Worth a Thousand Words

Infographics can help tell your library’s story

November 1, 2016

Meredith Farkas

Years ago, I set up giant Post-it pads on easels around the library with questions for students. I hoped to get feedback about what they liked and what they wanted to see changed. I entered their feedback into a spreadsheet, analyzed the data, and discovered interesting things, but I also needed to present an easily digestible version of the results to my colleagues.

One technique I tried was putting all of the comments into Wordle, a tool that creates word clouds showing by size the relative frequency of each word. One of the largest terms in the cloud was quiet. Our library had been focused on building and enhancing collaborative spaces, so the word cloud provided a valuable reminder that many of our students valued our quiet spaces. It was still important to read the full comments to understand how to act on the feedback, but the word cloud made apparent the most pressing concerns of our students without needing to pore over a spreadsheet.

In an effort to make evidence-based decisions, librarians collect a lot of data, but data must be shared and used to be most effective. It is especially important for libraries to tell their stories to stakeholders, whether they are demonstrating value or increasing awareness. In our soundbite culture, finding ways to turn raw data into something concise and compelling is critical. Edward R. Tufte, author of the outstanding guide The Visual Display of Quantitative Information, suggests that “graphical excellence is that which gives to the viewer the greatest number of ideas in the shortest time with the least ink in the smallest space.” This can be achieved through infographics.

An infographic, a graphical display of data, allows the creator to tell a story through visually engaging representations of information. Going beyond pie charts and bar graphs, infographics use familiar images and icons to make information easily digestible. While internal stakeholders may need access to more granular data, infographics are great for sharing library data with external stakeholders. For example, the DePaul University Library in Chicago created an infographic on Library Snapshot Day that illustrates the ways patrons use its library.

Finding ways to turn raw data into something concise and compelling is critical.

Not only useful for annual reporting and sharing assessment results, graphics can also convey instructional information. Boiling down complex ideas into graphics with minimal wording can be challenging, but research on the picture-superiority effect suggests that graphics are more readily processed and remembered than text or oral explanations alone. At the Portland (Oreg.) Community College Library, my colleague Sara Robertson worked with a graphic design student at our college to design an infographic to help students better understand the characteristics of different types of sources. At libraries that don’t have graphic design talent at hand, students in relevant fields are often looking for opportunities to build their port­folios, so a partnership can be a win-win.

If you’re not a graphic designer, newer web-based tools like Canva, Piktochart, Venngage, and Infogram can make it easier for a novice to design sophisticated-looking infographics. You can even use familiar desktop tools such as Power­Point and Keynote to design infographics.

Although the tools can help, creating a concise and engaging infographic is an art. For people like me to whom visual design does not come naturally, many great books and websites are devoted to the topic, including the works of Tufte. Librarian Design Share includes terrific examples from other libraries, and UK librarian Ned Potter’s blog contains a treasure trove of design dos, don’ts, and tips.

Like learning to write for the web, designing effective infographics has a learning curve. Given the growing importance of telling our library’s story, developing expertise in this area should be a priority for all libraries.