Picturing a Conference

By Kate Sheehan |

This year’s Computers in Libraries featured a lot of discussion about unconferences (including CiL’s own lobbycon) and the benefits of learning in an informal, social setting. I am all for taking in and sharing information while sprawled in a comfy chair or quaffing a glass of hotel merlo,t but CiL got me thinking about something else I find to be an essential learning tool: pictures.

To be sure, librarians can be very text-oriented, but sometimes a picture is the best way to convey information. Plenty of library land’s denizens pursue gorgeous imagery of data that might otherwise be dull. Dave Pattern’s lovely Dewey blobs and Nate Hill’s arresting demographic visualization and Cindi Trainor's ever-growing oeuvre are prime examples of the power of a picture. We could look at circulation patterns in a spreadsheet or demographic data in census tables, but we understand it in a deeper (and prettier!) way when it’s presented visually. Visualization helps us see what something is, but it is essential to fully understanding where something is.

Every time I move, I find myself standing in a bookstore, deciding on the best local maps. After I’ve learned my way around, I stop looking at the actual map and instead rely on my internal sense of where things are. The longer I live someplace, the weirder my internal map of the area becomes. Little did I know, this phenomenon is well-known by psychologists. In How We Make Mistakes, author Joseph Hallinan suggests a winning bar bet. Ask the nearest person with a glass of hotel merlot if Reno is east or west of San Diego. Because we oversimplify in our heads, we think “Reno is in Nevada, San Diego is in California. California is farther West than Nevada, so the answer must be that Reno is east of San Diego!” But it wouldn’t be a bar bet if the answer that springs to mind is the right one. Reno is farther west than San Diego.

Local road atlases frequently serve as a wake-up call to my own over-simplified mental map of an area (Darien has about five streets in my head, and they’re all straight lines that run parallel or perpendicular to each other). At work, I’ve seen the lightbulb flash of understanding that comes with getting a really good look at a map. The “oh, so that’s where that is!” moment doesn’t always imply geographic ignorance, just oversimplification. A friend once told me about hearing fellow American tourists ask a Sydney resident if a nearby bridge was the bridge to New Zealand. I laughed, but I am still surprised by how far away Hawaii is from California and I’ve been there. I know it’s far, it was a long flight, but every time I see a map - look at all that ocean!  My mental map features a much tinier Pacific Ocean.

Ran Hock’s presentation on Google Earth reminded me just how darn useful maps and map-based visualizations can be. The wealth of information available through Google Earth (though I have yet to find a map of library circulation or door counts) has provided me with endless possibilities for procrastination under the guise of “learning more about data visualization” (read: clicking on shipwrecks, webcams and Sylvia Earle’s ocean trench tour). Professional procrastination aside, Google Earth is like an atlas on steroids that can provide a jolt to the simplified maps in our heads and amplify historical (check out the City of London timeline) and current information (the United States Holocaust Memorial Museum’s Darfur project is a well-known use of Google Earth).

For visual thinkers, this may be a golden age. We have elaborate map software, presentations awash in beautiful pictures and the ability to share our images easily and enrich them with gobs of metadata. Support for visual thinking and communication abounds. In particular, there is a profusion of mind mapping software.  My colleague Gretchen Hams-Caserotti used Freemind to great effect (see below) when she planned her reorganization of the Children’s Library.

Just as we simplify geography when we visualize our town, state or country, software like Freemind allows us to streamline our ideas. It’s the happy medium between the usually messy thought process and the rigid order of a traditional outline. For those of us whose thoughts do not conform to a Roman numeral delineation, the circles, colors and crisscrossing lines of mind map software is planning salvation.

Gretchen used Freemind to chart out the reorganization of the picture book section, which she discussed in her CiL presentation. The picture books are consumed largely by children who can’t read yet (and their grown-ups). It’s how we first begin to take in information that isn’t happening in front of us. Sarah Ludwig, our teen librarian, emphasized how teens create and capture images in the library. The sense of wonder and even joy we so often feel when presented with visual interpretations of data may not always be because of the data. We grow up with images, not numbers in cells.

(Slide from Sarah Ludwig's CiL 2009 presentation)

Pictures speak to us in a way that text and numbers can’t. If you want to know what you missed at CiL 2009 (whether you weren’t in D.C. or simply in another presentation), blogs and twitter have all the notes you could ever want, but it’s Flickr and Slideshare with all their images that offer the feeling of being there. What's your favorite visualization tool? Are you a fan of Tufte? Do you like the subversive Powerpoint projects of David Byrne?