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