A Persuasive Argument for GIS as a Service Offered by Libraries

In this short essay, I wish to impart upon the reader the value that Geographic Information Systems (GIS) software can hold for academic libraries in respect to the students they serve, particularly addressing how GIS can be used to help students understand and appreciate their subjects more fully.

To help the reader understand why GIS is of value to libraries, we must first have a mutually understood definition. One of the best synopses available for what GIS is comes from the National Estuarine Research Reserve System, a program under the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration stating that

“GIS, is a computerized data management system used to capture, store, manage, retrieve, analyze, and display spatial information. … GIS differs from other graphics systems in several respects. … data are georeferenced to the coordinates of a particular projection system. This allows precise placement of features on the earth’s surface and maintains the spatial relationships between mapped features. As a result, commonly referenced data can be overlaid to determine relationships between data elements.”

Image of how GIS adds layer upon layer to convey a larger whole of information.

It should be mentioned early on that there are various providers of GIS software. One of the most expansive and well managed is ArcGIS by ESRI which recently put up a free online version; though limited in what it can do in comparison to the full version, it provides a rather reliable service for the needs of many students. ArcGIS also has the most expansive training sources on how to use their product as well as a highly engaged user community. Another GIS software that is worth looking into for libraries is GRASS which was produced by the U.S. Army – Construction Engineering Research Laboratory in 1982, and has been expanded on ever since. Other options for library adoption include QGIS, OpenJump, and uDig. ArcGIS is a proprietary software where as GRASS, QGIS, OpenJump, and uDig are free online open source. (Donnelly, 133)  Buchanan, writing in 2006, concluded that the advantages of GRASS (performance, statistical analysis, image classification, and cost) make it a viable alternative to ArcGIS (Buchanan, 40), but both systems have gone through significant updates since his research was conducted.

The value of GIS for students is that they can take the information they are learning in their courses and apply it in a geographical context; data always needs context. For instance, the map Odysseus’ Journey, produced on the ArcGIS platform, takes the user through fourteen points on Odysseus’ voyage providing images, a synopsis of important events, and it’s geographical location. Though this story has a nearly three thousand year history, the story can be told with fresh eyes when laid out geo-spatially. Another example of GIS in action is Google Lit Trips which “mark the journeys of characters from famous literature on the surface of Google Earth.” (Google Lit Trips: Getting Started). Students can learn about different countries and cultures through GIS maps such as Le Tour de France en 50 citations, or learn about linguistics and endangered languages through maps such as One World, Many Voices: Endangered Languages and Cultural Heritage. Richard White, an American Historian at Stanford, uses GIS to reveal new information about the expansion of the railroads in the American West using information from “letters, freight tables, books, newspapers, accident reports, ledgers, and so on” that is traditionally harder to make sense of. (Zax, Visualizing) Once the data is inserted into the system, the presentation of the information through the GIS tools reveals new and interesting context for students to learn and engage with the material.

So, why should the library be the place for this on campus you may ask?

Image of Stanford Geospatial Center.
Stanford Geospatial Center

Libraries, as is their nature, store, manage, organize, provide access to, and help users retrieve information. Most academic libraries provide access to computers and have various software to meet the needs of their students. As GIS becomes more cross disciplinary, installing the software on library computers provides an easy and central location for users to work on their projects. Libraries, in this respect, can also serve as the spot on campus where various schools and departments come together to utilize the GIS tools for larger, more collaborative, projects. Rory Elliot makes the case that

“In providing GIS services, libraries are expanding the patron’s ability to use information, such as data and statistics, which libraries already provide in some form. … For academic libraries, offering GIS services helps ensure that departments, regardless of individual funds, have the technical abilities to conduct spatial analysis for projects.” (Elliott, 9)

When considering whether or not to integrate GIS tools into the libraries repertoire, libraries should consider issues such as “service, personnel, technical, financial, and coordination.” (Suha et al., 129) It takes a lot to start up a GIS program, but as people become familiar with it less maintenance should have to be done. Libraries will also need to consider how users will access the software, such as available on all computers or merely a select few. Libraries should also consider the needs of their users before finalizing their system, making sure that what they are initializing will meet user expectations and needs.

GIS tools can also help librarians meet their user needs by revealing information about user needs such as reported at one Kansas library in the article Targeting Local Library Patrons: Tapestry weaves common characteristics into community profiles by Jim Baumann. The library was able to take the data to see how they might improve services to their community by looking at their users and how different areas of the community utilize the library.

GIS provides value to students by contextualizing information into a geographic context, and as the information centers at most universities the library serves as the prime location to help facilitate these pursuits. Libraries, by offering GIS tools, can allow the exploration of new and unique data visualization important to the research of their respective user groups.



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