A Gentle Introduction to Excel and Spreadsheets for Humanities People

I understand that a lot of Humanities researchers do not use spreadsheets or Excel very often in their lives. It’s not something we’re really trained in, nor is it really that much of a necessity in academic humanities research. You often can get away without really having to use it for most of an academic career. That said, sometimes you get 10 Word doc pages deep into a table you’ve built and realize that this is maybe not the best way to deal with your information. Or maybe you are starting a data-driven project for the first time and you realize you need to learn something about this now, or you are suddenly in charge of a budget and need to manage it, or maybe you are seeking employment outside straight-up Humanities research that requires that you have a basic knowledge of Excel. In all these situations, you don’t use spreadsheets normally and you now are in a situation that requires you to engage with it.

Part of my job supporting quantitative digital scholarship regularly involves explaining how spreadsheets work to the reluctant Humanities-trained person. And often, people don’t want to admit they don’t know how something like spreadsheets work or that they are intimidated by them because they think they should know this already. It’s never been something we’ve been required to know. This isn’t a criticism — I had to learn Excel too! I remember having to do a little with it in computer class in, maybe, 5th grade and had to get more hands on and dirty with it in graduate school. To be clear, I’m not judging here — everyone starts somewhere.

So when a colleague working with me on a digital project that relied heavily on using data asked for a training to understand what spreadsheets do, I realized I had given versions of this a few times in an ad-hoc way and I could formalize it a little. I wrote a workshop that takes about 40 min to go through that helps you understand what spreadsheets are for, and talks a little about how we can use Excel to manipulate them in a variety of ways.

When I tweeted about this, the interest was huge and totally surprising. As a result I have made my whole workshop is available here, including my comments, for you to download, learn, and teach with. My workshop is based on some data from Daniel Oehm’s SurvivoR package for R (which includes a link to an xlsx file of all his data, at the very bottom). I like this data set because I think it is relatively accessible to someone not very used to looking at data.

View and download the whole presentation as a .pptx file from Dropbox here. My notes do not appear to render in the preview provided by Dropbox, so if you want or need those you will have to download this file to your computer and open it in Powerpoint from there.


I use spreadsheets already but want some more experience with Excel. Is this for me? Honestly, probably not. This starts with the very basics. If you have experience working with data (in any sense) you’ll probably be better served by the Data Carpentry’s lessons and trainings. I’ve borrowed pieces from them, and I like their general approach for teaching beyond the basics. I particularly like their Ecology lesson, if you want a recommendation.

Can I borrow these slides and adapt them for my audience? Absolutely! I would love to have people use and adapt this workshop for their own needs but please cite me when you use it. There’s a CC-BY license on the slide deck itself, too.

Duh, everyone knows what a cell and a row and a column are. We’re not THAT bad. OK, you might know this but someone else might not. Also, establishing a shared baseline vocabulary before getting to more complicated things is always a good idea!

Can I use Google Sheets instead of Excel? Sure! The main learning outcomes should translate well. The exact directions provided that show you how to do some of these tasks might be a little different, though, so be aware of that.

Why aren’t you doing this in R? R is great if you are used to looking at and thinking about data. But if you’re not super comfortable with using and reading spreadsheets in the first place, I think considering them as dataframes will be conceptually more difficult.

Excel is bad and you should use something else for this. There are plenty of limitations with every software; Excel is definitely not a one-size-fits-all environment. But I’m trying to meet my people where they are, which is to say they’ve probably heard of Excel and probably have access to it through a MS office subscription. Google Sheets are similar enough that you should be able to transfer this to their interface too (though it is a little different, be forewarned!)

Why doesn’t this cover every aspect of best practices for data and management? This is an introduction to spreadsheets as a form of structuring data for people who aren’t used to thinking about this. While this is an important issue, there are lots of other opportunities to raise these issues that don’t fit into a less-than-an-hour long introductory workshop.

What about macros? Excel includes the ability to program some recurring tasks; they call this a “macro”. This presentation doesn’t cover them, but there are many other resources available to learn more about them if you google “excel macro tutorial”. If you’re anticipating doing a lot of repetitive data tasks like cleaning or standardizing your data, you might be better off using something like OpenRefine for this. (Here’s a great guided tour of OpenRefine from Scotty Carlson).

I would like to learn more about making good choices about organizing my data. Great! There’s a lot of ‘best practices’-style advice out there on the web but I think Hadley Wickham’s discussion of “tidy data” is particularly helpful. His paper introducing his theory of tidy data gets a little in the weeds towards the end, especially for beginners, but it clearly introduces the concepts he is thinking about otherwise.

I want more information or help on using spreadsheets?! I would love to help you – really honestly I would love to – but my time is tied to my institution and if you also aren’t there I probably can’t do that. Reach out to your local librarian and ask them to direct you towards support at your institution.

One of your links is broken. Thanks for catching that! Please email me at froehlich at arizona dot edu with this information and title your message “BROKEN LINK”.