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Escape from Spreadsheet Hell

The website for the workshop! TL;DR we’ll teach you how to create spreadsheets optimized for reuse by you and others. Your future self will thank you.

Document it

Data, no matter how organized or well formed is useless without context. If you are not already documenting your spreadsheets you should start NOW. At minimum, documentation needs to provide information that will give context to the data so that others can understand it. Note that project size and complexity will impact what needs to be documented. 

Below are summaries of the two most common ways to document spreadsheet data. 


Codebooks are table(s) that explain :

  1. What each variable (column) contains and how the observations (rows) were recorded, measured, etc. or,
  2. What the abbreviations/symbols used in a dataset stand for (i.e. the key to reading the data).

 An template for creating your own codebook is available online.

An excerpt from a codebook.
Variable_label Variable_name Measurement_unit Allowed_Values
Q24 Question 24: do you own a pet? Numeric 1 = yes; 0 = no; blank = NULL
Q25 Question 25: Do you like cats? Numeric 1 = yes; 0 = no; blank = NULL
Q25.1 Question 25 part 1: Why? None free text


A plain-text document that explains the who, what, when, where, and how of the data. A README often contains author information, details on methodology, software and equipment, as well as list of files and what each contains.

A README template can be found here. Enter in your information and delete sections that are not applicable to your data. 


Depending on your data you may need to create both a README and a codebook. An example that merges both of these can be found in the following dataset, look for the file labeled "DataDictionary.pdf", or in the README example linked above.

Obrycki, John F. (2019): Land Use and Cropping Recommendations For Various Soil Types in Iowa, 1937-1938. Dataset.

Escape Coordinators

Megan O'Donnell
Data Services Librarian
ENT, EEOB, NREM, and Environment.

Kris Stacy-Bates
Science and Technology Librarian
ABE, CCEE, Math, and Stats

Katie Wampole
Research Data Curator