An interview with Marian Dörk “Visualizations make the dynamics of a library visible”

Epochen und Sparten – Deutsche Digitale Bibliothek Visualisiert
Periods and Sectors – Deutsche Digitale Bibliothek Visualized | Photo (Screenshot) ©

It is not only in digital libraries that the treasures which await their users often lie hidden. Professor Marian Dörk explains how visualizations can help make holdings more visible.

Mr Dörk, you research the visualization of cultural data, that is, their illustration by graphic means. What is the purpose of such visualizations?
In recent years a lot of time and money has been invested in the digitalization of cultural possessions. The aim of our research is to make these rich and extensive digital holdings more visible and more readily available. Even someone who doesn’t know exactly what he’s looking for should be able to browse through the collections of museums, archives and libraries and hit upon something interesting, inspiring or informative. And ideally he can take very different perspectives on these collections.

Highlighting / pointing up patterns and trends

Are these visualizations intended for experts?
Marian Dörk Marian Dörk | Foto (Ausschnitt) © Henrik Hagedorn  
Originally data visualizations were addressed exclusively to experts – for example, scientists or analysts. Since about 2011, however, we’ve observed a popularization taking place in this area. A driving force has been the media, which carry on a targeted data journalism to convey complex subjects. Thus visualizations today are increasingly addressed to the interested layman.
How can libraries use visualizations?

By using visualizations libraries can, for example, indicate the breadth and diversity of their holdings. In a project for the German Digital Library (DDB) we examined the question how you can make the temporal, spatial and thematic range of huge collections visible and how you can identify patterns and trends.
The graphics that have thereby emerged seem to me quite complex ...
Yes, they are in fact rather for professional discourse within the digitalization community. These macro-perspectives distance us a bit from the inventory. But it is, in the case of the DDB, very, very big. But there are also examples of decidedly playful and aesthetically inviting access. In the project “Bohemian Bookshelf” by colleagues in Calgary, for instance, books are arranged according to the colour of their covers or their thickness. This may seem to be a banal sort of access to the holdings, but its multi-dimensionality can appeal to very different groups of users and their preferences.

Online and on site

Are visualizations to be found mainly in the digital world?
Not only! There are also many opportunities to accommodate visualizations in library buildings. In 2004 several visualizations were installed at the circulation desk of the Seattle Public Library; they not only indicated what books the library had but also showed statistics on how many books were borrowed on a day, by what authors and on what subjects.
At the SLUB in Dresden, access to the library holdings is projected in real time visualizations. What’s the point of this?
Such visualizations make the dynamics of the library visible – and so create awareness for the library as a complex living body.

Are there examples of visualizations in digital and real space interacting?
Oh yes! At the University of Technology in Sydney the artist Chris Gaul, using the Dewey Decimal System, developed so-called library spectrograms for indexing the content of library holdings. To the different categories of books he assigned colours. The breadth of the colour bar corresponds to the number of books. The colours were then attached to the shelves; they’re used for routing through the library and are integrated into the online catalogue. This is a very good, simple idea, with which the distribution of books in a collection can be made visible in both digital and real space.

For both types of library

Do you see the subject of visualizations as relevant more to university or to public libraries?
Both and – but with different emphases. With public libraries, it is perhaps more a matter of triggering interest in the holdings. The visitor asks himself: What’s new here? What reading will I take with me on my holidays? The interest in serendipitous discoveries is great. This aspect also plays a part with university libraries, but there research processes are more central. Here visualizations could illustrate how authors, subjects and keywords are related so that they support systematic research. In both cases, visualizations can make a valuable contribution.
Marian Dörk is Research Professor of Information Visualization & Management at the University of Applied Sciences in Potsdam. In the project of the Federal Ministry of Education and Research (BMBF) Visualisierung kultureller Sammlungen (Vikus) (i.e. Visualization of Cultural Collection (Vikus)), he is doing research on new ways of making the cultural heritage visually accessible online.