Using spreadsheet programs for data organization


Teaching: 10 min
Exercises: 5 min
  • What are good data practices for using spreadsheets for organizing data?

  • Understanding some drawbacks and advantages of using spreadsheet programs

  • Distinguish machine readable tidy data from data that is easy to read for humans

Good data organization is the foundation of much of our day-to-day work in libraries. Most librarians have data or do data entry in spreadsheets. Spreadsheet programs are very useful graphical interfaces for designing data tables and handling very basic data quality control functions.

Spreadsheets encompass a lot of the things we need to be able to do as librarians. We can use them for:

Spreadsheet outline

In this lesson, we will look at:

Much of your time when you’re producing a report will be spent in this ‘data wrangling’ stage. It’s not the most fun, but it’s necessary. We’ll teach you how to think about data organization and some practices for more effective data wrangling.

What this lesson will not teach you

If you’re looking to do this, a good reference is Head First Excel by O’Reilly Media.

Why aren’t we teaching data analysis in spreadsheets

Spreadsheet programs

There are a number of spreadsheet programs available for use on a desktop or web browser:

Commands may differ a bit between programs, but the general idea is the same. In this lesson, we will assume that you are most likely using Excel as your primary spreadsheet program. There are others with similar functionality, including Gnumeric, OpenOffice Calc, and Google Sheets, but Excel is the package you’re most likely to have available on your work computer.


  • How many people have used spreadsheets in their work?
  • What kind of operations do you do in spreadsheets?
  • Which ones do you think spreadsheets are good for?


  • Spreadsheets can be very useful, but they can also be frustrating and even sometimes give us incorrect results. What are some things that you’ve accidentally done in a spreadsheet, or have been frustrated that you can’t do easily?

Problems with Spreadsheets

Spreadsheets are good for data entry, but in reality we tend to use spreadsheet programs for much more than data entry. We use them to create data tables for publications, to generate summary statistics, and make figures.

Generating tables for reports in a spreadsheet is not optimal - often, when formatting a data table for publication, we’re reporting key summary statistics in a way that is not really meant to be read as data, and often involves special formatting (merging cells, creating borders, making it pretty). We advise you to do this sort of operation within your document editing software.

The latter two applications, generating statistics and figures, should be used with caution: because of the graphical, drag and drop nature of spreadsheet programs, it can be very difficult, if not impossible, to replicate your steps (much less retrace anyone else’s), particularly if your stats or figures require you to do more complex calculations. Furthermore, in doing calculations in a spreadsheet, it’s easy to accidentally apply a slightly different formula to multiple adjacent cells. When using a command-line based statistics program like R or SAS, it’s practically impossible to accidentally apply a calculation to one observation in your dataset but not another unless you’re doing it on purpose.

Using Spreadsheets for Data Entry and Cleaning

HOWEVER, there are circumstances where you might want to use a spreadsheet program to produce “quick and dirty” calculations or figures, and some of these features can be used in data cleaning, prior to importation into a statistical analysis program. We will show you how to use some features of spreadsheet programs to check your data quality along the way and produce preliminary summary statistics.

In this lesson, we’re going to talk about:

  1. Formatting data tables in spreadsheets
  2. Formatting problems
  3. Dates as data
  4. Basic quality control and data manipulation in spreadsheets
  5. Exporting data from spreadsheets
  6. Data export formats caveats

Key Points

  • We will discuss good practices for data entry and formatting

  • We will not discuss analysis or visualisation