November 21, 2017

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Libraries & the Changing Scholarly Environment: Data Visualization

University of Texas , TACC Visualization Laboratory

University of Texas , TACC Visualization Laboratory

Data visualization labs have become a hot trend in academic libraries, and with good reason. Visualization helps scholars interpret, describe, and communicate complex data sets such as census data, image collections, maps, or molecular models.

Over the past few years large, high resolution displays have been appearing in academic libraries. These screens have been integrated to support a variety of research and learning through data visualization, digital scholarship, public engagement, and cross-disciplinary work with digital media.

Now that the precedent has been set, the question is how can libraries create these spaces and how are they being deployed?

This Q & A explores Data Visualization with Renee Reaume, Head of Digital Media and Technology Services, University of Calgary Libraries, Patrick Rashleigh, Data Visualization Coordinator, Brown University Library, and Mike Nutt, Director of Visualization Services, North Carolina State University Libraries. Readers will get a better understanding of how to plan, staff and utilize data visualization spaces.

Indiana University Libraries, IQ Wall

Indiana University Libraries, IQ Wall

Any ideas for grants or partnerships to create such spaces?

Mike Nutt: You could probably convince some funders if you were to collaborate with some other institutions or develop a shared infrastructure or similar infrastructure, you get some economy of scale. You might want to check out something like the IQ Wall at the Indiana University Libraries, they have open sourced their model, their hardware plan for a video wall. I’m not saying they’re cheap, but you may be able to find ways to think creatively.

As to staff, how many do you have to support the video wall?

Patrick Rashleigh: I’m the primary contact, I’m data visualization coordinator, which is care and feeding of the space. I rely on third party vendors for the maintenance aspect, and I oversee that. I talk with faculty and think about ways they can change their teaching in ways that can leverage the wall. There’s definitely an element of putting new things up and making sure neat things are happening on the wall.

University of California Irvine, HIPerWall

University of California Irvine, HIPerWall

Mike Nutt: We have a pretty distributed team, and nobody just works on our visualization spaces. We have that distributed model, which allows us to get a lot of skills in the room. It does make it hard to count FTE. We have our own IT department, and we use them quite a bit for technical issues, there’s probably a direct correlation between the size of your installation and how many people you need to staff it. Start small, with a touch screen that you can buy from Amazon and see what you can make happen with that one screen before buying a video wall because you’ll learn a lot about how your users interact with that stepping stone.

What kind of library leadership do these 3 libraries have in common?

Patrick Rashleigh: In the case of Brown, it came from our head librarian. She raised the funds for it from private donors to the library.

Renee Reaume: In the University of Calgary, it was seen as a key piece of research infrastructure supporting the entire academy, so it’s a space that’s used when they’re touring prospective faculty members, donors to the university, it’s a high-impact space, so one of the uses of the space is events.

Queens University of Technology, The Cube

Queens University of Technology, The Cube

Mike Nutt: We did have a state appropriation for the Hunt Library, but we had a fairly substantial fund raising effort for the high tech spaces. The leadership in our library—two main branches and four other branches—is pretty centralized. Our staffing and decision making operate as a centralized unit, with one director at the vice-provost level with a team of associate directors under her, and then our department heads report to associate directors.

Do any of you have something that allows users to write on the wall? Are they touchscreen?

Mike Nutt: The game lab in the computer science department is there to support game development and design, touch-enabled with the Christie interactive kit.

Outside of more innovative uses, do you ever do simple things like movie showings?

Renee Reaume: We have produced a play in there, based on a person’s experience with schizophrenia. Within our Taylor Family Digital Library, we have a display, we’ve put Pong up, and big sporting events, hockey for example.

By starting small, and involving your users and faculty in the development of programming, data visualization can employed by even the most modest libraries today.


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  1. It should be Queensland University of Technology, The Cube (not Queens University) – 2nd image, caption.