Student Justine Withers Helps Libraries Visualize Data Aimed at Improving Outreach and Program Outcomes
Justine Withers

A course offered by the SJSU School of Information gave student Justine Withers the opportunity to explore tools that help professionals interpret data and gain insight to make better decisions.

Withers had some prior experience with the topic through previous jobs when she registered for LIBR 246 Information Visualization in fall 2013, the first semester it was offered. The course is taught by Dr. Michelle Chen, who introduces Master of Library and Information Science (MLIS) students to the emerging field that uses data analysis methods and visualization tools to manage and analyze vast amounts of information.

Withers decided to take the class to deepen her understanding of information visualization principles, which she feels can be used to help professionals improve communication, and to enable libraries to take a more active role in organizing and distributing information in meaningful ways.

Her favorite assignment was the final group project. She worked with a classmate on an information visualization project aimed at helping library leaders gain insight regarding an English-as-a-second-language conversation group at the library. Withers and the other student analyzed data regarding the conversation group members, including their countries of origin and first languages, and compared these data to statistics regarding the demographics of the county served by the library. According to Withers, this approach to analyzing and presenting the data visually with maps and graphs helped provide insight regarding how the library could better serve the community through its conversation groups.

The takeaways Withers got from the course are: “play around with the data and simplify, simplify, simplify. The first draft is rarely the best. Multiple analyses and visualizations will garner more ideas and a clearer picture. Take out everything that isn't necessary and make sure what is there speaks to the intended audience.”

Withers has worked since September 2013 as a data control specialist at Stanford University Libraries, where she helps maintain, correct and update the libraries’ catalog. She learned of the job opening from a librarian's Facebook group, and said she wouldn’t have known to look for it otherwise because the job title “doesn't sound library-ish.”

She earned a bachelor’s degree in foreign languages and literature with a concentration in Russian from the University of Delaware. After working in technical editing, instructional design, and online and print publishing, Withers felt she’d reached a plateau in her career. “When I looked around at advancement, I realized that everything I enjoyed in my work involved organizing information,” she said. “Pursuing the MLIS would allow me to explore information theory and get a broader and deeper understanding of the field.”

Withers, who entered the MLIS program in fall 2010, is following the Information Organization career pathway, taking electives in classification and metadata, and writing most of her research papers on searching, interoperability, and linked data. She expects to graduate in December 2014.

When she started the MLIS program, Withers thought she wanted to work to improve the design of search interfaces, which she finds frustrating to use. But as she got deeper into her coursework, she realized “the back end is really what interests me, especially where systems intersect and how it connects to the front end,” she said. “That got me going on interoperability and how we can get our systems to more closely reflect the user's mental model.”

During several semesters as a graduate student assistant to iSchool director Dr. Sandra Hirsh, Withers worked on updating the American Library Association’s Sister Libraries Directory, which helps libraries in other countries to link up with libraries in the U.S. Although she’s no longer a student assistant for Hirsh, Withers is still involved with the project as a volunteer. She created an online survey, collected responses, and published updated contact information on the site. She also reorganized the wiki and made sure the information was current.

After completing the MLIS program, Withers hopes to remain at Stanford, “working more closely with metadata schema and more proactively in improving the user experience.”

Favorite Thing about the MLIS Program

“I wanted an accredited program in California. The online aspect of the program certainly made it easier.”

Influential Instructors

“Three instructors jump to mind: Dr. Susan Maret gives an inspiring and mind-expanding introduction to LIS. She offers a broad definition of information science and encouraged me to examine why I am in the field and what contributions I can make. [The late] Dr. Robert Ellett was the most dedicated instructor and exemplified professional mastery of his chosen field. Dr. Michelle Chen is one of the instructors encouraging students to look beyond books and MARC records. She emphasizes putting the user first and taking advantage of all the information technology available to us.”

Career Tip

“My best friend told me, ‘It's not about books,’ and I still agree with him now that I am reaching the end of the program. Keep an open mind about the possibilities of information institutions and remember that we exist for the people we serve.”

Professional Affiliation

Northern California Technical Processes Group (NCTPG)

Favorite Website

“I hope to someday be as knowledgeable as Ed Summers at inkdroid.org.”