A close-up picture of numberical data, presented in rows of comma-separated values

Sometimes a spreadsheet is enough

It’s fun to reach for the stars, but usually a simple table, posted online, is a good way to share your work.

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As the summer term gets underway, many university faculty members are carving out some time for research. We’ve been fielding a fresh round of requests for consultations on projects, and one clear pattern is worth noting. It may be that this observation is embedded in a pandemic’s worth of lofty-goals-turned-unstarted-projects, and that’s fine.

Our department at the library has had a number of scholars approach us with projects related to making data available in a “digital humanities way.” In response, we always acknowledge the value of open data deposit and public scholarship; however, we often find that researchers are asking about dynamic, interactive ways to turn their work into online exhibits, websites, or interactive applications. As someone with a background in engineering, high tech, and digital humanities, you’d think I’d be excited about these possibilities. And I am. But I’m also very aware that we need to be practical.

The web is littered with projects and tools that have long-since died or gone missing (just browse through the repository of tools at TAPOR to get a sense of the monumental volume of abandoned utilities, software, and sites). Grant money runs out; sustainable funding is difficult to obtain; graduate students with specific technical skills move on to other opportunities… there are so many reasons why this happens.

At the end of the day, though, all the researchers we’ve spoken to have come to us with the same underlying question: we have “living” knowledge to share – how can we do that?

The answer has been surprisingly similar in every case: an online spreadsheet is just fine.

This is not (as you may expect) a diatribe against Google’s data privacy practices, a preference for preservation-ready repositories with scholarly identifiers, a rant about how “open” and “open for use” are not the same thing, or a shakedown of online tools that are popular for research and analysis. It’s a simple acknowledgment that:

  • scholars want to share their work, and collaborate with others
  • tools like spreadsheets preserve opportunity for those who want to conduct fancy work, since a good old comma-separated values (CSV) file is both human- and machine-readable and can be used in endless ways
  • data presented in a tabular format may not be sexy, but it’s recognizable
  • often these collections represent work-in-progress for small communities of scholars who are motivated by research questions more than dynamic interactive data visualizations built using bespoke JavaScript libraries

Most importantly, it’s a critical step in meeting a researcher where they are. Yes, I am interested in talking about open access and open licensing and public scholarship and permanent identifiers and scholarly profiles…. but let’s move one step at a time. I’m learning that many, many scholars are willing to go that way but need to work at the pace of their own curiosity, opportunity, and capacity. Until those folks are ready to make big leaps, Google Sheets will provide most of what they need.

In the spirit of putting my money where my mouth is, and because I really need a distraction from my own overreaching projects, I’m going to spend a few future posts working through an example for the pure fun of it. It will involve heated online debates, significant lobbying forces… and lace-front wigs.