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Show, don't tell: data visualization for libraries.

At the 7:30 a.m. meeting, one of our trustees is troubled. "I can't understand this budget spreadsheet," she says. "Can't you just show me in a chart?"

A few of us are blessed to love tiny numbers in grids, but most of us, like our trustee (and me!) are not. I can sort of follow the numbers on the chart, but it is hard for me to parse the meaning. If I can't make out the story of our library numbers (and I run the place), how much harder must it be for our library stakeholders?

Hans Rosling, professor of international health at the Karolinska Institute, gave a famous TED Talk in 2006 ( talks/hans_rosling_shows_the_best_stats_you_ve_ever_ seen) about the power of data visualization to "liberate data." Linking graphic design to data allows it to be instantly understood, telling a story and changing minds.

As public libraries continue to struggle for funds, it becomes increasingly important that we be able to explain our value clearly and quickly, in an easily understandable format. The California State Library has done this with a pamphlet explaining the history of public libraries and the important roles that libraries play today ( docs/CAPublicLibraryStoryMap.pdf).

Of course, this fine work cost lots of money to create and was undoubtedly fashioned by professional graphic artists. Is it possible that information professionals, often design amateurs with little cash, could create graphical elements that could enhance our message?


In the past few years, several infographic design applications have appeared on the web. Some of these are low-cost or free. Some are complicated, requiring programming skill. But a couple of them seem like we could really use them without training, right now.

Several lists of data visualization tools start with a recommendation for the site ( However, I could find little free content there; it seemed to be more of a portfolio site for graphic designers. Then, a week after I set up an account on, I began to receive solicitation emails! does offer fine infographic examples for browsing. Still, I would advise against registering with this site unless you want to hire a designer for at least $1000.

A far more useful site is Founded in 2012 by Latvians Uldis Leiterts and Raimonds Kaze, hosts an easy-to-use web-based application. After completing a free registration, users can upload or paste a spreadsheet of data. can then convert it into a variety of charts. In addition to pie charts and bar graphs, it also makes those cool tree maps, word clouds, bubble charts, and pictorial representations (the one with the people-shapes representing units). The charts are free to make and display on the web. Still, if you want to download your infographic, go "Pro" for $18 per month or $180 per year. Wouldn't one of those tree maps, made with last month's statistics, look great in a trustee report?

Google Charts ( docs/quick_start) offers a snippet of HTML to paste into your own website. Simply replace the data with your own numbers to generate a pie or bar chart to illustrate your data. The chart is interactive: The sections pop out on mouse-over. More advanced users can create other kinds of Google charts: geo, scatter, bubble, and even org charts and gauges. All are free. Thanks, Google! After the chart is finished, screen-capture it for a report, or maybe insert the link on the library website.

The Seattle-based website ( lets users alter pre-made infographic templates and then save them online for free. But it does not create proportional graphics automatically. Users determine the size and shape of their graphical elements. Those of us who tend toward innumeracy may find this site difficult to use.

There are several compilation lists of free or low-cost data visualization tools. These include Saikat Basu's "10 Of the Best Tools for Creating Infographics" from January 2013 ( tag/10-of-the-best-tools-for-creating-infographics). Brian Suda shares three dozen of his favorite applications in his March 2014 article "The 36 Best Tools for Data Visualization" ( data-visualization-712402). Wiederkehr Benjamin, director of Interactive Things, a Swiss design company, offers this free collection of applications for building charts and infographics as a part of his blog Selected Tools (


If I am poor with numbers, I am worse at choosing pleasing and clear color combinations for my infographics. That is no problem at all any more thanks to color-choosing tools such as Portland, Ore.-based COLOURlovers ( Founded by Darius A. Monsef IV (aka "Bubs") in 2004, this site allows me to search by general color name and then discover a pleasing palette of satellite colors for my designs.

A similar service is offered by Adobe with its free Kuler app ( Kuler helps you to develop palettes based on color theory. Or, you can upload an image and the app will offer palettes based on it. Create a free Adobe ID to save your themes.


The point of creating infographics is to be able to use data to tell an easily understandable story. Amy Balliett offers some expert advice in her 2011 article in Smashing Magazine, "The Do's And Don'ts of Infographic Design" (smashing graphic-design).

Right off, Balliett points out that an effective infographic dramatizes the data: "Show, don't tell," she says. We should be able to get the story from the graphic, even without accompanying text. And while we are doing that, we should visualize the "hook," or the point of the tale. "Give the most important information the most visual weight, so that viewers know what to take away," Balliett writes. Excellent advice, and from a blog that has been offering web design tips (along with some free content) since 2006 (

Data visualization nerd Nathan Yau highlights excellent examples of infographics and charts on his blog FlowingData ( He also points out applications that can help to visualize data. For example, in a recent post, Yau introduced a program called Tabula, by Manuel Aristaran ( This application converts tables embedded in .pdf files to .csv, suitable for use in spreadsheets ... and also infographics!

Yau makes note of charts that have made the news, too, especially the misleading graphs made by Fox news that distort the numbers they report. He also cooks up some original charts for fun. Check out Yau's graph of famous movie quotes translated into chart form (flowingdata. com/famous-movie-quotes-as-charts). Examples include: "Stuff to get: My pretty, Your little dog," and "Remember: Milk, tartar sauce. Forget: Chinatown."

Electronic and microform publisher ProQuest collects infographics published by libraries on its Pinterest page ( brarians). Visit this page to see the history of libraries and our current function laid out in graphical format. There are some great ideas here for us to steal (I mean, be inspired by).


In his TED Talk, Hans Rosling notes that our biggest problem "is not ignorance but pre-conceived notions." He is speaking of progress over poverty in Asia and Africa since the 1960s. He notes that the economic states in these parts of the world have improved a great deal in the decades since many of us went to school. Yet, we still see the world through those assumptions learned at an early age.

In the same way, infographics can liberate our library data to tell our new story: Libraries are changing and are being used now more than ever. It is true that the circulation of print materials has declined. Still, the number of visits to public libraries continues to climb, which shows that our patrons value us for other reasons--as a community gathering space and as a place to find information online.

If we can find the pictures to dramatize that story, our futures will be secure indeed.

The Downside of Infographics

Muhammad Saleem wrote recently about the downside of using infographics to tell the company story. First, he notes, infographics are often poorly--or over--used. "Publications are so saturated with infographics that there is an entire industry devoted just to highlighting and critiquing infographics published elsewhere," he writes ("Infographics & Visual Storytelling: How to Do It the Right Way," Marketing Land, March 28, 2014). He lists several inherent difficulties with infographics including a lack of attribution to original data, SEO and indexing issues, and accessibility for those with impaired vision.

Clarizza Fernandez at Access iQ ( notes that infographics use visual cues to highlight the relationships between data. These "are lost on people who are blind, colour blind or vision impaired ... Furthermore, people who have cognitive disabilities may find elements distracting and have difficulty following information presented by complex design" ("How to Create an Accessible Infographic." Access iQ, Sept. 27 2012). Fernandez suggests that all infographics either be accompanied by describing text or be constructed using HTML and cascading style sheets (CSS) so the words on the graphic are readable as text and not just as part of the image file. WebAIM offers examples of this on its Web Accessibility for Designers page (

The power of infographics may have unintended consequences. When I created a tree map of our library's relationship to patrons who are city residents (about 33%) to nonresidents (about 66%), the disparity became glaringly clear. In my politically conservative affluent town, embedded in the surrounding poorer metropolis, this could have a negative effect. We have struggled to keep our services free for all patrons, thereby protecting our residents from being charged at other libraries. But this counterintuitive argument would be difficult to defend against the overwhelming wallop of an infographic. Perhaps we will just keep this data nestled in a spreadsheet for now.

Irene E. McDermott

City Librarian

Crowell Public Library

City of San Marino

If pictures don't work, city librarian Irene E. McDermott will interpret her San Marino library's statistics through dance.

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Author:McDermott, Irene E.
Publication:Online Searcher
Geographic Code:1USA
Date:Jul 1, 2014
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