KCL • CCH • Minor
programme • AV1000
and graphical analysis
Fundamentals of the digital humanities
Functions of the spreadsheet
- What is a spreadsheet?
- For what is it useful?
- Software programs
- Definitions and terminology
- Useful terms
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
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
- create simple lists and tables of alphabetic or numerical data
- create and manipulate simple (flat-file) databases
- establish relationships between sets of numerical data
- apply arithmetic, mathematical or statistical functions to numerical datasets
- represent datasets in graphical or chart form
In the humanities, potential uses of spreadsheets include:
- maintaining lists of short items you wish to sort, e.g. vocabulary, categories, instances of phenomena
- studying quantifiable information, such as word-distributions across textual corpora; demographics; other sociological statistics; voting patterns; inventories; etc.
- managing budgets, e.g. for grant applications and project expenses
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 spreadsheet (or worksheet) is a table of rows and columns, as shown in the sample image below from Excel.
- The rows are identified by number (1, 2, 3, … 16384), the columns by letter (A, B, C, … Z, AA, AB, … AZ, BA, … ZZ)
- The intersection of a row with a column, called a cell, is uniquely identified by its column and row designators, e.g. A2, B10, J13
- A cell may contain text, a number or a formula.
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:
- 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”).
- Active cell: the current or selected cell (in the above image, cell C6)
- Cell reference: the unique designator for a cell
- Menu 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
- 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.
- Formula: an expression entered into a cell that is designed to be evaluated by the spreadsheet software.
- Formula 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.
- 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.
- 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