Core Competency M: Communication
“Demonstrate oral and written communication skills necessary for professional collaboration and presentations.”
Edward Tufte, a well-known pioneer of data visualization, views communication today as an expansion of traditional oral and written skills. He states (2006), “evidence that bears on questions of any complexity typically involves multiple forms of discourse. Evidence is evidence, whether words, numbers, images, diagrams, still or moving. The intellectual tasks remain constant regardless of the mode of evidence: to understand and to reason about the materials at hand, and to appraise their quality, relevance, and integrity,” (p. 9). In short, although speaking and writing remain essential components of communication, they should be complemented by additional methods of expression.
I entered the SLIS program as a good writer. Ever since my grandfather bribed my cousins and me with $25 per vignette written, I’ve loved to write. I also love speaking to people, and feel comfortable presenting my ideas and opinions to others. However, these skills are not enough. Communication today means being able to effectively tell stories in multiple media, be they written, oral, visual, interactive, etc. Not only must I be fluent in these different media, but I must have the experience and analytical skills to assess which methods will convey my story with the most meaning: a visualization of research methods probably leaves something to be desired, while a visualization of the research results is likely much more effective than text. My time at SLIS has afforded me many opportunities to explore alternative communication methods, and to hone my existing writing and oral presentation skills.
These opportunities are crucial. Visual communication is, if anything, the most difficult method to master, because creating an effective visualization requires the author strip off all fluff and isolate key aspects of a story, then somehow craft these aspects into universally understandable design elements. As Tufte says, “the intellectual tasks remain constant,” but in order to perform these intellectual tasks, I need a broad toolbox of communication skills, especially related to visualization. Professional communication with colleagues, collaborators, and clients requires the ability to fluidly interchange taxonomies, reference points, and media. I cannot expect my clients to understand the inner workings of metadata, but they may be able to appreciate social tagging. Similarly, I cannot hope to collaborate on a professional digitization schema without an in-depth metadata discussion. Written, oral, visual, and other forms of communication each have their time and place.
Through these competency essays and various other work samples I demonstrate my writing proficiency; here I would like to take the opportunity to showcase my ability to communicate visually and through presentations.
EVIDENCE 1. Our final group project for LIBR 246 – Information Visualization was to research a multivariate data set of our own interest, then create a visualization for it and present to the class. My two teammates and I chose to study and visualize the relationship between vaccination rates, news media, and measles occurrences in England and Wales. We found raw data from the Public Health of England website, Lancet (a medical journal), and a British parliamentary paper. Turning the data into a visualization was a long process, as we experimented with different theoretical styles and technical programs, all the while keeping in mind the principles of design we’d been learning in class.
Our resulting bubble graph suggests that media publicity on the potentially negative side affects of measles vaccinations correlates to decreased vaccination rates and increased outbreaks of measles. In our final presentation, “Vaccinations, Media, and Measles in England & Wales,” we described our process, showed our visualization, and discussed our design justifications. Though our team worked very closely, my role was less finding and interpreting raw data, and more figuring out the most appropriate visualization methods.
I believe this is a strong example of effective communication, because the visualization quickly conveys a message that would otherwise take a significant amount of time reading to understand. Although my teammates and I walked away from the project with an opinion about the subject, we also had to make a conscious effort to present our visualization as a story of related facts, rather than an editorial. This is important, because as a LIS professional, perhaps one of my greatest ethical obligations is to communicate with unbiased information.
EVIDENCE 2. My assignment for the final project of LIBR 220 - Maps & Geographic Information Systems was seemingly simple, yet struck an underlying cord of complexity: design a marketing resource for library map collections. Because I concluded from the course that maps are innately personal, I wanted my project to be personal as well. I wanted my marketing product to inspire library patrons to not just use maps, but to make maps, and through this process, to understand why they need maps, and why map collections are valuable.
These goals led me to create a poster titled “Do-it-Yourself Cartography,” which introduces basic cartography skills and tools in an informal, engaging fashion. It’s designed to be printed as at least an 11x17-inch poster, drawing viewers in with a prominent image supplemented by bite-size commentary. Although we were encouraged to create online resources, I felt that for most library settings, paper is actually a more effective way to initially reach patrons and then direct them toward online resources.
I used many of the information visualization principles I learned in LIBR 246 - Information Visualization to design my poster. For example, by centering the poster around a large image, I target my audiences’ preattentive perceptual processing. My color choices and layout were informed by the Gestault laws and our LIBR 246 instructor’s recommendations (Chen, 2013). Blocking the text by topic is a way of allowing the poster to be reader driven. By reiterating these design processes in another class, I solidified them in my communication toolbox.
EVIDENCE 3. My final evidence for Competency M is a project I did for LIBR 246 - XML, in which I created an XML schema and two stylesheets to organize and display data from a collection of archived binders. I work as the collections curator at a small field station in the central Sierra Nevada, and one of the collections I have access to is the Sherman Chickering Plant Binder Collection. Chickering was a botanist in our area throughout the mid- to late-1900s, and in his binders he recorded notes, pressed physical plant specimens, and included photographs of plants.
This is all very useful information to me, as well as to our field station users, but the way it is currently preserved makes the information practically inaccessible because the binders are kept by Chickering’s family. For work, I had already scanned all of the binder pages so that we could have digital access copies. LIBR 246 then presented me with an excellent opportunity to apply my schoolwork to my work. The XML, XSD, and XSLT documents I made allow users to see Chickering’s historical perspective in an organized, searchable manner. Additionally, when I transcribed Chickering’s notes from each binder page, I also extracted and added metadata, such as “physical specimen present?”
My Chickering XML project challenged me to think as a true LIS professional–I had to determine what about my raw data was important, who would care, how best to display this data to users, and how best to record this data for archival purposes. As you can see in my demonstration video, the end result is a unique, and carefully considered, form of communication.
Learning to communicate is a neverending goal that I look forward to constantly striving towards. My time at SLIS has helped me realized the importance of visual communication, and I am excited about visual challenges presented to me. I will always value masterful writing and oral communication; I am now adding a third core skill of well-designed visuals.
Chen, M. (13 Jan. 2013). Perceptual properties [Recorded lecture]. Retrieved from San José State University Course LIBR 246 Desire2Learn site.
Tufte, E.R. (2006). Beautiful Evidence. Cheshire, CN: Graphics Press, Inc.