Bodleian in Numbers: learning about Oxford’s libraries through engaging visualisations

Shedding new light on the complexities of the University libraries

In March 2015, the Weston Library (previously the New Bodleian Library) opened to the general public. This exciting initiative was intended to open up rare works to greater access, in keeping with the University’s commitment to public engagement. It also offered an ideal opportunity to communicate the magnitude and complexity of the Bodleian’s work to its thousands of visitors. After careful planning and research, Frankie Wilson (Head of Assessment at the Bodleian Libraries) and her team opted for free-standing touch-screen kiosks which would display real-time statistics in the Blackwell Hall. The visitor demographic of the Bodleian crosses all languages and ages, and so the visualisations were designed to be simple, entertaining and interactive.

Three parts to the visualisations

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One of the free-standing kiosks, displaying the home screen

The kiosks were installed before the Weston Library’s public opening. The program itself is based on Adobe Flash Player with Samsung’s Digital Media Management (DMM)  interface, and comprises three key elements:

  • an array of bite-size facts and figures: visitors can touch to find out what each number signifies for the libraries;
  • a ten-question quiz which lets visitors test their knowledge of the libraries. Each answer has a comparative fact and supporting animation: e.g. ‘There are 3,865,511 visits made to the Bodleian Libraries website in a year – that is 1 for every Adélie penguin in the world’;
  • a ‘While You Were Here’ feature, which is a series of figures accompanied by an image or short film revealing the (often hidden) activity taking place across the libraries during an average visit.

Pleasing results

The project team was delighted with the outcome. The overall aesthetic of the program fits well with the building’s appearance and aims. It is has a friendly, colourful and easy to navigate user interface, which appeals to visitors of all ages and backgrounds. The quiz has been received with particular enthusiasm: the presentation of comparative facts enables the visitor to contextualise the library data and enjoy a light-hearted twist. Visitors can also compare their scores at the end of the quiz with those of previous users, creating a competitive element. The kiosks have increased interest in the ‘behind-the-scenes’ aspect of the libraries and raised the public profile of the work of the Bodleian staff. While the screens themselves do not record use, within the first seven weeks of its opening, Blackwell Hall had seen 131,606 visitors – all of whom have walked by and likely sampled the displays.

Top tips for similar projects

The team advises that future projects seeking to open up data in this way should bear in mind the following:

An example of one of the engaging comparisons contextualising library data

An example of one of the engaging comparisons contextualising library data

  • Timescale: it takes far longer than one imagines to collate the comparative facts to match the statistics, so allow a realistic amount of time to pull them together.
  • Applicability: try to avoid being too random with the facts. It helps if the fact is as comparable as possible: e.g. when the library fact was about the length or distance of shelving, researchers tried to find a comparison with another measurement of length.
  • Standing the test of time: if statistics are unlikely to change dramatically from year to year, use comparisons that will also remain constant. The project team originally created one example which referred to the number of followers that a particular celebrity had on Twitter. However, they quickly realised that this was a moving target. In contrast, the height of the Shard or the average distance from the Earth to the moon are far less likely to change before content is updated!
  • Copyright: consider copyright for the images and animations used, and be careful if using the names of commercial companies names in the comparative facts.

Further information

OxTALENT 2015 LogoRunner-Up, OxTALENT 2015 award for data visualisation. The text and images in this case study have been adapted from Liz McCarthy’s entry for the OxTALENT competition.

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