So you want to be a Data Visualization Librarian?

Public-facing Live Library Stats at the Traverse Area District Library

Public-facing live library stats at the Traverse Area District Library

So you know that you want to be a librarian, but have you thought about specializing in a certain field? Maybe you have an interest in emerging technologies or you want to work with researchers and students across the disciplines? Data visualization is a hot topic in librarianship, and specializations in data analytics and visualization is an exciting area of growth in the profession. I sat down with four visualization specialists who work within the University of Michigan Library system to get an idea of what their jobs entail.

Meet our contributors:

Marci Brandenburg is a bioinformationist at the Taubman Health Sciences Library at the University of Michigan. She received her Master’s degree from the University of Michigan School of Information, and she also earned an MS in Biology from Ohio University.

Justin Joque is a visualization librarian at the University of Michigan Library. He also earned his MSI at the University of Michigan School of Information, and most recently, his PhD in communications at the European Graduate School.

Stephanie O’Malley is an Interactive Imaging and Production Specialist at the University of Michigan’s 3D Lab. She earned a BFA in Entertainment Arts from the College of Creative Studies.

Ted Hall is an Advanced Visualization Specialist also at the University of Michigan’s 3D Lab. He earned his BS, M.Arch, and Arch.D. from the University of Michigan.

1. What motivated you to pursue a career in visualization?

Marci:  I got a Master’s degree in biology, focusing on ecology. And after some time as a field and lab researcher, I started looking at other careers, and someone mentioned librarianship. I looked into it, and there was this whole field of medical librarians! And science librarians. I was already in Ann Arbor, working at the medical school, and there was the School of Information right here.

I transitioned into bioinformatics and visualization in the summer between my first and second years at the School of Information. I did an internship with the Taubman Health Sciences Library and worked with the NIH-funded National Center for Integrative Biomedical Informatics [more info on NCIBI]. That was my first introduction to bioinformatics. Honestly, I wasn’t sure I’d like it. When I was in college, I liked wildlife and ecology. I didn’t like molecular stuff. But in my work with NCIBI, I discovered that I really enjoyed doing that work, so I continued working with NCIBI in my second year.

My experiences at NCIBI not only introduced me to bioinformatics and bioinformatics resources, but it also introduced me to a network visualization tool called Cytoscape, which is an open source freely available resource. Then, in my first position after graduating library school, I had the freedom to offer instruction on new resources. There was some feeling that maybe the community there was tired of learning about PubMed and Web of Science. You can only learn that so many times, and they were interested in some fresh resources.

I had taught myself Cytoscape, so I started to teach it to the community there, along with some other bioinformatics resources that I had learned about through NCIBI. And there was a lot of interest from the community, which led me to focus on those topics. That became very helpful when I returned to UM as a bioinformationist, because I was able to continue teaching on those types of resources.

Justin:  My undergrad was in history, and I went to library school thinking I would do archives and records management, so I really thought I was going to do something much more paper-based and historical.  When I was in graduate school, I was working in the library, in the government documents center, which was where spatial and numeric data services (SANDS) were located. And, so I was working a little bit with them.  And then I decided to take a GIS class, and got excited about that and started doing more and more with the SANDS librarians. After a semester, or the first year, I decided to switch my concentration to information analysis and retrieval, and so really went heavy into the programming and data. Then when I graduated, I got a job as a spatial and numeric data librarian and was doing GIS work largely, and mapping, and working with spatial data for three years, But increasingly, I got requests to do more visualization. I was teaching some workshops on using R and visualization related to maps, so it just became clear that the demand was growing for this kind of work. So after three years, I switched my title and became a visualization librarian.
Stephanie: I started off working in the video game industry out of college. I worked for a small Indie studio out in Farmington Hills that was started by the producer of the Call of Duty series. There I worked as sort of a jack of all trades, doing everything from character modeling/animating to environment creation. I applied to U of M to work at the 3D lab because I’ve always had an interest in how 3D modeling and animation can be applied outside of the entertainment industry, and I have a huge fascination with science and history in particular.
Ted:  All of my degrees are in architecture: B.S. Arch. 1979, M.Arch. 1981, Arch.D. 1994.  I took a two-semester class in computer programming as a high-school junior in 1974-75, but I’d already made up my mind to study architecture.  I entered the UM College of Architecture and Urban Planning (CAUP) in 1977.  (Admission to CAUP is typically in the 3rd year of college.)  I took a required class in programming in the Fall of 1978, and followed that with an elective in graphics programming in Winter 1980, as well as a self-selected graphics programming project that started for a class in advanced lighting design but extended into two semesters of independent study.  I had summer jobs as an architectural draftsman in 1978 and 1979.  But when that fizzled for lack of projects, in 1980 I started working as a programmer in the Architecture and Planning Research Laboratory (APRL) on a project to develop a Computer Aided Engineering and Architectural Design System.  I graduated from the professional M.Arch. program in 1981 as a professional computer programmer.  The APRL hired me immediately as a full-time systems research programmer, and I never interviewed for another traditional architectural job.  Computer graphics and computer-aided design led to 3D geometric modeling, building information modeling, system analysis, scientific visualization, and virtual reality, across disciplines.

2. What steps (if any) did you take in library school to prepare for this field?

Marci:  As a student, during my internship and work with NCIBI, I attended a weekly seminar series, and that’s actually how I was first introduced to Cytoscape. I had no idea what it was. I didn’t understand a word of the seminar, but it put the name of this software tool in my mind, that I then looked into later on. So when I got my first job, everyone had access to Cytoscape, because it was open source. So I could teach myself and teach on it.
Justin: I learned so much from the GIS class. Being confronted with the difficulties of spatial data was really really good training for me, because it’s one of the hardest types of data that one can deal with, so getting a sense of that. And also, just working in the library while I was doing my degree, see what people were working on, the sort of questions researchers had, and getting the on-the-ground experience. Because I think often times, when you take these classes, in IAR, GIS, or a visualization class, you oftentimes work with a data set that is really clean, and has been prepared, and is ready, and the professor knows it’s going to turn out with an interesting result. But we oftentimes talk about data in the wild, being like, the stuff you download, and it’s horrible and it’s messy, and you run it, and it doesn’t work. So having those experiences and figuring out how to both deal with those and help patrons deal with those situations, I felt was really good training.
Stephanie: I actually didn’t go to library school, rather I have an art degree from the College for Creative Studies. Art classes at CCS are very structured, so any course you take is going to have something to do with your choice of major (history classes are art history, literature classes could involve studying film plots, etc). I took essentially every class that was offered on 3D modeling, art history, sculpture, anatomy and digital art (Photoshop, after effects, etc). And of course, they had some very influential instructors working there as well as alumni connections, so you were constantly engaging with people who had worked on everything from Sesame Street to Pirates of the Caribbean.

3. Can you describe a typical day on the job?

Marci: Although the library is my home department, I work closely with the Department of Computational Medicine and Bioinformatics and the Bioinformatics Core, and as a result, every day is different. On any given day, i work on several of these different things: I attend journal clubs, particularly the bioinformatics journal club. I do the programming for weekly tools and technology seminars for the Department of Computational Medicine and Bioinformatics. I do documentation for locally developed bioinformatics tools. I also do hands-on training sessions on those same locally developed tools. I do hands-on training sessions on Cytoscape, and I do that in the health sciences realm, using biomedical data. I also teach it with our visualization librarian, we co teach a class on using Cytoscape in the social sciences and humanities. I also do webinars on Cytoscape for groups outside of Michigan. I do consultations, particularly with individuals interested in using Cytoscape to visualize their own data, so often times, particularly people who have come to my class, they have learned about Cytoscape, they think it might be useful but they can’t necessarily make that transition to exactly how to use it for their data. So we’ll sit down and work on that.

I collaborate with other librarians on campus who offer visualization services. Lately we have been working to educate librarians on visualization topics, to give them some of the basics: visualization landscape and principles to think about, to help them work better with their researchers, and to give them an idea of who to contact if it’s beyond their realm. I do outreach for the Bioinformatics Core. I mentor students, and then, of course, because I’m an academic librarian, publications and presentations.

Justin: I meet with a fair number of faculty, researchers and students, and do consultations. That takes up a fair bit of my time. Sometimes it’s just a one-off project–someone just wants to do some little thing, and they need help with it. Sometimes, it’s planning for a large, multi-year project. And, then also, doing some in-class instruction, like sometimes there will be a class that they’ll say, “Can you come and show us how to do this?”. That kind of thing. And I also offer open workshops, where it will be like an hour and a half, like, “Here’s an introduction to using this statistical software for doing visualization.” I spend a lot of my time doing that. And then also, some committee work and stuff like that.
Stephanie:  A typical day on the job for me involves a lot of consulting and a lot of project work. We get new clients every week, and most do not necessarily know if what they want to do is actually possible, and if it is possible, how to approach it. It requires a lot of creative problem solving to take someone’s idea and imagine how it can be implemented using the various skills everyone contributes to the lab. We get all sorts of requests that can sound very bizarre at first and do not necessarily have a clear path for production-but we figure it out. Project work involves a lot of back and forth conversation with clients to ensure whatever is created matches their data and their vision. Often times I find myself working on visualizations for concepts that are highly theoretical (such as space anomalies visualized for the museum of natural history’s planetarium space), and the researchers themselves may not even know quite what is “correct” until they see the concept portrayed in a couple iterations.
Ted: I now work as an Advanced Visualization Specialist in the 3D Lab, in the Digital Media Commons.  My typical day involves spending as much time as possible developing software — sometimes to satisfy specific project demands, but usually aimed at developing general classes of visualization capabilities that will hopefully satisfy many future projects.  I also spend some time coaching and supervising student employees, and consulting with clients when new projects come in.

4. What advice can you share with current and future LIS students interested in visualization?

Marci: Gain some kind of visualization experience. It could be as simple as incorporating a visualization project into a class project. Maybe it requires you to learn some tool that you wouldn’t otherwise know. And of course, an internship that provides visualization opportunities. As a bioinformatist at an academic library, I’ve provided several library students with the opportunity to do projects in bioinformatics with visualization components.

I would also say, since not everyone has opportunities like that, there are self learning opportunities for visualization tools. I looked at Cytoscape user manuals and video tutorials and found what I could, installed the software, played around with it myself to begin to figure it out. Take some time to start familiarizing yourself with some of those tools. You don’t have to be an expert to start teaching on visualization tools. I certainly wasn’t. Over time, you learn more, and you increase your knowledge based on questions that are asked. Every time I teach it, Cytoscape (despite that fact that I feel like I’ve taught it eight gazillion times), somebody asks me a question, and I’m not sure. “I don’t know if it can do this? Let’s see. Let’s try to find out.” and then I learn something so next time, when someone asks me that question, I can answer it. And I think one of the best ways to learn a tool is to teach on it and or to create documentation because it gives you the motivation to really learn how to do it.

I’ll stress for anyone who is interested in moving to visualization, you don’t need to know every available tool that’s out there, and you don’t need to know everything about one specific tool. It sort of depends what your interests are. There’s so much out there, and things change so quickly in these fields. There’s no way to know everything. If you have some focus, you know enough to get by, to be able to understand, to translate between some tools, or to be able to focus on one tool that a lot of people would be able to make use of. That’s a good place to start.

Justin: Work on as many projects as you can, even if it’s not in the context of a course or a job. Finding interesting data sets and try to do interesting things with them. The best thing you can do is just have some hands-on experience. And for applying for jobs, have a portfolio of examples, because I think visualization is both similar to other library work, but it also has such a design component to it. If you can have examples that you can show potential employers, I think that can be really powerful, and people can see, “This is the kind of thing that this person can help with.”
Stephanie: I would say think big. A lot of people think of visualization in terms of diagrams, charts and graphs and it actually goes so much further than that in most cases. We utilize a broad range of technology to create visualizations depending on the functionality needed by our various clients-this can include things like generating interactive tablet applications, 3D printing prototypes, displaying a space in virtual reality, or just simple 2d/3d animations. When it comes to making data understandable and exciting, immersion is so very important and technology plays a major part in that.

Ted: My advice to students interested in visualization development is to learn programming.  Once you’ve mastered one language, you can pick up others.  When I was young, the language to know was FORTRAN and all of my coursework was in FORTRAN.  Nowadays most heavy-duty graphics programming is in C and C++, which I taught myself on the job.  For programming specific high-performance rendering algorithms close to the metal, my coworker Sean Petty uses GLSL. A lot of scientists and engineers use MATLAB for creating simulations.  R is well-known for statistics.  For ease of learning and use, some people find the “Processing” language, derived from Java, to be effective.  On the other hand, over the Web, JavaScript with WebGL is quite impressive for 3D visualization, and the website is a great resource for dynamic “data driven documents.” Besides the language itself, it’s necessary to know a bit about basic geometric data structures — points (Cartesian x, y, and z coordinates), lines, planes, triangles, vectors, vector dot products and cross products, and matrix multiplication.  It might sound intimidating, but it’s really nothing beyond high school algebra and trigonometry.

On the other hand, besides software development, there’s demand for people familiar with a variety of currently-available general-purpose visualization applications, such as VisIt, Paraview, and Cytoscape.  Many people have data that they want to visualize, but no idea where or how to start.  Quite often, their needs can be met with these tools.
One should have some sense of visual aesthetics.  Not every project needs an artist (though some do), but it’s good to have at least some sense of color, contrast, proportion, and general legibility, to make the data comprehensible. And of course, one should know something about the data being visualized, the application domain, and the end users and audience.  A broad education and genuine interest in learning new things from the clients are essential.

5. When you were a kid, what did you want to be when you grew up? Do you see ways that those aspirations connect to what you do now?

Marci:  I–for many, many, years–wanted to be a wolf researcher. Wolves were my passion. I love them, and that’s what I wanted to do. In college, I worked at a wolf education research facility. And, that’s why I got my master’s degree in wildlife research. When I came into the library profession, I knew I wanted to stay in the sciences. Research was something that I wanted to do. I grew up, science focused. So I have a scientific mind, and an academic scientific mind, and because of that, I’d say that publishing is important to me. My position has also allowed me to collaborate with researchers and work with them to advance their research and that has been extremely important to me.

Justin:  I remember at some point I wanted to be a veterinarian and a basketball player, and I think I told my parents, that I would have a pager, so that if I was like playing basketball and needed to go help some poor animal I could stop playing basketball. But neither of those things worked out, I mean, I have cell phone so I guess it’s kind of like a pager, but that’s as close as I got to that dream.

By the time i was in high school, I knew that I wanted to be involved in academia, and I had the sense that, research and writing and reading were things I was very interested in. For a while in undergrad, I really thought I would go and do a History PhD program, but the economics of the tenure track are so tenuous right now, it didn’t really make sense. So that was one of the reasons I decided to go to library school.I think it’s been nice being in this pseudo-faculty positions. I get to do a lot of the things I wanted to, but one of the really nice things about being a librarian is that you get to help people with the most interesting parts of their project and then when it’s like the boring, data cleanup, you can to send them off on their own to go do that. And I’ve had time, I did my PhD while working as a librarian. I have a little bit of time work on my own research, even though the basketball-vet dream didn’t turn out, this has been pretty good.

Stephanie: When I was a kid I never really thought about being anything but an artist. Art was all I did growing up. Now I get to do art in a variety of mediums and based on a variety of subjects, every day. It never gets boring.

Many many thanks to our contributors! We hope that you will explore this emerging area of librarianship. I’d recommend the excellent interview Courtney did with Celia Emmelhainz, social science data librarian, on “Things You Can Do as a Library Student to Prepare for a Career as a Data Librarian” and Emmelhainz’s leave comments below about your interest in data visualization librarianship or if you already work in data/visualization/libraries, consider providing additional advice for our LIS readers.

Editor’s note: this post was originally published June 4, 2015.

14 replies

  1. So much interesting experiences inspired me. I’m work as a referen ce librarian at a Law College in Brazil and I love being a researcher. I’m a phd student and I always try to help the library users with my research knowledge. I’d love to work as a data librarian. Maybe, one day!

    Liked by 1 person

    • From what I heard in the interviews, this career path really challenges you to engage in research, both through consultations with researchers and through individual professional development as an instructor. It’s exciting! Best of luck Paula 😀


  2. This is a great post. I’ve been seeing job posts in this area and wondering what kind of background and actual job duties were involved.

    Liked by 1 person

  3. Reblogged this on Dominican University LIS 750 and commented:
    We covered data visualization in one of the last modules of my Assessment and Evaluation course (LIS 793). I would say becoming comfortable with data visualization is critical to Assessment Librarians as well as other roles (for selecting important data and presenting it) and for library leaders to review, understand the messages inherent in the data, and make and make good decisions based on the data.


  4. So much intriguing encounters roused me. I’m work as a referen ce bookkeeper at a Law College in Brazil and I cherish being a scientist. I’m a phd understudy and I generally attempt to help the library clients with my examination information. I’d adoration to fill in as an information administrator. Perhaps, one day!


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