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Telling your library's story one number at a time.

How effective is your library at sharing stories? You probably have lots of stories that reveal how your services are relevant to your community. But how good are you at story-telling? Your library's online presence gives you the opportunity to tell your stories to more people than ever before. No longer at the whim of the media's choices about what to feature or limited by an advertising budget, librarians can use their online presence to effectively reach many key audiences. The stories could be about a new resource, special lecture, author reading, book club, or other event. But wait, there's more!

How about library statistics? Every library we know is collecting data, whether for internal use or for external reporting to parent institutions or accreditation agencies. Librarians are familiar with circulation numbers, gate counts, website usage statistics, and number of article downloads. We're becoming more familiar with numbers that show impact, such as the percentage of users who attended a resume workshop and subsequently landed job interviews.

The question is: Besides compulsory reporting, what are we doing with these numbers? Did you ever consider that your data can tell stories? Several libraries have their statistics online, providing tables or charts showing measurements of library activities. This is a fine first step, but let's go the next step and tell the stories that the data represents. During a time when many services, particularly libraries, are being cut back, the ability to clearly share how the library is relevant to its community is more important than ever. Telling your story helps you do just that.


We see statistics everywhere-in the news, as part of journal articles, and on television, radio and social media. Numbers, however, rarely stick with an audience if just dished up cold and served as dry facts. Making statistics come alive is critical to telling an effective story. It takes more than writing a couple of sentences about the numbers from a chart: "There were 15 story times last month attended by 147 children and parents." Instead of this dry factual approach, tell a story derived from the data: "Library summer reading club participation soars after library offers pop-up library kiosks in malls." Stories are powerful ways to communicate and help people to remember the facts.

Some people consider statistical narratives an oxymoron. How can a story, a fictional approach, work with reporting data? A statistical narrative is not fictional; it sticks to the facts but explains the data in a context that resonates with the reader. A memorable statistical narrative tells the reader why a particular measurement is important and what it signifies. As humans, we are hardwired to respond to stories in ways that are deeper than the ways we respond to the analytical. We have the raw ingredients to tell a compelling story about our libraries-the numbers themselves. How do we take those numbers and give them meaning? Narrative, context, and visualization.


The key ingredients for a compelling infographic are the data, the narrative, and, most obviously, the visual presentation. Of the three, the visualization part is probably the most time-consuming and difficult to master. Why should you bother? In a nutshell, visualizations are more easily processed, and more compelling, than their text counterparts. According to landing page design firm Unbounce (unbounce. com/content-marketing/why-do-infographics-make-greatmarketing-tools), this is why:

* Text plus photo elicits roughly twice the views of text only content.

* Visual images are processed by the brain in only 150 milliseconds, 60,000 times faster than text.

Media company The Next Web adds this factoid:

* High-quality infographics are 30 times more likely to be shared than text only ( dd/2013/10/16/10-ways-use-infographics).


How do you make a great statistical narrative? Here are some tips.

Identify the audience. Audience characteristics determine your topics of interest, language and tone, and effective visualizations. Choosing an audience is a challenge for libraries. Typically, the library website is available to everyone in the public sphere or within your organization. Your viewers will have diverse levels of statistical literacy and may have very disparate interests. Given that none of us has unlimited time or money, it helps to prioritize to one audience segment. Think of your statistics in terms of themes or issues. Focus on how people are affected.

Context is key. What type of media will the primary audience consume? Will they be on a mobile device or tablet? On Twitter or your website? Learn what engages your audience on the media channels they prefer. Most audiences are attracted to short snippets of content. Keep in mind secondary audiences when you select the way you present and visualize the information.

Determine the message. Focus on one or two findings. Is your message newsworthy? Is the story you're trying to tell fresh? Does it reveal something new to your audience? There's lots of trivial numbers to share, but those won't deliver the proper message. To test if you're on the right track, look at your planned story and ask, "So what?" Does the "so what" create awareness and perspective on the library and its services? Does it help further the debate? Libraries have long collected the "how much" numbers, but try to go a step further, ask the "So what?" question, and begin to expose and explain impact.

Make your message "stick." According to Dan and Chip Heath, in their 2007 book Made to Stick: Why Some Ideas Survive and Others Die, messages stay with people when they are simple and concise, reveal the unexpected, concentrate on concrete examples, use credible data, and appeal to peoples' emotions.

To increase your library website's effectiveness, get to the point. Use plain language familiar to the audience. Avoid jargon, and spell out acronyms. Follow guidelines for writing for the web.

Graphics need to deliver clear, easy-to-understand messages. Some charts, tables, and other visualizations are easier to understand and recall than others. Control the cognitive load placed on users, and make sure they don't have to work hard to grasp the point being made.

Statistical narratives will be remembered if the audience also perceives them as true. To effectively tell a quantitative story, use comparisons. Compare the present to the past, or your library to other libraries. For the message to be effective, there needs to be context. Saying that 96,000 students visited the library during finals is fine, but saying that that number is enough to fill the stadium on campus twice provides the context that makes the number comprehensible.

Keep the presentation focused on the message. Reduce clutter, cute effects, unnecessary words, and graphics. Keep it lean and mean. Showing a chart that has 2D data points, skip the 3D effects. Be fluent in the visualization method that you're using. If you're using a particular technique, such as a stacked bar graph or choropleth mapping technique, follow the standard rules and conventions for that technique.

Make your content accessible. Do not rely on color alone to communicate with charts and images. Use text alternatives where needed. Make sure the timing of any media can be controlled by the user. Become expert at coding tables for accessibility.

Statistics need to maintain individual confidentiality and guard against revealing data about an individual. When telling the library's story, be sensitive, respectful and aware of the position of vulnerable groups in society. Sharing information about specific groups can help raise awareness.

Beta-test the story. Does it make sense? Is it timely? Is it in engaging? Do viewers interpret the graphic correctly or is it misleading?

The Cecil County Public Library makes a credible, compelling case for the value of public libraries in its infographic (cecil.


You're sold on infographics. Where to now? As we stated earlier, infographics rely on three inputs: data, a story, and the graphical component. We'll assume you have the data in some accessible format, say a database or spreadsheet.

We discussed how to create an effective narrative to tell a story around the data. That leaves us with putting it together visually. There's both a lot, and not a lot, to say here. Any graphic design tool can be used to create the visuals, so Photoshop, Illustrator, and the like are all good tools.

(Tech gossip: Word on the street is that Adobe will soon be including a new infographics tool for Illustrator called AutoInfographics.)

Unfortunately, these Adobe tools have rather steep learning curves. If you don't know these tools, or don't have access to a designer who does, what to do? There are some great free tools available that can produce some pretty impressive results.


Google Charts ( lets you pick from a huge list of chart and visualization types and allows for customization of colors, fonts, etc. so the end results can closely match your library's visual style. Also worth noting is that there are Google Chart WordPress and Drupal plug-ins that enable this functionality on those platforms ( gle_chart_tools;

Infogram ( makes web-based data visualization applications for nondesigners to create professionally designed infographics and visualizations in minutes. It has more than 20 new data visualization formats, from pie charts and graphs, to the complex, such as multilayer datagrids, a built-in spreadsheet engine, and a simple drag-anddrop interface. Your infographic can be published to social media or embedded on a webpage. The ability to download it as a stand-alone image requires an upgrade to a paid plan.

Piktochart ( is similar to Infogram in that it's designed to get nondesigners creating good quality infographics quickly. The Piktochart workspace is divided into four main infographic categories, and there are dozens of themes within each category from which to choose. Like Infogram, your infographic can be embedded into a webpage or shared via social media, but, unlike Infogram, the free version also allows for the infogram to be downloaded as a stand-alone image file, albeit at web resolution only.


At one end of the spectrum, libraries are posting charts and graphs showing various types of statistics. Going a step further, we get into infographics, telling stories, and showing impact in a visual presentation. What's next? That would be multimedia, which you can think of as an animated infographic.

PowToon ( provides an online suite of animation tools to let you immediately begin creating professional-looking animated explainer videos and animated presentations. PowToon has a built-in export system to get your PowToon animated video on YouTube or downloaded to your computer to do with as you wish. Note that the free version will insert a PowToon watermark on your final product.

The University of Pittsburgh, for example, created a Powtoon video to show institutional advancement based on an infographic created by the library ( ( is moving beyond static infographics and into animated ones, such as PowToon. Scheduled to launch in mid-2014, this drag-and-drop interface promises to allow users to add text, pictures, data, press the "create video" button, and have these objects transformed into a video animation.


Regardless of where on the infographic continuum your library may be, it's important to realize that every library has a story to tell, and one compelling way to do that is through infographics and other data visualizations.

It's as unfair for us to expect that our communities know who we are, what we do, and what impact we're having--without us telling a compelling story--as it is for us to expect them to put that story together themselves through text and the occasional chart or graph. We know our communities love us; let's make it easy for them to explain why.

Darlene Fichter ( is Librarian, University of Saskatchewan Library. Jeff Wisniewski ( is web services librarian, University Library System, University of Pittsburgh.

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Darlene Fichter (University of Saskatchewan) and Jeff Wisniewski (University of Pittsburgh)
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Title Annotation:control-shift
Author:Fichter, Darlene; Wisniewski, Jeff
Publication:Online Searcher
Geographic Code:1USA
Date:Jul 1, 2014
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