KCLCCHMinor programmeAV1000Numerical and graphical analysis

Fundamentals of the digital humanities
Functions of the spreadsheet

  1. Introduction
    1. What is a spreadsheet?
    2. For what is it useful?
    3. Software programs
  2. Definitions and terminology
    1. Structure
    2. Referencing
    3. Useful terms

I. Introduction

A. What is a spreadsheet?

A spreadsheet is a program designed specifically for processing data in tabular form. These data may be numerical or textual, although most of the functions of a spreadsheet are for the former kind.

The spreadsheet is modelled on the paper device once used by accountants for tabulating numerical figures—a large sheet of paper spread out to show the financial state of a business. (See Poovey 1998 for the development of this device and its implications.) Apart from its ease of correction the electronic version differs from the paper spreadsheet principally in its database and numerical functions, most notably sorting and the ability to display the results of formulae which depend on values entered elsewhere in the sheet. Automatic calculation and graphical display have meant a radical increase in speculative, “as if” presentations, which has made the spreadsheet an essential tool of all commercial business and certain kinds of academic research. The rapidity with which graphical displays may be generated from quantitative information represents a potential for communication of facts and ideas that may as easily be abused as used. Hence the increased need, explored in this course, for understanding visual forms. See Tufte 2001; Arnheim 1969.

B. For what academic purposes is a spreadsheet useful?

Spreadsheet software allows you to

In the humanities, potential uses of spreadsheets include:

C. Software programs and documentation

Excel (a Microsoft product) is used in this course and easily available commercially. It is the dominant product of its kind. But as with other long-established kinds of software, many other products are available, including some very effective alternatives that are free of charge.

The range of functions needed by most students in the humanities represents only a small fraction of what Excel and other such programs commonly offer. Books documenting them are in general both expensive and difficult to use. None of these is recommended because you are unlikely to need the majority of the information they provide, and they are quite poor at explaining some of the simplest functions.

II. Definitions and terminology

A. Structure

A spreadsheet (or worksheet) is a table of rows and columns, as shown in the sample image below from Excel.

An Excel spreadsheet

Note that

Because cells may be referenced within formulas, spreadsheet software makes a distinction between Relative and Absolute references. See the sections on Formulas and Referencing, in “Basic operations”.

In Excel, worksheets are kept in workbooks, i.e. Excel files that may contain up to 255 worksheets. A workbook is a useful organizational device, since you can keep in it all the sheets related to a particular project and the charts related to them. Note in the above image the tabs for the sheets in the current workbook.

B. Useful terms

The following terms are commonly used to refer to parts of the spreadsheet:

  1. Mouse cursor: the pointer that in Excel takes the form of a cross (2 types, depending on location) or an “insertion point” (a vertical bar with cross-bars top and bottom, like the letter “I”).
  2. Active cell: the current or selected cell (in the above image, cell C6)
  3. Cell reference: the unique designator for a cell
  4. Excel menu barMenu bar: the horizontal area at the top of the Excel window containing the names of the various “drop-down” menus. In the example at right, the menu bar is shown with the Edit menu activated.
  5. Toolbar: two horizontal areas below the menu bar containing buttons, each with an icon representing the operations performed by the tool; these consist of the standard toolbar and the formatting toolbar. Moving the cursor onto the button causes an explanatory caption for it to be displayed briefly. See the above image.
  6. Formula: an expression entered into a cell that is designed to be evaluated by the spreadsheet software.
  7. Excel formula barFormula bar: the horizontal area beneath the toolbar and to the right, where formulas are displayed when they are entered and whenever a cell containing a formula is selected. In the example at right, cell A4 contains the formula displayed in the formula bar.
  8. Sheet tabs: the tab-like entities at the bottom of the workbook area, designated by “Sheet 1”, “Sheet 2”, and so forth, as shown here. Clicking on a tab causes the named sheet to be displayed. The active sheet tab is the one currently selected, here Sheet 1. Note the tab scrolling buttons to the left of the tabs; these cause the currently displayed set of sheet tabs to be rotated to the right or left.
  9. Vertical scroll bar: in the image above, the bar at the right-hand edge of the Excel window, used for scrolling up and down the sheet; similarly the horizontal scroll bar is used for right- and left-scrolling.

revised January 2008