Lightning Review: Data Visualization for Success

Data visualization is where the humanities and sciences meet: viewers are dazzled by the presentation yet informed by research. Lovingly referred to as “the poster child of interdisciplinarity” by Steven Braun, data visualization brings these two fields closer together than ever to help provide insights that may have been impossible without the other. In his book Data Visualization for Success, Braun sits down with forty designers with experience in the field to discuss their approaches to data visualization, common techniques in their work, and tips for beginners.

Braun’s collection of interviews provides an accessible introduction into data visualization. Not only is the book filled with rich images, but each interview is short and meant to offer an individual’s perspective on their own work and the field at large. Each interview begins with a general question about data visualization to contribute to the perpetual debate of what data visualization is and can be moving forward.

Picture of Braun's "Data Visualization for Success"

Antonio Farach, one of the designers interviewed in the book, calls data visualization “the future of storytelling.” And when you see his work – or really any of the work in this book – you can see why. Each new image has an immediate draw, but it is impossible to move past without exploring a rich narrative. Visualizations in this book cover topics ranging from soccer matches to classic literature, economic disparities, selfie culture, and beyond.

Each interview ends by asking the designer for their advice to beginners, which not only invites new scholars and designers to participate in the field but also dispels any doubt of the hard work put in by these designers or the science at the root of it all. However, Barbara Hahn and Christine Zimmermann of Han+Zimmermann may have put it best, “Data visualization is not making boring data look fancy and interesting. Data visualization is about communicating specific content and giving equal weight to information and aesthetics.”

A leisurely, stunning, yet informative read, Data Visualization for Success offers anyone interested in this explosive field an insider’s look from voices around the world. Drop by the Scholarly Commons during our regular hours to flip through this wonderful read.

And finally, if you have any further interest in data visualization make sure you stay up to date on our Exploring Data Visualization series or take a look at what services the Scholarly Commons provides!

Lightning Review: Open Access

Although the push for open access is decades old at this point, it remains one of the most important initiatives in the world of scholarly communication and publishing. Free of barriers like the continuously rising costs of subscription-based serials, open access publishing allows researchers to explore, learn, build upon, and create new knowledge without inhibition. As Peter Suber says, “[Open access] benefits literally everyone, for the same reasons that research itself benefits literally everyone.”

Picture of Suber's "Open Access"

Peter Suber is the Director of the Harvard Office for Scholarly Communication; Director of the Harvard Open Access Project; and, among many other titles, the “de facto leader of the worldwide open access movement.” In short, Suber is an expert when it comes to open access. Thankfully, he knows the rest of us might not have time to be.

Suber introduces his book Open Access (a part of the MIT Press Essential Knowledge Series) by writing, “I want busy people to read this book. […] My honest belief from experience in the trenches is that the largest obstacle to OA is misunderstanding. The largest cause of misunderstanding is the lack of familiarity, and the largest cause of unfamiliarity is preoccupation. Everyone is busy.”

What follows is an informative yet concise read on the broad field of open access. Suber goes into the motivation for open access, the obstacles preventing it, and what the future may hold. In clear language, Suber breaks down jargon and explains how open access navigates complex issues concerning copyright and payment. This is a great introductory read to an issue so prominent in academia.

Open 24 Hours Neon Sign

Take the time to fit Open Access into your busy schedule. You can read it the Scholarly Commons during our regular hours or online through our catalog anytime.

And finally, if you have any questions about open access, feel free to reach out to or request a consultation with the library’s Scholarly Communication and Publishing unit!

Lightning Review: Optical Character Recognition: An Illustrated Guide to the Frontier

Lightning Review: Optical Character Recognition: An Illustrated Guide to the Frontier

Picture of OCR Book

Stephen V. Rice, George Nagy, and Thomas A. Nartaker’s work on OCR, though written in 1999, is still a remarkably valuable bedrock text for diving into the technology. Though OCR systems have, and continue to, evolve with each passing day, the study presented within their book still highlights some of the major issues one faces when performing optical character recognition. Text is in an unusual typeface or contains stray marks, print is too heavy or too light. This text gives those interested in learning the general problems that arise in OCR a great guide to what they and their patrons might encounter.

The book opens with a quote from C-3PO, and a discussion of how our collective sci-fi imagination believe technology will have “cognitive and linguistic abilities” that match and perhaps even exceed our own (Rice et al., 1999, p. 1).

C3PO Gif


The human eye is the most powerful character identifier to exist. As the authors note “A seven year old child can identify characters with far greater accuracy than the leading OCR systems” (Rice et al., 1999, 165). I found this simple explanation so helpful for when I get questions here in the Scholarly Commons from patron who are confused as to why their document, even after been run through and  OCR software, is not perfectly recognized. It is very easy, with our human eyes, to discern when a mark on a page is nothing of importance, and when it is a letter. Ninety-nine percent character accuracy doesn’t mean ninety-nine percent page accuracy.

Look with your special eyes Gif

In summary, this work presents a great starting point for those with an interest in understanding OCR technology, even at almost two decades old.

Give it, and the many other fabulous books in our reference collection, a read!

Lightning Review: Text Analysis with R for Students of Literature

Cover of Text Analysis with R book

My undergraduate degree is in Classical Humanities and French, and like many humanities and liberal arts students, computers were mostly used for accessing Oxford Reference Online and double checking that “bonjour” meant “hello” before term papers were turned in. Actual critical analysis of literature came from my mind and my research, and nothing else. Recently, scholars in the humanities began seeing the potential of computational methods for their study, and coined these methods “digital humanities.” Computational text analysis provides insights that in many cases, aren’t possible for a human mind to complete. When was the last time you read 100 books to count occurrences of a certain word, or looked at thousands of documents to group their contents by topic? In Text Analysis with R for Students of Literature, Matthew Jockers presents programming concepts specifically how they relate to literature study, with plenty of help to make the most technophobic English student a digital humanist.

Jockers’ book caters to the beginning coder. You download practice text from his website that is already formatted to use in the tutorials presented, and he doesn’t dwell too much on pounding programming concepts into your head. I came into this text having already taken a course on Python, where we did edit text and complete exercises similar to the ones in this book, but even a complete beginner would find Jockers’ explanations perfect for diving into computational text analysis. There are some advanced statistical concepts presented which may turn those less mathematically inclined, but these are mentioned only as furthering understanding of what R does in the background, and can be left to the computer scientists. Practice-based and easy to get through, Text Analysis with R for Students of Literature serves its primary purpose of bringing the possibilities of programming to those used to traditional literature research methods.

Ready to start using a computer to study literature? Visit the Scholarly Commons to view the physical book, or download the eBook through the Illinois library.

Lightning Review: the truthful art by Alberto Cairo

Image of the truthful art

Hailed by one of our librarians as a brilliant and seminal text to understanding data visualization, the truthful art is a text that can serve both novices and masters in the field of visualization.

Packed with detailed descriptions, explanations, and images of just how Cairo wants readers to understand and engage with knowledge and data. Nearly every page of this work, in fact, is packed with examples of the methods Cairo is trying to connect his readers to.

Cairo’s work not only teaches readers how to best design their own visualizations, but goes into the process of explaining how to *read* data visualizations themselves. Portions of chapters are devoted to the necessity of ‘truthful’ visualizations, not only because “if someone hides data from you, they probably have something to hide” (Cairo, 2016, p. 49). The exact same data, when presented in different ways, can completely change the audience’s perspective on what the ‘truth’ of the matter is.

The most I read through the truthful art, the harder time I had putting it down. Cairo’s presentations of data, how vastly they could differ depending upon the medium through which they were visualized. It was amazing how Cairo could instantly pick apart a bad visualization, replacing it with one that was simultaneously more truthful and more beautiful.

There is specific portion of Chapter 2 where Cairo gives a very interesting visualization of “How Chicago Changed the Course of Its Rivers”. It’s detailed, informative, and very much a classic data visualization.

Then he compared it to a fountain.

The fountain was beautiful, and designed in a way to tell the same story as the maps Cairo had created. It was fascinating to see data presented in such a way, and I hadn’t fully considered that data could be represented in such a unique way.

the truthful art is here on our shelves in the Scholarly Commons, and we hope you’ll stop and give it a read! It’s certainly worthwhile one!

Lightning Review: How to Use SPSS

“A nice step-by-step explanation!”

“Easy, not too advanced!”

“A great start!”

           Real, live reviews of Brian C. Cronk’s How to Use SPSS: A Step-By-Step Guide to Analysis and Interpretation by some of our patrons! This book, the Tenth Edition of this nine-chapter text published by Taylor and Francis, is ripe with walkthroughs, images, and simple explanations that demystifies the process of learning this statistical software. Also containing six appendixes, our patrons sang its praises after a two-hour research session here in the Scholarly Commons!

           SPSS, described on IBM’s webpage as “the world’s leading statistical software used to solve business and research problems by means of ad-hoc analysis, hypothesis testing, geospatial analysis and predictive analytics. Organizations use IBM SPSS Statistics to understand data, analyze trends, forecast and plan to validate assumptions and drive accurate conclusions’ is one of many tools CITL Statistical Consulting uses on a day-to-day basis in assisting Scholarly Commons patrons. Schedule a consultation with them from 10 am to 2 pm, Monday through Thursday, for the rest of the summer!

           We’re thrilled to hear this 2018 title is a hit with the researcher’s we serve! Cronk’s book, and so many more works on software, digital publishing, data analysis, and so much more make up our reference collection – free to use by anyone and everyone in the Scholarly Commons!

Learning how to present with Michael Alley’s The Craft of Scientific Presentations

Slideshows are serious business, and bad slides can kill. Many books, including the one I will review today, discuss the role that Morton Thiokol’s poorly designed and overly complicated slides about the Challenger O-rings played in why the shuttle was allowed to launch despite its flaws. PowerPoint has become the default presentation style in a wide range of fields — regardless of whether or not that is a good idea, see the 2014 Slate article “PowerPointLess” by Rebecca Schuman.  With all that being said, in order to learn a bit more about how to present, I read The Craft of Scientific Presentations by Michael Alley, an engineering communications professor at Penn State.

To start, what did Lise Meitner, Barbara McClintock, and Rosalind Franklin have in common? According to Michael Alley, their weak science communication skills meant they were not taken as seriously even though they had great ideas and did great research… Yes, the author discusses how Niels Bohr was a very weak speaker (which only somewhat had to do with English being his third language) but it’s mostly in the context of his Nobel Prize speech or trying to talk to Winston Churchill; in other words, the kinds of opportunities that many great women in science never got… Let’s just say the decontextualized history of science factoids weaken some of the author’s arguments…

This is not to say that science communication is not important but these are some important ideas to remember:

Things presentation skills can help you with:

  • Communicating your ideas with a variety of audiences more effectively
  • Marketing your research and yourself as a researcher more effectively
  • Creating engaging presentations that people pay attention to

Things presentation skills cannot help you with:

  • Overcoming systemic inequality in academia and society at large, though speaking out about your experiences and calling out injustice when you see it can help in a very long term way
  • Not feeling nervous especially if you have an underlying anxiety disorder, though practice can potentially reduce that feeling

For any presentation:  know your topic well, be very prepared, and actually practice giving your talk more than you do anything else (such as making slides). But like any skill, the key is practice practice practice!

For the most part, this book is a great review of the common sense advice that’s easy to forget when you are standing in front of a large audience with everyone looking at you expectantly. The author also offers a lot of great critiques of the default presentations you can churn out with PowerPoint and of PowerPoint itself. PowerPoint has the advantage of being the most common type of slideshow presentation software, though alternatives exist and have been discussed in depth elsewhere on the blog and in university resources. Alley introduces the Assertion-Evidence approach in which you reach people through presenting your research as memes images with text statement overlay. Specifically, you use one sentence summaries and replace bullet points with visualizations. Also you have to keep in account Murphy’s Law, where slide color or a  standard font not being supported can throw off a presentation. Since Murphy’s Law does not disappear when you create a presentation around visuals, especially custom-made images and video, you may need more preparation time for this style of presentation.

Creating visualizations and one sentence summaries as well as practicing your speech to prepare for these things not working is a great strategy for preparing for a research talk. One interesting thing to think about is if Alley admits that less tested methods like TED (Technology-Entertainment-Design) and pecha kucha work for effective presentations, how much of the success of this method has to do with people caring and putting time into their presentation than a change in presentation style?

Overall this book was a good review of public speaking advice specifically targeted towards a science and engineering audience and hopefully will get people taking more time and thinking more about their presentations.

Presentation resources on campus:

  • For science specific, the definitely check out our new science communication certificate through the 21st Century Scientists Working Group and the Center for Innovation in Teaching and Learning. They offer a variety of workshops and opportunities for students develop their skills as science communicators. There’s also science communication workshops throughout the country over the summer.
  • If you have time join a speech or debate team (Mock Trial or parliamentary style debate in particular)  it’s the best way to learn how to speak extemporaneously, answer hostile questions on the fly, and get coaching and feedback on what you need to work on. If you’re feeling really bold, performing improv comedy can help with these skills as well.
  • If you don’t have time to be part of a debate team or you can’t say “yes and…” to joining an improv comedy troupe take advantage of opportunities to present when you can at various events around campus. For example, this year’s Pecha Kucha Night is going to be June 10th at Krannert Center and applications are due by April 30!  If this is still too much find someone, whether in your unit, the Career Center, etc. who will listen to you talk about your research. Or if you have motivation and don’t mind cringe get one of your friends to record you presenting (if you don’t want to use your phone for this check out the loanable tech at the UGL!)

And for further reading take a look at:

Hope this helps, and good luck with your research presentations!

Review: The Infographic History of the World by Valentina D’Efilippo and James Ball

The Infographic History of the World, created by Valentina D’Efilippo and James Ball, consists of various infographics with accompanying commentaries. You can find this book and read it at Scholarly Commons, near our other infographic and visualization books! You can also check it out from a nearby library!

Overall, this book is a compelling read and an interesting idea as a project and some of the infographics were really well done. This book demonstrates the power of infographics to help us present and break down important topics to wider audiences. Yes, this isn’t supposed to be a serious read, but there was a lot I did not like about this book, specifically throughout I got a sense that:

Statue of a person with hands over face. Located by the Main Library entrance facing the UGL

Somewhere a political scientist is crying…     Photo credit to E. Hardesty and the Main Library with the original image found at

  • “The story of the last 4,000 years is one of nations being founded, breaking apart, going to war, and coming together” (D’Efilippo & Ball, 2013). For those confused why this is a problem, “nation” is a very modern term and concept so that’s a serious anachronism.
  • Why is the theocracy symbol notably non-Western and not used for the English Civil War, which was apparently about republicanism?
  • A history of the “Net” that doesn’t mention Minitel.
  • First flight goes to the Wright Brothers. No mention of Santos-Dumont or the controversy (for everyone who noticed that inexplicable early aircraft cameo at this year’s Olympic opening).
  • The book is very Anglo-centric.

Sloppy stats!


  • I’m suspicious anytime Luxembourg wins something. Are they really the biggest drinkers or how does their small population make this data less meaningful?
  • “Absolute number of cannabis users by region” Absolute? Really?
  • Overall, not enough information on where and how a lot of the statistics were generated and why we should trust those sources. Yes, there is an appendix on the back that explains this to some extent in tiny text but not helpful for people who just glance at the infographic and assume it’s giving us useful information about the world.

Visualization issues!


  • Emphasizing form over function — much like the new Macbooks with so few ports they are practically landlocked — many of the infographics fail to present the information in a way that is appropriate for what they are trying to present. For example, the Mona Lisa paint by numbers probably would have been more effective as a timeline.
    • Maybe I’m just too attached to the idea of timelines being well on a line or perhaps maybe the spiral depicted on the book’s cover art.
    • Some of the infographics have way too many things going on and are trying to make too many points at once.
  • The colors on the mental illness brain are too close (and I can’t imagine how that would look to someone who is colorblind), and there are other examples where the colors are very close and render the infographic pretty, but hard to actually use to learn something from.

Finally, the authors’ claim of “not trying to be political” / “this is just for fun” is no excuse for not being thorough especially with information targeted to the public. Full disclosure or not, artists and journalists still need to be careful because what people see can influence the way they think about things. Infographics are not a neutral presentation of information, certain choices were made, and audiences need to think about who made these choices and why. Not as bad as some of the examples on this Visual Literacy and Infographics blog post, but still problematic. Please, do not be reckless when making infographics!

To learn more how to create infographics of your own check out our Savvy Researcher workshop: Introduction to Infographics Using Piktochart!

If you are an undergraduate interested in conducting research and becoming information and visual literate there is an entire set of classes in the history department for this through SourceLab. Take a look at their schedule or talk to Professor Randolph to learn more!


Book Review: Visual Explanations by Edward R. Tufte

tufte-booksI recently read Visual Explanations: Images and Quantities, Evidence and Narrative by Edward R. Tufte. This is one of the books available for perusal in our Scholarly Commons non-circulating library. Books from our non-circulating library can be read in the Scholarly Commons, but not taken out of the room. There are four other copies of this book in the University of Illinois library system; though, at the time of writing, all other copies are checked out. So, while you cannot check our book out, you’ll always know that it’s there!

A bit about the author: Edward Tufte received his Ph.D. in political science from Yale University and taught at Princeton and then Yale, where he is currently a Professor Emeritus. He taught courses on statistical graphics, information design, and research methods among others.[i] In 2010 President Obama appointed Tufte to the Recovery Independent Advisory Panel “to advise stimulus board officials on how to better explain the complexities of the economic stimulus to the general public.”[ii] Tufte is also an artist and has a tree farm and sculpture garden in Connecticut.

I was fascinated by Visual Explanations right away. At the beginning Tufte spotlights two instances of displaying and analyzing quantitative evidence with real-world, life-or-death consequences. The first is the successful mapping of an 1854 cholera epidemic in London by Dr. John Snow that led to the discovery that cholera spread through contaminated water. The second is the weak, unconvincing presentation of data that failed to convince NASA to postpone the Challenger Space Shuttle launch in 1986 and led to deaths of 7 astronauts when the shuttle exploded. I have no background in data visualization and so had never even thought about how the arrangement of a chart can misrepresent information, and in some cases have such dire consequences. The examples that he chose to illustrate his points were gripping, and the book is extremely well-written and easy to understand.

One of the reasons this book was so pleasant to read is that the author has a personality, strong opinions, and a sense of humor! I actually laughed out loud while reading this book. One of my favorite parts was from the chapter on visual confections, which Tufte describes as a reassembling of many visual components, both real and imagined, to tell a story or illustrate an argument. Here is one of Tufte’s examples of a failed confection:


Tufte, Edward R. Visual Explanations: Images and Quantities, Evidence and Narrative. Cheshire, CT: Graphics Press, 1997.

Visual Explanations is also just a plain beautiful book. Tufte self-published all his books because he wanted control over their design. He states in the introduction to Visual Explanations, “These books are meant to be self-exemplifying: the objects themselves embody the ideas written about. Enchanted by the elegant and precise beauty of the best displays of information, and also inspired by the idea of self-exemplification, I have come to write, design, and publish the three books myself.” I didn’t know when I started reading it that this is the third in a series of books about data visualization that Tufte has written. We have all (now four) of his books here at the Scholarly Commons and I am definitely looking forward to reading the rest of them.

[i] Tufte, Edward. (2014, December). Edward R. Tufte Resume. Retrieved from

[ii] O’Keefe, Ed. “Obama Taps Infographics Guru for Stimulus Board.” Washington Post. March 9, 2010. Accessed November 18, 2016.


Book Review: The Design of Everyday Things

Designer, psychologist, and respected industry expert Don Norman wants to change your life and the way you see the world and his classic book The Design of Everyday Things might just do that. This book is available for reading in the Scholarly Commons and online through the University Library Catalog.

“People are flexible, versatile, and creative. Machines are rigid, precise, and relatively fixed in their operations. There is a mismatch between the two, one that can lead to enhanced capability if used properly” –  (Norman, 2013)

An update on his 1988 book, The Psychology of Everyday Things, this book continues on the themes of designing for human imperfection and imprecision with new examples. Norman makes a clear, concise, if a little repetitive at times, argument for how we can make the world a better place through better design through a combination of psychology research, jokes, anecdotes, and serious industry examples, peppered with Norman’s rules to live by from his years of design experience, such as his rule of consulting: “I never solve the problem I am asked to solve. Why such a counter-intuitive rule? Because, invariably, the problem I am asked to solve is not the real, fundamental, root problem. It is usually a symptom.” (Norman, 2013)

Undergraduate Library

This book is the reason why doors that don’t work the way we expect them to are now called “Norman doors.”  This blog post was made in loving memory of campus’s favorite “Norman doors,” the former UGL Doors, 1969-2016.

He combines psychology and technology in design principles emphasized throughout the book such as:

  • Don’t force people to rely on their memory, which is limited and easily distracted, to be able to use a machine or system
  • Try to make what the technology does make sense to people so they can figure out what it can be used for from the way it is built and what they would know about other technologies
  • Give people ways to figure out if they are using the machine for what they think they are using the machine for
  • Instead of punishing people for making errors we should find ways to figure out why such an error was possible and how to prevent the same errors from being made again

Some questions this book raises include:

  • What factors contribute to creating positive user experience and how can a designer improve products to make them work better for people?
  • To what extent are problems attributed to human error really examples of bad design?
  • How do we better design the tools that shape our lives so that they can be used by a wider variety of people despite differences in ability and culture?
  • How do we counteract a culture that rewards dangerous behavior and punishes people who make mistakes when trying to develop safer technologies? Why don’t more industries have a semi-anonymous self-reporting system for errors like the airline industry and NASA to find problems that pilots are having and improve designs and systems?
  • How do we best combine best practices for human-centered design, a circular process of observation, idea generation, prototyping, and testing, with the realities of the difficulties of product development, including Don Norman’s Law of Product Development: “The day a product development process starts, it is behind schedule and above budget” (Norman, 2013) as well as managing interdisciplinary teams, which prefer a more linear process?
  • And more!

Feeling inspired yet? Want to innovate the way things are done in your field or at least think about new ways of looking at problems? Here at Scholarly Commons we have books, and workshops, as well as consultations with the experts you need to find the tools you need to clarify and answer your research questions!