, and other experts.

These spaces, as well as strategic partnerships with organizations such as the University of Connecticut Humanities Institute—which is also working with Greenhouse Studios and now has offices on the library’s fourth floor—are designed to ensure “that we have a lot of faculty and staff in the library.... We’re trying to encourage interdisciplinary, multidisciplinary ‘collisions’ between students and faculty,” Holly Jeffcoat, vice provost for UConn Libraries, tells LJ. “Several of the spaces, including the visualization studio, are intended to encourage workshops and activities that [would otherwise] be hidden on campus and bring them into a more central location and encourage collaboration.”

Informal introduction

As part of a more localized remodel of the 24-hour Bookmark Café in Drexel University’s W.W. Hagerty Library, Philadelphia, a “Data Visualization Zone” was installed in January 2016, featuring an 80" flat panel monitor with gesture interaction capability (using a Microsoft Kinect and Ubi interface via projector and screen installation, according to the zone’s reservation site), and access to library resources such as Statista, ArcGIS software, ESRI Business Analyst Online, and much more. In the 20 months since its installation, usage has ranged from workshops and class projects to club meetings and academic competitions.

Danuta Nitecki, dean of libraries for Drexel and professor in the College of Computing and Informatics, tells LJ that the informal location—where students from all disciplines come to meet and study—was chosen for its potential to introduce data visualization to students from all walks of academic life.

“We were concentrating on redefining this café not as a place to eat while you study—which is really what it was—but as a place to experiment,” Nitecki says. “We started with [the question] ‘What do we want to have happen as a result of people in that space?’ It’s a microcosm of thinking about the library as a whole. And my answer…is that [students] become lifelong learners. You’re not just studying to do it, you’re not just going through the motions.”

Noting that today’s students should have a familiarity with data and digital imaging “as part of their comfortable vocabulary,” Nitecki describes the location of the Data Visualization Zone as “democratizing. We don’t just serve one college, one discipline. We’re leveraging the fact that people from different backgrounds and different perspectives come in.... We want to stimulate people who…didn’t think they had a reason to use it [and] might get interested in seeing what’s happening.”

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