Creating insight through data visualization
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Benjamin Aldred, PhD is an assistant professor and liaison and reference librarian at the Richard J. Daley Library. His current research focuses on fundamentals of research using data visualization to aid collection development especially map making and geographic information systems (GIS) technology.
What is your educational background?
I have a bachelor’s in history and sociology/anthropology from Earlham College in Richmond, Indiana. I also hold master’s in library information sciences from the University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign. I earned a doctorate in folklore and American studies at Indiana University in Bloomington.
How did you come to specialize in data visualization, map making, government documents and collection development?
Through personal interest. I’ve always loved maps and data in general and find it interesting to understand the world through visualization. When I was a kid, my grandfather gave me a bunch of maps. He had subscription to National Geographic. I became interested in the topic as it relates librarianship when I was pursuing my master’s. I became interested in government documents by accident during my last semester of library school. I was looking for an additional course to take so I signed up and found it fascinating. I found a government documents position at Loyola University Chicago right after I earned my master’s. When I was studying for my doctorate, I worked for Modern Language Association International Bibliography. They did all their folklore indexing out of Indiana University. I worked with a subject librarian there and learned a lot about how folklore books came to be a part of the collection and started down the path of becoming interested in subject focused collections.
Tell me a little bit about your job responsibilities.
I joined the UIC University Library in January 2017 as a reference librarian and liaison to the Jane Addams College of Social Work and the College of Urban Planning and Public Affairs (CUPPA). I help students and faculty find the data they need. I also handle specialized reference questions on a number of topics regarding government information, social science data and geospatial information. On a more informal basis I handle anything on folklore. As a liaison to CUPPA, I have been called upon to help find GIS files specific to mapping projects and data files. For the College of Social Work, I recently helped several students locate historical census information within our collection in order to analyze economic inequalities in Chicago. Beginning in the fall 2017 semester, I will teach general library instruction courses.
What impact does your work have on student success?
I help students get the data they need for analysis and find ways to process it. Students will often come in with a question and not know what data is available. There are a lot of statistical programs out there and I can help them figure out which program is appropriate for which data format and where to find data.
What do you enjoy most about your job?
As a reference librarian I always love puzzles. I love it when I get a question I don’t know a lot about and have an opportunity to teach myself in order to help library user. I learn something new all the time.
What is your research focused on?
Fundamentals of research using data visualization to aid collection development – especially map making and geographic information systems (GIS) technology. I am interested in examining collections aided by digital humanities tools or other advanced data visualization tools to give us insights that would be harder to obtain simply by looking at lists. A current project I just started examines the possibility of mapping the Library’s collection in urban planning to an actual geographic map based on subject coverage in each book. If we can look at how our collection functions geographically, we can learn more about its strengths and weaknesses. For example, this information might be useful to share with faculty members with an interest in teaching about the global south. While it is logical and obvious that we have information on Chicago it might be more interesting if we discovered that we also have it on Rio de Janeiro. There are opportunities for all sorts of collection analyses. Broadly speaking, geographic collection analysis can help people build more focused collections in an era of greater space-saving concerns.
How does your research inform your teaching and other aspects of your job responsibilities?
On a personal level, my research helps me better understand the collections I am helping users connect with. It helps me better serve faculty and students because it improves my understanding of what we have and what they need. If a student approaches me with an interest in studying cities in New Zealand and I know from mapping that our collections are not strong in this area, I can either direct their interests to a richer area of our collections or help him or her acquire the necessary materials from another library.
What should everyone know about the librarian liaison program?
Librarians are your partners in research and can be helpful at every stage of the process. We can help at the beginning by pointing to potential resources for formulating ideas, in the middle during the literature review process and while looking for additional sources, and at then at the end when researchers sometimes struggle with rights and permissions. Librarians play an active role in the research process from beginning to end.