All posts by samuelwrussell

Librarianship Technology Competencies

What technology competencies do librarians and information professionals need? How do technology competencies enable an information organization to do more with their collection and service? While recognizing that it is impossible to stay abreast of all technology trends, policies, and best practices, there are many places a librarian can find guidance on what is needed to be competent in the profession. Competencies can be defined as “the knowledge, skills, and abilities that define and contribute to performance in a particular profession.” (FLICC, 2008, p.2) This post addresses competencies provided by selected professional organizations and summarized in two current articles, and then address how technology competencies enable an information organization to do more with its collections and services. As was stated by the Special Libraries Association in 2003, “practitioners increasingly require advanced knowledge of information technology to realize their full potential.” (p.17) This post is inclusive in its arguments towards all aspects of librarianship. It should be noted at the forefront that the terms librarian, library professional,  and information professional will be used interchangeably.


Professional Organization Competencies for technology

In this section we will examine what four library organizations and a round table have to say regarding professional competencies for technology. The organizations are as follows: The Special Libraries Association, The American Library Association, The Association for Library Services to Children, Young Adult Library Services Association, and the ALA Map and Geography Round Table (MAGERT). The Association for Information Science and Technology was not chosen because the last update for their guidelines was 2001. For more information regarding technology competencies for librarians, the reader can find a guide edited by Susan M. Thompson compiled for the Library and Information Technology Association entitled Core Technology Competencies for Librarians and Library Staff, which is not discussed in this post.

Another publication is Competency Index for the Library Field compiled by Webjunction in 2009 and 2014. These are very comprehensive reports that are valuable for all librarians. There are two sections of the report that are pertinent to our discussion here: “Technology: Core Technology” (absent in the 2014 report) and “Technology: Systems & IT.” Webjunction lists these as some technology competencies for the library profession: E-mail applications, Internet, Web Tools, Hardware, Networking & Security, Technology Policies, and Web Design & Development.


I will briefly compare the differences between the 2003 technology competencies from SLA and the 2016 technology competencies. In 2003, SLA viewed technology as “a critical tool to accomplish goals” for an information professional. (SLA, 2003, p.1) One way in which SLA saw technology being used to aid the information professional was in building “quality filters” that “provide needed information in an actionable form” when faced with “information overload.” (SLA, 2003, p.2) It should be noted that SLA listed as its first core competency in 2003 that “Information professionals contribute to the knowledge base of the profession by sharing best practices and experiences, and continue to learn about information products, services, and management practices throughout the life of his/her career.” (SLA, 2003, p.4) In this statement, SLA addresses the need for continued, and lifelong, learning about information products, including technology, and sharing that with their colleagues in the workforce. In their 2016 report, there is a slightly different tone in that the approach tries to be more “holistic.” As they state:

“Regardless of their job title and professional label, information professionals are connected by their focus on managing and applying the data, information, and knowledge required in their setting. They take a holistic view of the role of information and knowledge in organizations and communities, and they are concerned with information and knowledge through all stages of their life cycle.” (SLA, 2016)

As can be seen in the table below, the thirteen year time differences reveals an expansion in the role of technology upon the information professional. In the 2016 report, it appears that the emphasis is more on how the whole organization can benefit from the use of an holistic technology approach as opposed to the 2003 report which emphasized technology for the professional and the user. Two that stand out to me from the 2016 update are the emphasis on an information professional having knowledge of coding and being able to curate information. Under the 2016 competencies the role of privacy was moved from technology to information ethics, but should still be noted as a role of the information professional that has technological underpinnings. 

SLA identifies these as specific areas where information professionals should be competent:

SLA  2003 Competencies: Applying Information Tools & Technologies

SLA 2016 Competencies: Information and Knowledge Systems and Technology

“Assesses, selects and applies current and emerging information tools and creates information access and delivery solutions” (SLA, 2003, p.11) “Engaging multiple stakeholders to recommend the information architecture needed by the entire organization.” (SLA, 2016)
“Applies expertise in databases, indexing, metadata, and information analysis and synthesis to improve information retrieval and use in the organization” (ibid) “Selecting and implementing information and knowledge systems” (ibid)
“Protects the information privacy of clients and maintains awareness of, and responses to, new challenges to privacy” (ibid) “Selecting and using information management tools, such as library management systems, content management systems, social media platforms, and information retrieval and analysis tools” (ibid)
“Maintains current awareness of emerging technologies that may not be currently relevant but may become relevant tools of future information resources, services or applications” (ibid) “Identifying systems and tools to meet requirements of specific communities” (ibid)
“Designing interfaces for an intuitive user experience” (ibid)
“Coding using appropriate scripting and other tools” (ibid)
“Curating, publishing, and/or packaging information in usable formats” (ibid)
Continuously evaluating information and knowledge systems and technologies” (ibid)


In 2009, the American Library Association adopted a set of core competencies defining “the basic knowledge to be possessed by all persons graduating from an ALA-accredited master’s program in library and information studies.” (p.1) In this five page document the ALA devotes an entire section of its core competencies to “Technological Knowledge and Skills.” (p.3) The ALA finds these crucial to be technologically competent:

ALA Competencies: Technological Knowledge and Skills

“Information, communication, assistive, and related technologies as they affect the resources, service delivery, and uses of libraries and other information agencies.” (ALA, 2009, p.3)
“The application of information, communication, assistive, and related technology and tools consistent with professional ethics and prevailing service norms and applications.” (ibid)
“The methods of assessing and evaluating the specifications, efficacy, and cost efficiency of technology-based products and services.” (ibid)
“The principles and techniques necessary to identify and analyze emerging technologies and innovations in order to recognize and implement relevant technological improvements.”(ibid)


Both the Association for Library Services to Children and the Young Adult Library Services Association are divisions within the ALA. They have been grouped together because of their similarities, relational roles, and their competencies are similar in scope and target audience. ALSC has three competencies that address technology: Programming Skills, Outreach and Advocacy, and Professionalism and Professional Development. YALSA, in comparison, has four competencies that address technology: Knowledge of Client Group, Knowledge of Materials, Access to Information, and Services. Each mention of a competency, from their respective organization, pertaining to technology has been selected for the table below. The table should not be read as a side by side comparison, but rather as an ordered listing of each reference from the organization.



Programming Skills: “Integrates appropriate technology in program design and delivery.” Knowledge of Client Group: “Keep up-to-date with popular culture and technological advances that interest young adults.”
Outreach and Advocacy: “Communicates effectively when addressing or presenting to large or small groups of children and/or adults, writes proficiently and adjusts content, style, and delivery format to accommodate diverse functions and audiences, and possesses technology skills and cultural competencies that enhance communication.” Knowledge of Materials: “Develop a collection of materials from a broad range of selection sources, and for a variety of reading skill levels, that encompasses all appropriate formats, including, but not limited to, media that reflect varied and emerging technologies, and materials in languages other than English.”
Professionalism and Professional Development: “Stays informed of current trends, emerging technologies, issues, and research in librarianship, child development, education, and allied fields.” Access to Information: “Be an active partner in the development and implementation of technology and electronic resources to ensure young adults’ access to knowledge and information. “
Access to Information: “Maintain awareness of ongoing technological advances and how they can improve access to information for young adults.”
Services: “Create an environment that embraces the flexible and changing nature of young adults’ entertainment, technological and informational needs.”



In 2008 members of the MAGERT Education Committee came together to establish a series of core competencies for map, GIS and cataloging/metadata librarians. These are notable to our discussion as they look at three fields of librarianship that deal heavily with technology as functional duties, and synthesizes their niche field within library and information science profession, into a set of manageable competencies. It should be noted that in 2011 MAGERT was renamed MAGIRT.  Selected competencies include:

Selected MAGERT Competencies:

“Oversee[ing] the development of a webpage for the collection.” (MAGERT, 2008, p.6)
“Ability to effectively communicate in person, on the phone, through email, and in a virtual environment,” (ibid, p.8)
“Knowledge of how to use aerial photography and indexes as well as satellite imagery.” (ibid, p.8)
“Knowledge of map scanning and digitization processes for use in GIS”  (ibid, p.12)
“Ability to perform basic hardware maintenance” (ibid, p.13)
“Ability to assist patrons in downloading and utilizing GPS data in a GIS” (ibid, p.13)
“Creation of scripts for batch processing, data ingestion, web services, digital library creation and integration, and other geo-processing applications” (ibid, p.13)
“Working knowledge regarding data organization and data manipulation” (ibid, p.14)
“Learn and apply supportive technologies including macros and similar time-saving techniques, local integrated library system (ILS) cataloging features and functions, and other special technologies as needed” (ibid, p.17)

These competencies reveal a unique examination of what this field of librarianship needs to know, but if we were to look at the competencies more broadly we find that many of the competencies are similar to those of other professional organizations: webpage development, effective communication, image manipulation, digitization, basic hardware maintenance, downloading and utilizing data/information, coding/programming, organization, ILS, and cataloging/metadata.  

Scholars Thoughts

R.L. Henry addresses in his article The Core and More: Improving on Baseline Technology Competencies  “much of the work librarians do…is supported by a technology infrastructure” (p.847) it is important for librarians to see how their knowledge of, and ability to use, technology, as prescribed in numerous professional competencies enable an information organization to do more with its collections and services. Herny even suggests reviewing “core competencies identified in the professional literature” as an approach to “developing technology skills.” (p.847) He identifies  “eight main skill areas that interconnect…as the framework underpinning professional librarianship in a technology-centered work environment.” (p.847)  These are:

metadata the integrated library system data management and curation assessment and analytics
privacy and security copyright and open access accessibility and user experience digital content creation and curation.

Saravani and Haddow, who define competencies as “demonstrated ability and understanding within the information environment,” (p.183) utilized the Unified Theory of Acceptance and Use of Technology in their 2011 study of librarians rate of mobile technology adoption. The model has four parts which help determine user acceptance and usage behavior; these are: performance expectancy, effort expectancy, social influence and facilitating conditions. They found that the five most frequently cited competencies were:

Five most frequently cited competencies in Saravani and Haddow study:

“Using different mobile devices.” (Saravani and Haddow, 2011,p.184)
“Willingness to try things out.” (ibid)
“Knowledge of devices students are using.” (ibid)
“Skills to enable library resources/services to be accessible on mobile devices.” (ibid)
Ability to link new technologies with new opportunities. (ibid)

Quick Summary of Competencies

What we can glean from the competencies is that many of these organizations see similar things as making a technologically competent information professional. Key technology competency areas include: access and retrieval, accessibility and user experience, assistive technology, cataloging/metadata, communication technology, content creation & curation, copyright & Open Access, data management & manipulation, digitization, electronic resources, information dissemination, information tools, ILS, maintenance, organization, privacy & security, programming and installation, and technology evaluation & trends/advances.  Now that we have some insight into what professional organizations view as a technological competencies and what two recent articles have reported, let us look and see how these competencies enable an information organization to do more with its collections and services.

Technology competencies enable information organizations to do more with their collections and services.

Information organizations can do more with their collections and services by being technologically competent because they will have the tools and skills necessary to enhance their users information experience. Highlighted below are three of the key technology areas mentioned above to show how a library might use them to do more, and be more engaged with their users.

Accessibility & User Experience

The accessibility and user experience of a library can often times be outside of our control, but a library can develop procedures and use technology to help ease the pain points in their system on behalf of their users by anticipating problems and providing workarounds. As McNeely and Kolah inform us, “user experience refers to the entire psychological and behavioral framework of user interaction, covering everything from ease of use to engagement to visual design and applying to interactions with objects, people, environment and information spaces.” (p.10) Some examples of technology that can aid in accessibility and user experience for those with hearing disabilities include radio frequency, infrared, and Hearing Loops. (Schaeffer, 2014, p.138) Other technologies that can aid in accessibility and user experience falling under ADA guidance include: screen reading technology,magnifying technology, literacy software and hardware, speech recognition software, peripheral devices, such as headsets, speakers, microphones, touchpads, large and small keyboards, and multiple mouse options. (Guder, 2012, p.15) Another, almost primary now, component of user experience is the library website. As the website serves as a 24X7 access point for the library it should strive for simplicity, functionality, and intuitability.  It is important to engage with library users to obtain feedback on their web user experience. This can be done through group discussions, anonymous feedback, and/or website statistics. The website should be seen as a primary point of contact for users, as many of them will access library collections outside of the library. Websites should be responsive in design so as to function on all forms of technology, including mobile.



Cataloging and metadata are nearly identical in terms of their broad concepts. Both seek to make an information item, or items, findable. To provide a definition for metadata, it is “structured information that describes, explains, locates, or otherwise makes it easier to retrieve, use, or manage an information resource” and comes in three types: descriptive, structural, and administrative. (NISO, 2004, p.1) By being thorough in cataloging and metadata descriptions, or tags, the librarian makes their work, and the work of their users, easier and quicker with respect to resource discovery, resource organization, interoperability among platforms, digital identification, and archiving and preservation. New cataloging rules , such as Resource Description and Access (RDA), also have the outcome that they will make information retrievability much easier for users in the future by providing highly detailed and structured information about objects and items.  Functional Requirements for Bibliographic Records (FRBR) help users understand the relationships between works, expressions, manifestations, and items. FRBR has a more “precise vocabulary to help future cataloging rule makers and system designers in meeting user needs.”

Privacy & Security

In an era of data breaches, data hacks, revelations about mismanaged data, and big data, it is just to have concerns over privacy and security. Enserink and Chin go so far as to claim “privacy as we have known it is ending, and we’re only beginning to fathom the consequences.” (p.491) Librarians have traditionally played a staunch role in advocating for user/individual privacy, (Adams, 2010; ALA 2014; Enis et al., 2013; FTRF, 2013; & Zimmer, 2014) and should continue to play that role on behalf of their users. One of the ways libraries can aid their user communities is by being an advocate in the community for privacy related issues, which could take the form of presenting information on what kind of data is collected through various websites and “free” online services such as Baidu, Google, Amazon, and proprietary services like Netflix. One of the ways that libraries have traditionally preserved privacy has been through limiting patron personally identifiable information from being collected, particularly at circulation. With the quick pace of change in the technology sector, this issue will continue to remain prevalent for the foreseeable future, and librarians should be engaged in the discussion as well.  



In this post we have examined selected professional organization competencies for their advice on technological competencies, have looked at two current articles that discuss technological competencies, and summarized our results. We have also addressed how technology competencies enable information organizations to do more with their collections and services through highlighting three technology competencies. The reader should now have a clearer understanding of a wide array of technological skill sets that they should have basic competency in to excel in their information profession.


  1. Adams, H. R. (2010). Choose privacy week: A new ALA initiative. School Library Monthly, 26(8), 48-49
  2. American Library Association (ALA). (2009). Core Competences of Librarianship. Retrieved from
  3. American Library Association (ALA). (2014). Privacy: An Interpretation of the Library Bill of Rights. Retrieved from
  4. Association for Library Services to Children. (2015). Competencies for Librarians Serving Children in Public Libraries. Retrieved from
  5. Association for Information Science and Technology (ASIS&T). (2001, November 8). ASIST Educational Guidelines. Retrieved from
  6. Enis, M., McArdle, M., Schwartz, M., & Thornton-Verma, H. (2013). Collaboration, innovation, & the next generation: At ALA annual, record crowds shared enthusiasm for new technology, tools, and team-ups to promote core library values such as privacy and diversity. Library Journal, 138(13), 32.
  7. Enserink, M., & Chin, G. (2015). The end of privacy. Science, 347(6221), 490-491. doi:10.1126/science.347.6221.490
  8. Federal Library and Information Center Committee (FLCC). (2008). Federal Librarian Competencies. Retrieved from
  9. FTRF, ALA join efforts to protect privacy and increase transparency around surveillance. (2013). Newsletter on Intellectual Freedom (Online), 62(5), 175-202.
  10. Guder, C. S. (2012). Making the right decisions about assistive technology in your library. Library Technology Reports, 48(7), 14-21
  11. Henry, R.L. (2015). The Core and More: Improving on Baseline Technology Competencies. Journal of Academic Librarianship, 41(6), 847-849. doi:10.1016/j.acalib.2015.10.002
  12. Map and Geography Round Table (MAGERT). (2008). Map, GIS and Cataloging / Metadata Librarian Core Competencies. Retrieved from
  13. McNeely, G., & Kolah, D. (2012). Information professionals and user experience. Information Outlook, 16(6), 10-12.
  14. National Information Standards Organization (NISO). (2004). Understanding Metadata. Retrieved from
  15. Saravani, S., & Haddow, G. (2011). The Mobile Library and Staff Preparedness: Exploring Staff Competencies Using the Unified Theory of Acceptance and Use of Technology Model. Australian Academic & Research Libraries, 42(3), 179-190.
  16. Schaeffer, C. (2014). Using New Technology to Comply with ADA Assistive Listening Requirements. Public Library Quarterly, 33(2), 131-144. doi:10.1080/01616846.2014.910724
  17. Special Libraries Association (SLA). (2003). Competencies for Information Professionals of the 21st Century. Retrieved from
  18. Special Libraries Association (SLA). (2016). Competencies for Information Professionals.  Retrieved from
  19. Tillett, B. (2004). What is FRBR: A Conceptual Model for the Bibliographic Universe. Retrieved from
  20. Thompson, S. M., editor.(2009) Core Technology Competencies for Librarians and Library Staff, a LITA Guide. Neal-Schumann Publishers, Inc, New York. Retrieved from
  21. Webjunction. (2009). Competency Index for the Library Field. OCLC Online Computer Library Center, Inc.: Dublin, Ohio. Retrieved from
  22. Webjunction. (2014). Competency Index for the Library Field. OCLC Online Computer Library Center, Inc.: Dublin, Ohio. Retrieved from
  23. Young Adults Library Services Association (YALSA). (2010). YALSA’s Competencies for Librarians Serving Youth: Young Adults Deserve the Best. Retrieved from
  24. Zimmer, M. (2014). Librarians’ Attitudes Regarding Information and Internet Privacy. The Library Quarterly, 84(2), 123-151. doi:10.1086/675329



A Universal History of the Destruction of Books by Fernando Báez: A Review

A UNIVERSAL HISTORY OF THE DESTRUCTION OF BOOKS: FROM ANCIENT SUMER TO MODERN IRAQ. Fernando Baez, translated by Alfred ´ MacAdam. New York: Atlas and Co., 2008, 355 pp., $25.00, ISBN-13: 978-1- 934633-01-4.


Fernando Báez spent over a decade amassing a novelic encyclopedia of bibliocausty- from biblion “book” and from kaustos, the verbal adjective of kaiein which means “to burn”; the term coming into its own around the late 1970s. As he describes in the introduction to the work, his passion comes from his early childhood and his hometown of San Félix in Guayana, Venezuela. When he was between the ages of four and five, he would spend hours in the public library which he viewed “as a last refuge” (p.4) from “an honorable state of poverty.” (p.4) It was here that he would develop a passion beyond bibliophilia that served as his muse behind this work. This sprung when Báez witnessed his first bibliocaust  when the Caroni river wiped out his local library, “the object of [his] curiosity,” (p.5) like the Incan god Paricia who came and wiped out mankind in a flood.

Báez acknowledges that this work is incomplete in its present form, and at the outset welcomes revisions that will come by stating that “each new edition is an invitation to correction and amplification so that the book approaches the ideal, definitive history that perhaps will never exist.” (p.xii) It is evident that his passion will continue the development of this work, and that he is willing to pick up upon suggestions by his readers, such as a chapter on the fictional accounts of book burning.

The book itself deals with the mythos behind creation and destruction, and Báez weaves throughout the work an apocalyptic lamentation for the lost knowledge of human intellectual and cultural history. Part of his research for the book led him to conclude that “all civilizations… have postulated their origin and their end in a creation myth counterpoised to a destruction myth in a framework whose axis is the eternal return.” (p.7) Báez returns constantly to this theme, which he claims is “the best way to introduce [his speculation] to the reader,” (p.8) as though the destructive means of cultural annihilation are justified as a path to salvation; not that he believes this to be true, but that those who commit such acts do. Perhaps the best phrasing of this comes when he makes the claim that “The apocalyptic narrative projects the human situation and its anguish: in each of us, the origin and the end interact in inevitable process of creation and dissolution.” (p.9) This brings to mind, at least to this reader, the longstanding mythos behind the phoenix and the destruction of what was with the rebirth of something new.

The work seeks to be comprehensive, perhaps in a future edition, of all major periods of book destruction. This edition is broken down into three parts: The Ancient World, From Byzantium to the Nineteenth Century, and From the Twentieth Century to the Present. More will be explored on each section later. Báez is not the only writer to explore this topic. He writes with the same concern as Polastron (2007), Knuth (2003), & Raven (2004).

While recognizing that it is impossible to secure all of the books in existence, Báez forces us to think about how we preserve books, libraries, and other like spaces and their contents. He wants to understand why people and cultures burn books, and, as I have already mentioned, he seeks to explore this with an apocalyptic narrative. One of the questions that we should ask ourselves is how do we go about preserving our knowledge and cultural centers? How do we preserve the things on which information is stored, whether it be clay tablets, papyri, paper, or compact-disks? If destruction is bound to happen, how can we mitigate the consequences?

In the first part of his work, Báez explores the distant past. Some of the prominent chapters in this part include Greece, an entire chapter dedicated solely to the enigma of “The Library of Alexandria”, Eastern battles for empire in “China”, and the rise of the codex discussed in “Rome and Early Christianity.” He closes this part of the work with a chapter dedicated to “Oblivion and the Fragility of Books.” No work can suffer the ravages of time unaffected, and the very thing that made libraries of antiquity so sacred is what also led to their ruin, and with that the loss of knowledge. When a library of antiquity was lost, due to fire, flood, war or other causes, the works could not as easily be replaced for the infrastructure was not as adaptable and rapid as it is today.  

In the second part of his work, Báez explores a long stretch of time covering “Byzantium to the Nineteenth Century”. Examples of chapters in this section include: “Constantinople,” “The Islamic World,” “The Destruction of Pre-Hispanic Culture in the Americas,” “England,” and “Revolutions in France, Spain, and Latin America.” The last chapter, which seems out of place in this section, though very appropriate to the nature of the book itself, covers bibliocausts found in fictional works which was suggested to him by an “anonymous reader.” (p.188) Báez took on the challenge and created this work exploring twenty-four authors fictional dealings with the destruction of books; these authors include: Cervantes, Marlowe, Poe, H.G. Wells, H.P. Lovecraft, Tolkien, Bradbury, Borges, Eco, and Jan van Aken.  Another chapter in this part deals with “Fires, Wars, Mistakes, and Messiahs.” Báez makes a curious point here, particularly when he speaks about messiahs. One such “messiah” was Jacob Frank, an eighteenth century Jewish heretic who “found some disciples” and forced them to burn books.

In the last part of his work, Báez explores events that are seared in modern cultural memory covering the “Twentieth Century to the Present.” Topics in this part include events in “China and the Soviet Union,” “Spain, Chile, and Argentina,” the 2003 war in “Iraq” and particularly the looting of the Baghdad Archaeological Museum and the burning of the national library and archive, as well as the extensive and systematic bibliocide that took place throughout the second world war. Two of the other chapters that he explores in this section include ethnic rivalries and harm done, through no ill intent, but through the feeding by insects and the decomposition of modern paper and other publishing mechanisms.


Intellectual history has been susceptible throughout time to forces that we can control and forces that we can not. Though there is nothing that can escape time, save God, there are ways that we can mitigate disasters. Báez seeks to keep a record of those disasters and, by shedding light on them, prevent the destruction of more (books). I believe that Báez seeks to open his audience’s eyes to what happens through the intentional and willful destruction of books. It is hard enough trying to maintain and preserve them without their willful elimination.

Though Báez does a masterful job in writing the book and drawing the reader into the narrative, there are other ways in which the organization of the work could be arranged to tell the story. For instance, the organization could be arranged geographically instead of chronologically. In this way, we could go on a Vernian world tour of bibliocausty and explore how different cultures have handled the loss and destruction of their culture. This is not to say that the chronological arrangement is not good, but that the same story could be arranged so we see the history of bibliocausty played out in different geographic zones. Can we see any difference in how different cultures sought out the damnatio memoriae of their adversaries?

Another possibility for the retelling of this story would be to create a digital companion with an ArcGIS story map for a visual story that could serve as a tour of this work. One way to retell this story would be to extract the information from the work into a file and overlay it onto a GIS map and thus bringing the narrative to life, on a global scale and in a geo-pictoral context, the major ramifications of what Báez has devoted much of his life’s work to.

The author’s work is never done, as everyday the news recounts some new tale of the evils that take place among men. One of the most prominent contemporary  examples stems from the rise of the Islamic State. This crisis could serve as an extended component of one of Báez’s current chapters, or as an entirely new chapter. It seems as though each new passing year sees another example of the unending destruction of books, and, as Báez has already stated, this book can continuously be expanded. Since the publication of this work in 2008, more examples of bibliocausty have taken place globally including the events in Ukraine, various parts of Africa, and the ongoing horrors brought about by the Islamic State. It is also possible to further extend the third part of his work to cover events such as the Vietnam War, the Iranian Revolution, and the burning of the Jaffna library in Sri Lanka during the midst of a civil war. That said, it is a great work, and worth reading by anyone who considers themselves a bibliophile, or has spent time relaxing in the pleasures of a library.


A GIS Based Approach to Historical Understanding

How, as historians, can we facilitate a physical understanding of the world in which we live, and how it has been formed throughout it’s existence as well as from our own? All human endeavors exist on a dual plane of time and space, and at each moment we are wrapped up in the cosmological game of survival that bleeds forth from the essence of a world in action. Historians, who are interested in the study of man’s experience in time and space, must also, as W. Gordon East reveals, be engaged in discussing the “problems of location.” (East, 1967, p.10) One way to understand these problems is through the incorporation of Geographic Information Systems (GIS) as a tool to answer the question posed by the researcher. A GIS, as J. Scurry writes, 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.” (What is GIS?)


In this post, I will show how questions can be answered through the adoption of GIS as a methodological tool for the advancement of historical understanding. To do this, I will begin by setting up the world in history, in a spatial, temporal, and humanitarian context. I will then briefly examine two approaches to history, quantitative history and by looking at Fernand Braudel from the Annales, that have aided in addressing the need for a geographical understanding of history, as well as how these schools can benefit from the use of GIS services. In the last section, where I intend the focus of this post to be, I will show how GIS can be incorporated as a historical approach. To accomplish this I will provide the reader with an understanding of GIS, provide an overview of GIS scholarship, discuss the importance of data to GIS, and close by providing a sampling of scholarly incorporations of GIS as a historical enhancement tool. So, why learn about GIS as a historical tool? Because as humanists, “we are drawn to issues of meaning, and space offers a way to understand fundamentally how we order our world.” (Bodenhamer, 2010, p.14)


The World In History

There are three major avenues for research in historical GIS work. These are the spatial, the temporal, and the humanitarian. Though each of these avenues are distinctive, an analysis of them does not happen in isolation and as we read through them the reader will find many overlapping themes. We will also be coming back to these themes throughout the entirety of the paper because each of them enhances our understanding of the historical world and the realities therein.


The spatial world is the material construct of the world around us. It is made up of shapes, colors, depth, and a myriad number of objects[1]. (Couclelis, 1992) Throughout history there have been numerous ontological frameworks for how we view the world around us. These frameworks help to explain man’s conception of the world he lives in. Predominating outlooks have changed throughout history, but the world in which these outlooks have taken place is metaphysically the same. The physical world provides us with obvious natural boundaries which have had a significant impact on how we have interacted upon it. W. Gordon East, writing in 1967, writes that

“The best frontiers of separation, especially in the past, were afforded by the oceans, the deserts, mountain systems, marshy tracts, and forests, for the good reasons that such areas set obstacles to human movement and could not support a dense population.” (East, p.100)

Even though these boundaries create boundaries of protection, “the physical environment remains a veritable Pandora’s box, ever ready to burst open and to scatter its noxious contents.” (East, p.1) For all of man’s attempts to subjugate the earth, the earth has a way of bringing us back into awareness of our own existence.

Two major distinctions in worldview are between the Ptolemaic view and the Copernican view, which battled over the location of the earth in the universe. Speaking about the Medieval understanding of the Ptolemaic view of the world, Lovejoy writes “The world had a clear intelligible unity of structure, and not only definite shape, but what was deemed at once the simplest and most perfect shape, as had all the bodies composing it. It had no loose ends, no irregularities of outline.” (Lovejoy, 1960, p.101) Later on Lovejoy states that “It is sufficiently evident from such passages that the geocentric cosmography served rather for man’s humiliation than for his exaltation, and that Copernicanism was opposed partly on the ground that it assigned too dignified and lofty a position to his dwelling place.” (Lovejoy, p.102)


Another model of viewing the world involves land ownership, and the definitional arguments over property. Couclelis, speaking on the predominating view of space in relation to the Western tradition, informs us that

“Western culture is apparently unique in its treatment of land as property, as commodity capable of being bought, subdivided, exchanged, and sold at the market place. It is at this lowest level of real estate (from the Latin res, meaning thing), that we find the cultural grounding of the notion of space as object. Further up the hierarchy, at the level of countries, states, or nations, precise boundaries are needed again to determine what belongs to whom, who controls whom and what, and for what purpose.” (Couclelis, p.67)

Couclelis then goes on to inform her readers of six reasons why human territories often elude spatial analysis. These reasons are: there is a constant effort to establish and maintain; they are defined by a nexus of social relations rather than by intrinsic object properties; their internal structure changes not through movement of anything physical, but through changes in social rules and ideas; they do not partition space, although they may share it; their intensity at any time varies from place to place; and finally, they are context and place specific. (Couclelis, p.68)

Geographical space, in many respects, is fluid. The arbitrary lines that are drawn upon it by man have little meaning on the land as an entity to itself. Waldo Tobler, speaking in 1970, invoked the “First Law of Geography” by stating that “everything is related to everything else, but near things are more related than distant things.” (1970) What this means in relation to the geographical conception of space is that it is easier to relate events that take place in a close proximity to one another as opposed to those that take place far away from one another. Couclelis tells us how we should conceptualize our sense of space as being in territorial relationships by stating that

“It is as if landmarks, places, and other geographic entities were defined in neither an absolute nor a relative, but in a relational space, where object identity itself is at least in part a function of the nexus of contextual relations with other objects.” (Couclelis, p.74)

By looking at Tobler’s Law and Couclelis’ “relational space” we see the need for having a conception of transitional changes of movement in our ontological framework.

Though it changes shape, moves around, acts and is acted upon, the land is always with us, and, as such, it “provides a common denominator to all historical periods.[2]” (East, p.8) While we are able to stand upon the space we inhabit, we are not able to remain there indefinitely[3]. In traditional Western thought we conceptualize time along a linear model always moving on towards infinity, but we can only think of “the Earth’s surface [as] fundamentally finite.[4]” (Gregory, 2010, p.61)


On the other side of the space token is the notion of time; the two cannot be separated.[5] (Gregory, p.61) Ian Gregory informs us of the six ways of conceptualizing time (Gregory, p.60) including: linearly, calendary, cyclically, containerly, branching, and multiple perspectives. In a GIS environment, it would seem that the easiest way to view historical spatial changes over time would be highest by using a linear model. Corrigan writes that

“The display of change over time that is observable in such a GIS, especially when presented as an animation, can disclose much about the way in which people and culture move through space, appear and disappear, and exist in relation to natural environments.” (Corrigan, 2010, p.81)

Many of the historical GIS applications that I have seen, and some I will touch on in a later section, have such a linear time tool as a way to view the historical analysis.

History is the subject that “locates us in time,[6]” (Ayers, 2010, p.5-6) and if we relook at Tobler’s law about geography and relate it to time we will see that nearer periods of history are more similar than distant periods of history. As historians we are often prone to large groupings of historical periods such as saying, medieval or roman, but when we dig down deep into the transitionary periods of time it is difficult to see where one period ends and another begins.



The human experience in, and upon, the world is primarily what the field of history is concerned with and looking at how we have been formed by our past, and in this context, humanity has been forced to understand nature and make adjustments.(East, p.2) There are a plethora of articles that discuss how man has had a strong influence upon the world in which we live. It is man that provides meaning to place by establishing it as an object. Robert David Sack writes that

“Space and time are fundamental components of human experience. They are not merely naively given facets of geographic reality, but are transformed by, and affect, people and their relationships to one another. Territoriality, as the basic geographic expression of influence and power, provides an essential link between society, space, and time. Territoriality is the backcloth of geographical context- it is the device through which people construct and maintain spatial organizations. For humans, territoriality is not an instinct or drive, but rather a complex strategy to affect, influence, and control access to people, things, and relationships.” (Sack, 1986, p.216)

This is how places, as objects of study, are created. The human conception of place also has a reliance on the area around it.[7] (East, p.28)

There is a famous adage from Shakespeare’s As You Like It which states “All the world’s a stage, And all the men and women merely players; They have their exits and their entrances, And one man in his time plays many parts,” (Act 2, Scene 7, p.83) but, unlike in a theatrical performance, “history…is not rehearsed before enactment, and so different and so changeful are its manifestations that it certainly lacks all unity of place, time, and action.” (East, p.2) So how do we make sense of humanity’s entrances and exits, and relations with one another and the world itself? Couclelis informs us that “the key is to be sought in human cognition, in learning from how people actually experience and deal with the geographic world.” (Couclelis, p.66)

Quantitative History & One Annales Approach

There are two separate approaches to history that are relevant to a GIS approach that I would like to take a moment to discuss. The first is a quantitative history which relies on statistical data to examine historical questions. The second is by looking at on work by Fernand Braudel from the Annales.

Quantitative History

The value of a GIS methodological approach to answering a quantitative historical question comes precisely because that is what each of them do. The whole concept of quantitative history, and it’s significance to this post, is that it was one of the beginning methodologies that began to make a “reliance on numerical data.” (Green & Troup, 1999, p.141) Though numerical data in and of itself is not useful for a GIS project, if it can be georeferenced, then the historian can begin to gain a greater appreciation for the data and it’s relation to the human experience in the world. For instance, U.S. Census data conveys a lot of information, and all of this data comes from particular regions, territories, and places. This information, collected decennially, provides many historians with the information that they need to track historical trends and patterns. This type of data has allowed for historians to focus their “minds on specific historical problems and on ways in which [they] as historians construct [their] material.[8]” (Green & Troup, 1999, p.148)

Fernand Braudel from the Annales

In his 1966 book The Mediterranean and the Mediterranean World in the Age of Philip II Fernand Braudel goes into great length to convey the historical significance of geography upon cultural history. The first two hundred and thirty pages of his book set the scene for his readers geographically for the historiography that was being developed The first three chapters are: The Peninsulas: Mountains, Plateaux, and Plains; The Heart of the Mediterranean: Seas and Coasts; & Boundaries: The Greater Mediterranean. The last of which explores the effects of the mediterranean on the world which it interacted with and acted upon. “Braudel introduced a multi-layered historical chronology, and initiated a strong focus on quantitative history among the historians influenced by him.”  (Green & Troup, 1999, p.87) Green and Troup go on to describe how “Braudel conceived time in a new way. For example, his famous phrase ‘the Mediterranean was 99 days long’ vividly evoked the effect of sea and horseback travel upon early modern communications. His spatial approach to the sea was equally novel; for Braudel, the Mediterranean extended as far north as the Baltic and eastward to India. Land and sea were inextricably connected….”(Green & Troup, 1999, p.89) The beautiful expressions provided in Braudel’s work remind us just how connected we are to the geography we inhabit and the sense of space we construct around ourselves.

Incorporating GIS as a Historical Methodology

This method is not an all encompassing approach to answering historical questions[9], and the tools available for research are limited in the types of questions they can answer to those that have some form of geographical component. With GIS we can see how humans organize their space, what do they do with their environment, and how their minds work in this organizational process. This works by delineating “space as a set of Cartesian coordinates with attributes attached to the identified location, a cartographic concept, rather than as relational space that maps interdependencies, a social concept.” (Bodenhamer, 2010, p.20) The Cartesian coordinate approach differs from our own relational experience with the world around us, and how we interpret and convey that experience.[10] When historians participate in this new digital form of geospatial mapping they contribute to a more shared understanding of reality[11].

GIS & Historical Scholarship

Ian Gregory and Paul Ell, in their book Historical GIS: Technologies, Methodologies and Scholarship, remain excitedly confident that “GIS has the potential to reinvigorate almost all aspects of historical geography, and indeed bring many historians who would not previously have regarded themselves as geographers into the fold.” (Gregory & Paul, 2007, p.1) If historians wish to engage with GIS tools then they will need to “not only learn the technical skills of GIS, but must also learn the academic skills of a geographer.” (Gregory & Paul, 2007, p.1) As mentioned previously, GIS allows users to shift the focus from a strictly historical narrative approach to a geospatial narrative in which questions can be asked in new, more computationally based, ways. Couclelis informs us that

“in applied geography- the geography that GIS is supposed to serve- the question of whether an object or field view is more correct, is neither a philosophical nor a theoretical issue, but largely an empirical one: how is the geographic world understood, categorized, and acted in by humans.” (Couclelis, p.70)

Scholarship leads the student down a field of study in an attempt to answer a question. This approach helps bring those answers to a visual life, but it requires carefully formed questions in conjunction with well structured, and accurate, data.


This entire system of historical analysis requires two things, data and the knowledge of how to turn it into something useful. All of the data that the historian collects will require some structuring for it to be made into a historical work, and how the historian approaches the structuring “begs the philosophical question of the most appropriate conceptualization of the geographic world.” (Couclelis, p.65) How the data is structured[12] will help determine how the historical questions can be answered.

Ian Gregory has an interesting notion on how, in the future, historians may be able to address and visualize the dream of Lovejoy who was searching for The Great Chain of Being that linked ideas in their historical context and showed how they were viewed in different ways at different times. Gregory writes,

“in an ideal world, we would use spatial & temporal data to explore how a phenomenon has evolved over time, not by comparing two snapshots but by looking at continuous change. In doing so the aim is not to identify the story of how the process evolved but to use different places to explore the different ways in which the phenomenon could occur differently.” (Gregory, 2010, p.66)

Examples of GIS as historical methodology

The means of using GIS to further a historical understanding has been taking shape for some time now, and in this section I would like to take a look at some digital humanities endeavors that have taken form with GIS and that have a focus on history.

The first project is Pleiades. This project is great for those studying classical history, meaning particularly the Greek and Roman periods though they are expanding their gazetteer[13] into “Ancient Near Eastern, Byzantine, Celtic, and Early Medieval geography.” (Ancient World Mapping Center) Pleiades gives researchers the ability to “to use, create, and share historical geographic information about the ancient world in digital form.” (Ancient World Mapping Center) As of mid December 2015, they have just shy of 35,000 place names in their gazetteer. This project was created with the help of the Ancient World Mapping Center from the University of North Carolina, the Stoa Consortium, and the Institute for the Study of the Ancient World from New York University.

The second project comes from the University of Virginia and takes a look at “two American communities, one Northern and one Southern, from the time of John Brown’s Raid through the era of Reconstruction.” (Ayers, The Valley of the Shadow) It contains “original letters and diaries, newspapers and speeches, census and church records, left by men and women in Augusta County, Virginia, and Franklin County, Pennsylvania.” (Ayers, The Valley of the Shadow) The project seeks to give “voice to hundreds of individual people” by telling the “forgotten stories of life during the era of the [American] Civil War.” (Ayers, The Valley of the Shadow) Within this larger project is a section on battle maps that seeks to tell the stories of regiments from Augusta County, Va (Confederate) and Franklin County, Pa. (Union). The map allows for the display of additional layers including: grid and scale, putting a boundary line around Augusta and Franklin counties, displaying modern cities, highlighting historic towns, showing historic roads, resurrecting historic railroads, and highlighting major rivers. After selecting the various layers that needed to be added, the researcher can press play and watch the animated battles that ensue.

One project that I helped to create was the History of Canon Law map for the Religious Studies, Philosophy and Canon Law Library at the Catholic University of America. This was done in the online ArcGIS tool from ESRI . In order to create the content I created .csv files based on information found in the New Catholic Encyclopedia article “Canon Law, History of.” (Vogel et al., 2003) The value of the map is that it helps provide a geographical context for various councils and documents related to the history of canon law. The map breaks down the history of Canon Law into seven periods: Early Church, Carolingian Era, False Decretals To Gratian, Classical Period, The Corpus Iuris Canonici to the Council of Trent, The Council Of Trent To The Code Of Canon Law, and The 1917 Code Of Canon Law & The 1983 Code of Canon Law to the Present. Though the map is far from complete, it does provide the student of canon law the ability to obtain a different type of historical understanding than a traditional reading and analysis; it is also a nice overview for novices to the topic.

Canon Law GIS project

The final project is The History Engine which was created in the Digital Scholarship Lab at the University of Richmond. I list this one last here because of it’s emphasis as more of a pedagogical tool for teaching undergraduate students of American History at the University of Richmond about the research and publication process, though it does appear that the creators are making their project available for use by faculty at other institutions. What is interesting is that while it is teaching students about research and publication, it displays their results in a geospatial and temporal context. The project itself was built using an API from Google Maps and incorporating the Timeline widget produced at Massachusetts Institute of Technology (MIT). I would like to encourage the reader to look at some of the other interesting history projects done by the Digital Scholarship Lab to see more great ideas.


Throughout this post it has been my goal to provide the reader with justification for the value of incorporating GIS tools into their arsenal of historical research methodologies. We have looked at the world in history through a spatial, temporal, and humanitarian lens. We have seen how a couple of approaches to history have paved the way for GIS as an approach to understanding historical questions. Lastly, we have seen the value that GIS can hold for historical scholarship, and a few examples thereof. When using this approach the historian will need to adapt some of their traditional practices, but the efforts will be worth the investment given the historians keen ability for breadth of research and analysis.


  1. Ancient World Mapping Center and Institute for the Study of the Ancient World. 2015 Available from
  2. Ayers, Edward L. 2010. Turning toward place, space, and time. In The spatial humanities: GIS and the future of humanities scholarship., eds. David J. Bodenhamer, John Corrigan and Trevor M. Harris, 1. Indianapolis: Indiana University Press.
  3. * ———. The valley of the shadow: Two communities in the american civil war- eastern theater of the civil war. [N.A.]Available from
  4. * ———. The valley of the shadow: Two communities in the american civil war. in University of Virginia [database online]. [cited 12/17 2015]. Available from
  5. Bodenhamer, David J. 2010. The potential of spatial humanities. In The spatial humanities: GIS and the future of humanities scholarship., eds. David J. Bodenhamer, John Corrigan and Trevor M. Harris, 14. Indianapolis: Indiana University Press.
  6. Corrigan, John. 2010. Qualitative GIS and emergent semantics. In The spatial humanities: GIS and the future of humanities scholarship., eds. David J. Bodenhamer, John Corrigan and Trevor M. Harris, 76. Indianapolis: Indiana University Press.
  7. Couclelis, Helen. 1992. People manipulate objects (but cultivate fields): Beyond the raster-vector debate in GIS. In Theories and methods of spatio-temporal reasoning in geographic space / international conference GIS–from space to territory: Theories and methods of spatio-temporal reasoning, pisa, italy, september 1992, proceedings ., ed. International Conference GIS–From Space to Territory: Theories and Methods of Spatio-Temporal Reasoning (1992 : Pisa, Italy), 65. New York: Springer-Verlag.
  8. CUAphiltheoLIB. History of canon law. 2015 Available from
  9. East, W. Gordon. 1967. The geography behind history. New York: W.W. Norton & Company Inc.
  10. Green, Anna and Troup, Kathleen, ed. 1999. The houses of history: A critical reader in twentieth-century history and theory. New York: New York University Press.
  11. Gregory, Ian. 2010. Exploiting time and space: A challenge for GIS in the digital humanities. In The spatial humanities: GIS and the future of humanities scholarship., eds. David J. Bodenhamer, John Corrigan and Trevor M. Harris, 58. Indianapolis: Indiana University Press.
    * Gregory, Ian N., and Paul S. Ell. 2007. Historical GIS: Technologies, methodologies and scholarship. New York: Cambridge University Press.
  12. Lock, Gary. 2010. Representations of space and place in the humanities. In The spatial humanities : GIS and the future of humanities scholarship., eds. David J. Bodenhamer, John Corrigan and Trevor M. Harris, 89. Indianapolis: Indiana University Press.
  13. Sack, Robert David. 1986. Human territoriality : Its theory and history. London: Cambridge University Press.
  14. J. Scurry, SCDNR Land, Water and Conservation Division- National Estuarine Research Reserve System.What is GIS? Retrieved from (
  15. Vogel, C., H. Fuhrmann, C. Munier, L. E. Boyle, Sousa Costa De, P. Leisching, J. E. Lynch, and J. E. Lynch. 2003. Canon law, history of. In New catholic encyclopedia. 2nd ed. ed. Vol. 3, 37-58. Detroit: Gale, .
    * Yuan, May. 2010. Mapping text. In The spatial humanities: GIS and the future of humanities scholarship., eds. David J. Bodenhamer, John Corrigan and Trevor M. Harris, 109. Indianapolis: Indiana University Press.



[1] Couclelis adds that “Territories too become objects when they need to be defended or fenced, but it is in their field- like, background form that they appear to have their most pervasive effects on human behavior.” By making territories an object a GIS user can establish boundaries by creating .kmz files and adding them into their GIS database. Couclelis, H. (1992). People manipulate objects (but cultivate fields): Beyond the raster-vector debate in GIS. In International Conference GIS–From Space to Territory: Theories and Methods of Spatio-Temporal Reasoning (1992 : Pisa, Italy) (Ed.), Theories and methods of spatio-temporal reasoning in geographic space / international conference GIS–from space to territory: Theories and methods of spatio-temporal reasoning, pisa, italy, september 1992, proceedings (pp. 65). New York: Springer-Verlag. p.73

[2] “Geography, at least in its physical aspect, provides a common denominator to all historical periods: more ancient than Methuselah, the land has witnessed and survived the advent of man and the ephemeral episodes of his purposive adventure.” East, W. Gordon. p.8

[3] In the Lord of The Rings by J.R. R. Tolkien, Gollum asks Bilbo this famous riddle regarding time: “This thing all things devours: Birds, beasts, trees, flowers; Gnaws iron, bites steel; Grinds hard stones to meal; Slays king, ruins town, And beats high mountain down.” From this we can glean that all the material world is fleeting and is subject to the passage of time. Nothing can escape from it that exists within it.

[4] “While time flows from an infinite past to an infinite future, space on the Earth’s surface is fundamentally finite.” Gregory, Ian. 2010. Exploiting time and space: A challenge for GIS in the digital humanities. In The spatial humanities: GIS and the future of humanities scholarship., eds. David J. Bodenhamer, John Corrigan and Trevor M. Harris, 58. Indianapolis: Indiana University Press. p.61

[5] “physicists conceive of time as a fourth dimension that is inextricably linked to space.” Gregory, Ian. 2010. p.61

[6] “Time, like geography, can be disassembled analytically. Just as we differentiate between a more generalized space and a more localized place, so can we differentiate general processes from specific events. We live daily in places and events but we are parts of large spaces and processes we can perceive through efforts of disciplined inquiry. Just as a geographer relates places and space, so do historians relate event and process. Geography locates us on a physical and cultural landscape while history locates us in time. Joining the two kinds of analysis in a dynamic and subtle way to imagine both structure and activity, may help.” Ayers, Edward L. 2010. Turning toward place, space, and time. In The spatial humanities: GIS and the future of humanities scholarship., eds. David J. Bodenhamer, John Corrigan and Trevor M. Harris, 1. Indianapolis: Indiana University Press. p.5-6

[7] W. Gordon East states that “The position of a Place at any time is affected, too, by the extent to which the known lands were populous or unsettled, civilized or barbarous.” East, W. Gordon. p.28

[8] “quantitative methods in history have encouraged us to extend our range of historical sources and topics, made possible more exact comparisons between societies over time, and focused our minds on specific historical problems and on ways in which we as historians construct our material.” Green, Anna and Troup, Kathleen, ed. 1999. p.148

[9] “The claim of geography to be heard in the councils of history rests on the firm basis that it alone studies comprehensively and scientifically, by its own methods and technique, the setting of human activity, and further, that the particular characteristics of this setting serve not only to localise but also to influence part at least of the action.” East, W. Gordon. p.2

[10] “Another challenge is whether or not Cartesian space can be adapted to incorporate a more humanistic sense and understanding of distance, direction, and position. While coordinate systems provide the quantitative basis for GIS, our own biological and cultural sat-navs work on qualitative relationships such as “next to,” “in front of,” “behind,” and “a little way past the supermarket.” Lock, Gary. 2010. Representations of space and place in the humanities. In The spatial humanities : GIS and the future of humanities scholarship., eds. David J. Bodenhamer, John Corrigan and Trevor M. Harris, 89. Indianapolis: Indiana University Press. p.91-92

[11] “Maps are one, if not the, most effective form that records knowledge about geography where histories unfold and cultures develop and to serve as a shared reality.” Yuan, May. 2010. Mapping text. In The spatial humanities: GIS and the future of humanities scholarship., eds. David J. Bodenhamer, John Corrigan and Trevor M. Harris, 109. Indianapolis: Indiana University Press. p.109

[12] As well as any philological arguments that need to be addressed as explanatory notes in the research.

[13] Gazetteers are “collections of place names with geographic locations (or footprints) and other information about these places.” Yuan, May. 2010. p.114



As I enter into libraryland,

with books in hand and bags in tow,

I smell vanillaed paper,

breathe hard, a smile does show.

There is knowledge all around me,

there’s data on the floor,

information calls me

and wisdom’s at the door.

I walk up to the reference desk,

and am greeted by a lass,

who has tight hair bunned

and is sporting horned rim glass’.

She says “Hello my friend,”

and “what may I search for you.”

I tell her that “I’m sick” and cough,

“I think I’ve got the flu.”

She clicks open the catalogue,

and does her best for me,

After doing booleaned search

She sends me to RC.

So many things to look at

so many things to read.

I’m not sure what will help me…

my nose begins to bleed.

A book about influenza,

A book about the cold,

A book about natural remedies,

and… how to get rid of mold?

I go up to the counter

to check out all my books.

But, on the way, I see them,

more books that catch my hook.

New fiction will help me

pass the time all day,

and biographies will teach me

I like to learn this way.

Satire makes me laugh,

while travel lets me go.

Fantasies allow for my escape,

and religion helps my soul.

All collect’ at the counter,

the technician gives a smile,

Take ten min’ to check my books

she knew it would be a while…

Having gathered what I need,

I falter at the door,

with a hundred books too many,

I drop them on the floor!

This poem was written by Samuel Russell with the careful help of editing by Laura Fullam.

The Freedom of Information Act: Help From and For Librarians

“Public business is the public’s business. The people have the right to know. Freedom of information is their just heritage. Without that, the citizens of a democracy have but changed their kings.” (Cross, xiii)

Without understanding the history of the Freedom of Information Act (FOIA), knowing how it works, staying abreast of issues that continue to confront the freedom of government  information by the citizens that it serves, and the roles that libraries play in preserving and facilitating government information to society, we will be governed by ignorance and left to wonder what others are doing. James Madison, the “Father of the Constitution” and Fourth President of the United States, has an oft cited quote that people reference when speaking in support of the freedom of information and self-governance, and I would like to share it with the reader. Madison stated that

“Knowledge will forever govern ignorance. And a people who mean to be their own governors, must arm themselves with the power knowledge gives. A popular government without popular information or the means of acquiring it, is but a prologue to a farce or a tragedy, or perhaps both.” (Letter to W.T. Barry)

In this paper I will explore the history of the FOIA so as to provide context for it’s purpose, briefly go over how the FOIA works, look at a couple issues that still exist with the FOIA, and explain the Library’s and the librarian’s role in the freedom of information. This paper should serve as a guide for librarians who are looking to understand the FOIA and aid patrons in submitting a FOIA requests. Though most of this paper will examine the history of the FOIA, the historiography should not serve as the primary focus of the reader. Rather, the focus should be on the importance of how this legislation has manifested itself into the fabric of our great nation, and the importance of the American public’s right to information about their government.

History of FOIA: In Brief

The FOIA is one of the many laws that help protect and promote our freedom to information about our government as American citizens. Thankfully, it is not alone, but is part of a larger component of American law that promotes this idea; other legislation includes: The United States Constitution (1791), the Printing Act (1895), the Copyright Act (1909), the Depository Library Act (1962), the Government in the Sunshine Act (1976), and the Presidential Records Act (1978) among others.  In this section I will be addressing the history of the FOIA, to help us understand how the law came to be and has grown through the decades, since its passage in 1966; this will be a selective rather than a comprehensive history.


It is important to remember the context for why the legislation was initiated. In 1994 Anne Branscomb wrote that:

“The specter of growing government-collected and government-controlled information about its citizens, inaccessible to them, is what prompted Congress to enact the Freedom of Information Act.” (Branscomb, 16)

In the mid to late 1950s, the United States was in a post World War II society and the Cold War was already into it’s first decade. Though the First Amendment had a large number of freedoms and protections embodied, there was no law that directly stated the American public’s right to access information from the government that the government collected. It is in this context that we meet John E. Moss, a champion of information freedom and the man we have most to thank for passage of the FOIA. He was a member of the U.S. House of Representatives representing California’s 3rd district from 1953-1979.

Moss was appointed as the chairman of the Special Subcommittee on Government Information, established on June 9, 1955 and part of the Government Operations Committee. It was from that vantage point that he began his long standing fight for the freedom of government information for the American public. One particular instance that set him off was when serving on the Post Office and Civil Service Committee he “formally requested that the Civil Service Commission produce the records relating to the discharge of …twenty-eight hundred employees for claimed security reasons. [His] request was flatly denied by the Civil Service Commission.” (Lemov, 48) This, in conjunction with the general secrecy of information from the Eisenhower administration, (Lemov, 49-50) seems to serve as the impetus behind the 1956 study by the House on The Right to Obtain Information from the Executive, which Moss was a part of.  In the same year as this study, Kent Cooper, in his book The Right to Know: An Exposition of the Evils of News Suppression and Propaganda, wrote “American newspapers do have the constitutional right to print…but they cannot properly serve the people if governments suppress the news.” (Cooper, 1956)

1956- House Study on the Right to Obtain Information from the Executive

When Chairman of the Committee on Government Operations William L. Dawson of Illinois established the Special Subcommittee on Government Information he did so stating that “an informed public makes the difference between mob rule and democratic government….”(Ladd, 190) This study primarily is looking at the right for Congress to access information from the government, but it is the beginning of the process for legislation securing the right of access and not the end.

The study, after going through a summary of how our governing systems functions, begins to explore the nature of government agencies, quasi-agencies, and distinguishing between agencies established by the Executive and those established by the Legislature.  I would like the reader to look at four excerpts from the report to help understand the necessity of the legislation that was to develop. This first quote establishes the purpose and necessity of the committee and the report.

“In the course of such contests between the branches probably no problem has been more frequently recurrent in our Government or more important to the safeguarding of democracy than that of access to information in the possession of departments and agencies of the Federal Government.” (Right of Congress, 2)

The report begins by stating the issue of access to information, and highlighting that the problem of accessing this information is a recurring theme. This excerpt also highlights how access to information is beneficial because it is a means to “safeguarding our democracy.” The next excerpt brings in another branch of government, the Judicial.

“Judicial interpretation and precedent seem to indicate that neither the executive agencies nor the independent regulatory commissions have any inherent right to withhold information from the Congress….It should be stated at the outset that judicial precedents do not recognize any inherent right in any officer of the United States to withhold testimony or documents either from the judiciary or from the Congress of the United States.”  (Right of Congress, 6)

This excerpt discusses the issue in context of historical judicial interpretation and precedent. What is most notable in this excerpt is that there is no “inherent right in any officer of the United States to withhold testimony or documents either from the judiciary or from the Congress” thus reaffirming the need for, and ability to enact, checks and balances from one aspect of our government on  another. The next quote discusses the role that Congress has in facilitating that check over the executive; remember that this is a decade before the FOIA was enacted.

“At the same time Congress has never exercised its ultimate sanctions to compel such testimony or production of documents. Nevertheless there is  little or no doubt that Congress (a) may by legislation regulate the release of Government information and (b) may compel such release on its own by exercising its power of process for contempt of Congress directly and/or by punishment under criminal statute for contempt of Congress.”  (Right of Congress, 7)

The first proposition has been used multiple times with extensions and clarifications to the FOIA and similar legislation. I am unaware how much the second proposition has been used, and, as it does not pertain to the research for this paper, I did not examine it’s usage. Lastly, in section four of their conclusion, the House found that even when the President has immunity from legal enforcement, the heads of departments and agencies do not stating:

“Any possible presidential immunity from the enforcement of legal process does not extend to the heads of departments and other Federal agencies. Judicial opinions have never recognized any inherent right in the heads of Federal agencies to withhold information from the courts. The courts have stated that even where the head of the department or agency bases his action on statutory authority the courts will judge the reasonableness of the action in the same light as any other claim of privilege. The courts have held that the mere claim of privilege is not enough.” (Right of Congress, 25-26)

In a 102 page rebuttal to the report, the Department of Justice wrote that “Congress cannot under the Constitution compel heads of departments to make public what the president desires to keep a secret in the public interest. The president alone is the judge of that interest and is accountable only to his country… and to his conscience.” (CQS, 1956) What developed was a growing tension between the executive branch and the Moss committee that would last for many years throughout various administrations.

1966- Passage of the FOIA- 5 U.S.C. § 552

“The important point about this sort of legislation is that access is provided to a whole range of so-called ‘gray’ data, providing information which is unclassified but which is normally accessible only with the permission of those charged with keeping control of it.” (Mount, 12)

Moss spent well over a decade working on this legislation with the help of many, and the criticism of many others. On June 20, 1966 the House unanimously passed the Freedom of Information Act; it was the Senate version which meant that the legislation did not need to go through a conference committee and could be sent straight to the President. The act was sent to President Johnson on June 26, 1966, and was signed, reluctantly, nine days later- July 4, 1966.

1978- NLRB v. Robbins Tire & Rubber Co.

In the 1978 case NLRB v. Robbins Tire & Rubber Co. the supreme court ruled in favor of transparency over a labor dispute. The National Labor Relations Board had denied Robbins Tire & Rubber Co. of information regarding an investigation claiming exemption under exemption seven, investigatory files.  Justice Marshall delivered the court opinion in which he stated:

“The basic purpose of FOIA is to ensure an informed citizenry, vital to the functioning of a democratic society, needed to check against corruption and to hold the governors accountable to the governed.” (NRLB v. Robbins Tire & Rubber Co., 1978)

Again, Justice Marshall is driving forward the intent of the law, that Americans have a necessity to know what the government is doing. He drives this home with the point that we are all better off when American citizens are knowledgable. With regards to the language used here, Justice Marshall states that FOIA “ensures” the right to know.

1985- Data Center

In 1985 Data Center released a collection of articles entitled The Right to Know highlighting government restriction on information. These were pulled from such sources as the Congressional Record, Oakland Tribune, The Washington Post, The Guardian, Businessweek, and the American Library Association. The purpose of this two volume compilation was to identify “the ways in which barriers are being erected which threaten our access to information.” (Data Center, Preface)

2009- President Obama Reaffirms the FOIA

After being elected to his first term, President Obama set out an initiative for openness and transparency in government as a means to help secure trust in government. He had this to say about the FOIA shortly after taking the oath of office:

The FOIA “should be administered with a clear presumption: In the face of doubt, openness prevails. The Government should not keep information confidential merely because public officials might be embarrassed by disclosure, because errors and failures might be revealed, or because of speculative or abstract fears. Nondisclosure should never be based on an effort to protect the personal interests of Government officials at the expense of those they are supposed to serve.” (Obama, 2009)

President Obama succinctly captured the spirit of the law with this statement. It would seem that many times, executive branch agencies would like to shield themselves from embarrassing controversies by denying the public access to vital information, or information that would help the public keep the administration accountable and in service to the people they serve.

2015- FOIA Improvement Act of 2015

“Before he died in 1997, Moss recalled that he knew from the beginning that the Freedom of Information Act would require continuing change. It would be, he predicted, a never-ending battle.” (Lemov, 69)

Writing in 1994, Branscomb describes one of the issues with FOIA requests as implemented is the fee structure and the delivery method can be burdensome. She describes an incident that happened in 1990 where a consumer lobbying group paid $3000 for a FOIA request that was delivered in “six boxes of computer printouts” rather than in a machine readable computer file (Branscomb, 160); a file would have saved time and money for the agency and the lobbying group. The FOIA Improvement Act of 2015, if it passes, will fix some of these issues, reaffirming what President Obama stated in 2009 “All agencies should use modern technology to inform citizens what is known and done by their government. Disclosure should be timely.” (Obama, 2009)

How FOIA Works

“Under FOIA, any member of the public may request access to Government Information, and FOIA requesters do not have to show a need or reason for seeking information.” (Report on FOIA Improvement Act of 2015, 2) There are 100 executive branch agencies that process FOIA requests, and most agencies now have an online FOIA portal where requesters can access and easily submit a FOIA request, or search for already released FOIA documents. A FOIA request does not require the agency to do the research for you or analyze the data received. All it does is require them to provide access to sought after information unless it is subject to an exemption, which must be clearly stated to the requester in a timely response.

To submit a request, the requester should narrow the scope as much as possible and determine which agency would be the best to submit the request to.  The requester should provide as much detail as possible when submitting a request, and also let the agency know which format in which the information is needed; also be sure to adhere to any specific agency requirements. Because agencies are required to publish frequently requested material (more than three times), it is best to make sure that the information being requested has not already been made available. If the requester is unsure where to start, has a compilation of FOIA data that can be used to generate reports , and can inform a requester or librarian on how to contact various agencies who can provide further assistance.


There are nine exemptions to the FOIA that the government can use to deny access to sought after information. These are:

  1. national defense and foreign policy;
  2. internal personnel rules and practices;
  3. information exempt under other rules;
  4. confidential business information;
  5. executive privilege;
  6. personal privacy;
  7. investigatory files;
  8. financial institution reports- regulatory agencies; and
  9. geological and geophysical information and data.

If a requester does receive a letter claiming an exemption this should not be viewed as an absolute no. The requester may file an appeal to the Office of Information Policy, formerly the Office of Information and Privacy, at the Justice Department. If the appeal process does not work, the requester does have the right to sue the government in federal court as a last resort to release the information. (Henry, 12-13)

Records Required for Release- Proactive Disclosures

Certain types of records are required to be released proactively under subsection (a)(2) of 5 U.S.C. § 552. These include:

  1. final opinions and orders made in the adjudication of cases;
  2. final statements of policy and interpretations which have not been published in the Federal Register;
  3. administrative staff manuals and instructions to staff that affect members of the public;
  4. copies of records that have been the subject of a FOIA requests received by the agency, the amount of time taken to process requests, the total amount of fees collected by the agency, information regarding the backlog of pending requests, and other information about the agency’s handling of FOIA requests. ( 5 U.S.C. § 552 (a)(2))

It may be helpful to begin your information search by exploring the FOIA reading room of various agencies and departments, or searching for information on

Issues Confronting the FOIA

In his 1964 book Freedom or Secrecy, James Russell Wiggins made the assertion that “the more a government becomes secret, the less it remains free” summarizing the battle over the right of the governed to information about, and from, the government. Continual improvements to the law are good and healthy because they continue to shed more light on what the government does on our behalf. In this unique way, government reflects the nature of the people it serves.

Though the exemptions are often justifiable, when they are relied on too heavily, and unnecessarily, they defeat the spirit of the law. “There is a growing and troubling trend towards relying on these discretionary exemptions to withhold large swaths of Government information, even though no harm would result from disclosure.” (Report on FOIA Improvement Act of 2015, 3) It is good that Congress is doing something to ensure the continued access to government information and combat any prohibitions that are arising now, or will arise in the future, by seeking to improve the FOIA.

Sometimes the situation is unclear regarding information, and new legislation can help supply clearer guidance. This was reaffirmed in the Report on FOIA Improvement Act of 2015 where on page three the Committee on the Judiciary found that

“agencies need clearer guidance regarding when to withhold information covered by a discretionary FOIA exemption. Codification of this policy also makes clear that FOIA, under any administration, should be approached with a presumption of openness.”

Modern computer technology has aided in the ease in which information can be found, processed, and disseminated, but that does not prevent an agency from playing hardball if it so chooses as with the lobbying group that received six boxes of computer printouts mentioned earlier. Providing the information in a machine readable manner makes the information much easier to sift through for all parties involved.

In 1985 Branscomb wrote that “in virtually all societies, control of and access to information became instruments of power…” (Branscomb, 1) The American system, by virtue of the vastness of it’s laws promoting the opposite, has done well to overcome and prevent this, but even today there are attempts to shroud information with the cloak of government secrecy as can be evidenced by the deletion of a server that may have contained important government records of benefit to a House Select Committee investigation. (Statement Regarding Subpoena Compliance, 2015)

As continued improvements to the law have shown the law is not perfect, but if we keep our eyes on the spirit of the law, rather than on the letter of it, it can be more fruitful to us as a society by allowing us to keep a watchful eye upon the encroaching arms of an overwhelming state that does not necessarily have our best interest at heart.

FOIA and the Library

“Government information belongs to the people, and it is necessary for the citizen and the information professional to exercise their rights of access in order to preserve them. Restriction on information does not necessarily mean that it cannot be obtained. The FOIA is the statute that should be used to challenge that restriction so that the users’ informational requirements are better served.” (Mount, 149-150)

Without knowing why we have access to information, and the means to acquire it from our government, the library cannot effectively serve the public’s information need in that area.  It would serve the Federal Depository Library Program (FDLP) well to catalog their own copies of FOIA released documents and housing them on their own servers, an example of which can be seen in the National Security Archives hosted at George Washington University’s Gelman Library.

DOJ Pulls Item Out of Libraries

After the Department of Justice pulled a series of publications through theGovernment Printing Office dealing with the attainment of “items that may have been confiscated by the government during an investigation” (Blumenstein, 16) librarians rose up to protest in droves. The American Library Association even submitted a FOIA request on why “DOJ requested that documents that have been available for as long as four years be removed.” (Blumenstein, 16) In the end, it was decided that the books could stay in the FDLP because they were not sensitive enough for an exemption; nonetheless, the libraries battle for access to information was an important stance.

Privacy of FOIA Requesters

Sarah Shik Lamdan, in her article Why library cards offer more privacy rights than proof of citizenship: Librarian ethics and Freedom of Information Act requester policies, explains why librarians take umbrage when user privacy is being asked to be violated. She explores the historical, philosophical, ethical, and legal underpinnings of major library positions, and has a section in the paper on how FOIA requestors lack basic privacy protection after their requests because the nature of their request is now publicly available information. (Lamdan, 135) She concluded that:

“The goal of FOIA is not to hide information, but to reveal it. However, a line must be drawn in revealing government information to the public to protect those requesting the information, in order to keep the flow of information open and the government a welcoming center for inquiry.”

The question that arises from this is how should agencies regard the information of their FOIA requesters? Could they take a cue from their librarian friends and not keep personally identifiable records after the requested information is delivered?

Librarian’s Skillset and the FOIA

Richard Peltz, writing for the University of Arkansas at Little Rock law review, addresses how the FOIA would not be possible without the skills which  librarians and archivists possess, namely records retention and access.

“Although investigative journalism and the “right to know” lead to Pulitzer Prizes and riveting revelations of government scandal, it is humble records retention that lurks behind the curtains and puts on the show. For without an obligation on government to retain records of its affairs, there is nothing for the journalist to investigate, nothing for the public to learn” (Peltz, 175)

Librarians working in federal agencies can aid ease of findability by promoting good information management tools and records management  in their respective agencies.

He even discusses a problem readily known to many in the information world when describing how electronic records preservation is “no panacea” (Peltz, 176); one of the largest issues facing electronic records management is the constant change of computer technology, or “impermanence” (Peltz, 197). Librarians can help facilitate in the electronic preservation of government records with the knowledge of file format guidelines that are sustainable. Without some kind of record management system in place, the FOIA loses it’s ability to function, or as Peltz stated, “a freedom of information system can only be as strong as its companion records retention program.” (Peltz, 177)

DHS pulls document; ALA responds

In 2003, the Department of Homeland Security pulled the document Hazardous Materials Emergency Plans off of the shelves of libraries in Ohio. (ALA, 2003a) Due to this and other similar incidents, the ALA established a task force on the Restrictions on Access to Government Information which released a report on June 9th of 2003 with ten recommendations for promoting, preserving, and securing access to government information. The report concludes with the statement:

“In light of restrictions and access to and removal of government information in the aftermath of September 11, 2001 recommended that ALA investigate various library-based models for distributing long term access to government information as a mechanism for assuring that information withdrawn from public access is not forever lost.” (ALA, 2003b)

I have not done research to see if there was any follow up to these recommendations, but that could be a possibility for further research.


Libraries have long served as  defenders of access to information. The FOIA provides libraries with another means of preserving and nurturing our cultural values of open discussion, public participation in government, and rational inquiry while at the same time providing privacy protections and security measures for the government to act on our behalf. The public discussion on the freedom of information is an important debate that must continue to be had so that a free people can maintain their right to self governance.


ALA (2003a). Homeland security agents pull Ohio libraries’ haz-mat documents. American Library Association. American Library Association Newsletter

ALA (2003b). Committee on legislation and government documents round table task force on Restrictions on Access to Government Information. Documents to the People, 31, 29-35.

Blumenstein, L., & Oder, N. (2004). Recalled government papers prompt librarian protest, then reversal. Library Journal, 129(14), 16-17.

Branscomb, A. W. (1994). Who owns information?: From privacy to public access. New York: Basic Books.

Congressional Quarterly Service, 1956, 1738. Found in: Lemov (2011) p. 57

Cross, H. L. (1953). The People’s right to know; legal access to public records and proceedings. New York: Columbia University Press.

Cooper, K. (1956). The Right to Know: An Exposition of the Evils of News Suppression and Propaganda. New York: Farrar, Strauss & Cudahy. xii-xiii

Henry, C. L. (Ed.). (2003). Freedom of Information Act. New York: Novinka Books.

Horn, Z. (Ed.). (1985). The Right to Know. Oakland, CA: Data Center.

U.S. House of Representatives. (1956). The Right of Congress to Obtain Information from the Executive and from Other Agencies of the Federal Government: Study by the Staff. Washington D.C.: Government Printing Office.

Ladd, B. (1968). Crisis in Credibility. New York: The New American Library. 190

Lamdan, S. S. (2013). Why library cards offer more privacy rights than proof of citizenship: Librarian ethics and freedom of information act requestor policies. Government Information Quarterly, 30(2), 131.

Lemov, M. R. (2011). People’s Warrior: John Moss and the Fight for Freedom of Information and Consumer Rights. Lanham, Md: Rowman & Littlefield.

Madison, J. (1953). Letter to W.T. Barry, 4 August 1822. In S. Padover (Ed.), The Complete Madison (p. 337). New York: Harper & Brothers.

Mount, E., & Newman, W. B. (1985). Top Secret/Trade secret: Accessing and safeguarding restricted information. New York: Neal-Schuman Publishers.

National Labor Relations Board v. Robbins Tire & Rubber Co. 437 U.S. 214 (1978).

Obama, B. (2009). The White House: Office of the press secretary. Presidential Studies Quarterly, 39(3), 429-430.

Peltz, R. J. (2006). Arkansas’s public records retention program: Finding the FOIA’s absent partner. University of Arkansas at Little Rock Law Review, 28, 175.

U.S. House of Representatives Select Committee on Benghazi. (2015). Statement regarding subpoena compliance and server determination by former secretary of state Hillary Clinton.

U.S. Senate, Committee on the Judiciary. (2015). Senate report 114-4 – FOIA IMPROVEMENT ACT OF 2015. ( No. 114-4). Washington, D.C.: Government Printing Office.

Wiggins, J. R. (1964). Freedom or Secrecy (Revised Edition ed.). New York: Oxford University Press. p. xi



In this report on a recent conference he attended called Computers in Libraries, the author would like to first give credence to the origin of the thoughts that are compiled herein.  This report serves as an abstract of the Computers in Libraries Conference held at the Washington Hilton.  A digital recording of the conference was done for the keynotes and some of the breakout sessions.  Any quotes used in this report, were recorded as the author heard them and were not double checked against a transcript of the event or against the digital recording.


April 27, 2015

Keynote 1: Continuous Innovation & Transformation

Steve DenningAuthor, The Leader’s Guide to Radical Management, The Leader’s Guide to Storytelling, & others

The focus of Denning’s talk was on the need to transform how we, as librarians, approach the library and think about our working environment. He pointed out that the computer age has seen all kinds of innovation in businesses, with new styles replacing earlier versions (i.e. taxis with Uber and video stores with Netflix). As he said, “The computer age is not primarily about computerization; the computer age is about the change in mindset.” With the change from computer technology has come a change in managerial approaches. Denning contrasted the traditional model with what he referred to as a “creative economy.” Traditional management required individuals to report to bosses, reflected a vertical ideology, and had trouble coping with rapid change. In contrast, the creative economy, as Denning envisions it, is made up of self organizing teams that engage with customers, reflect a horizontal ideology, add value to the roles of customer, and give everyone in the organization a direct role with the customer. The internet created a huge shift in the marketplace which is necessitating this change; this can be reflected in changing economics as well. The old and new models have trouble fitting together and you cannot incorporate the new model into the old. Denning listed four reasons that the change will not be easy: 1.) shift in goal- having to delight users and customers; 2.) paradigm shift in management; 3.) partial fixes don’t work- “hierarchical bureaucracy is like a morphing virus”; and 4.) many elements reinforce the status quo (e.g. business schools training new leaders according to the old model). So the question to keep in mind is “What is the future of libraries?” To address this question Denning provided three wrong answers and five right approaches, with the hint to ask the right questions. The three wrong answers to what is the future of libraries are: to computerize existing library services, use computers to save money, and build apps. He included apps because they are a waste of money since they generally fail to add value to library customers. The five right approaches to the question are: How can we delight our users/customers?, How can we manage our library?, What will make things better, faster, cheaper, more mobile, more convenient, or more personalized for our users?, What needs could librarians meet that users haven’t thought of?, and What sorts of things do users already love that we can do more of sooner, better, and faster?. Denning concluded his speech with two quotes: “The future is already here. It’s just unevenly distributed.”- William Gibson and “The real voyage of discovery consists, not in finding new landscapes, but in having new eyes.”- Marcel Proust

Super Searcher Tips & Tools:

Mary Ellen Bates, Principal, Bates Information Services, Inc.

Bates provided us with numerous tips for searching the internet, but covered social media in particular, as a way to expand our research services. She began by discussing “the most dangerous thing in your pocket or purse,” aka your phone. The phone allows you to speak directly into it (assuming you have Apple’s Siri, Android’s Google Now, or Windows’ Cortana) which has greatly increased the use of natural language queries. Bates said that we should keep in mind that google optimizes search results for the average search, and as our search behavior changes by speaking into our devices this will change the way Google, Bing, and other search engines respond. Another aspect of this technological shift has come with Google revamping it’s search algorithm to favor mobile optimization, or what Bates referred to as “Mobilegeddon.”

Here is a list of tools that Bates  suggested for optimizing searches:

  • Microsoft Academic: Great for insight, key conferences, Key journals, keywords (find other relevant words, see who is saying what, and data mine for free).
  • instya: pre-selects search tools for web, video, news images, social sites, etc.  Good reminder for us to look in multiple sources.
  • Search social media on Google: Ex: site: name; use an * to catch middle initials; add other common info to find persons
  • MentionMapp: A twitter app that allows users to discover more about a person by creating a dynamic network map. Allows you to explore connections.
  • Twitter allows users to:
    • Monitor drug side effects: See what people are saying about a particular drug (i.e.  #accutaneprobz) or about a particular medication or pharmaceutical company  (i.e. #zoloft or #pfizer). This strategy also enables healthcare workers to monitor and track food poisoning. This goes to show how organizations are using twitter for intelligence.
    • Hack searches by searching for topics that have been retweeted a certain number of times (min_retweets:n) or favorited a certain number of times (min_faves:n).
    • Search for a url, even if it is shortened. This can be good for keeping track of a press release.
  • Google Hacks:
    • Google Trends: ID search terms that indicate ideas or explore regional interests.
    • Look for databases by using: {topic} database or {topic} “data set”
  • BING only:
    • ID outgoing links from a site or domain: use “linkfromdomain:
    • Find pages that link to a file type and contain a topic: (e.g.  filetype: pdf CUA philosophy)
    • Image Match: located at the bottom of an image search, this allows you to find similar images without having to scroll back through an endless list.
  • Biznar: a deep web search that allows users to see what people are talking about and get a vision for what is out there.

Web Redesign for Better UX 

Elaine Myer– User experience librarian, MCLS- Midwest Collaborative for Library Services

“User Experience’ encompases all aspects of the patrons interactions with the library, its services and its products.”- Jakob Nielsen & Don Norman

One way that we can look at our websites is like our “online branch,” which in many ways can be more important than the physical branch and still needs staff to be maintained. When doing a website redesign, Myer broke it down into six sections: discovery, definition, site structure and content, visual design, site development, testing and site review, and the launch. It is important to find out what people want and what they don’t want in your site, and what will be most used and least used. Before beginning take an evaluation of your skills by thinking about what you need to know, what you would like to learn, and what you will need help from consultants on. Do an heuristic review of the site before it goes live and seek feedback from your users. Go into the community to see what people want. This can be done by an online survey, or by going out to a local grocery store to meet people and seek suggestions. Gather statistics on what patrons are using most and least. During the usability testing test various groups of users, make sure users can operate the whole website, and ask for satisfaction ratings with their experience. During the research and planning stage, it is important to define the following for the website: purpose/ goals of site, branding/perception, website specifications, social media/ SEO strategy, project brief/RFI/RFP, content editing, and the project plan. When constructing the site, and doing the information architecture, develop a wireframe that can be improved on as the project moves along. You can also do graphic design mockups to see what user think about comparative concepts. When developing your website, make it responsive, do quality assurance testing, get feedback, look at the technical foundation for other websites, do prototypes. One place to develop strategies is on


Computer Science and Coding in the classroom and library

Gretchen LeGrand and Maya Bery

Gretchen LeGrand Code in the Schools-

Computer science is an important skill in today’s world, and we need to get kids experience in coding from an early age. Where do libraries fit in? Libraries are a place where kids can have access to these skills and provide them with opportunities to learn. LeGrand highlighted several tools/programs that libraries can provide access to for children. They are:

  • Squishy Circuits: teaches electrical engineering; developed by the University of St. Thomas; good for small hands; teaches simple concepts like series and parallel.
  • Paper Circuits: What you need-  paper, copper foil tape, LEDs, phtoresistors, push/switch button, coin cell batteries, and glue.
  • Soft Circuits: What you need- conductive thread, LEDs, coinc cell batteries, needles, & felt. One place to purchase this is sparkfun. One thing that can be done easily is a light up bookmark.
  • Snap Circuits: easy to use toy to teach children circuits
  • Soldering: Elenco sells learn to solder and practice kits. Soldering irons are inexpensive.
  • Programmable circuits: One place to purchase is Makey Makey. They are fun and plug directly into a computer.
  • Arduino: development board for microcomputer, uses C based language, endless tinkering and coding, Ardusat can program satellite to run experiments.
  • Lilypad Arduino: make wearable eTextiles, programmable  soft circuits. Sew Electric is a book that has many great ideas for projects.
  • Raspberry Pi: build a basic computer using raspberry OS.

Maya Bery: Coding in the Classroom

“Coding is a new form of literacy.” – NPR’s Marketplace, Feb 20, 2015

The power lies in knowing how they work, and knowing how to create them. We should care about coding in the classroom because it pushes students into the zone of proximal development and allows students to interact with one another.  We hosted an Hour of Code in order to provide access for and to teach kids how to code. Hour of Code uses block based coding to represent java based commands and is more like an interactive game where you drag and drop blocks. It is something that kids get excited about and provides them with immediate feedback. Learning how to do this can give kids confidence. Other tools that Bery suggested for teaching young students include:

  • Scratch: a website from MIT that lets users see inside projects, allows kids to play, and is great for supplementing instruction.
  • Lightbot by Hour of Code: uses symbols to teach coding, is really easy to figure out, and allows users to test themselves.
  • Tynker: There is a paid or a free version of this, but it is another fun and easy way for kids to learn programming. There are free android and iPad tablet apps with structured activities, defined skill sets. For teachers, it also has student management ability and a gradebook.
  • Mozilla webmaker: is a new experiment from Mozilla that lets users explore, learn, and create code.
  • Other online coding resources include: KHAN academy, #yeswecode, and Intel Computer Clubhouse Networks.


Drupal People: Using Drupal 7 to serve the mission of the Maryland People’s Law Library

Dave Pantze, Pat Pathade, & Tim Young

This session provided insight on how the Maryland People’s Law Library (MPLL)used Drupal to provide access to Marylanders on their legal system. Though the MPLL is not a physicaL library, Pantze wanted us to realize that a website can be a library if you think of it as a place for storing information. The MPLL is a way to provide access to information in a plain english version of the law. Their mission is to educate Marylanders about the Civil and Legal issues for self representation. The purpose of the site is to  connect people with an attorney and provide an overview of how the law works in plain english on an encyclopedia of legal topics. They also have links to the statutes to provide access to what the law actually states. Google analytics in installed on the site. There is a need to move to a mobile friendly version. The site is available offline for persons already incarcerated. The project partners with legal communities, librarians, and educators and are helped by Fantail, Pat Pathade, which has enabled them with full tracking. They approached the design by wanting to get the end user to the best, most up to date, information in the most user friendly form possible. The project developers wanted to have as little walls of text as possible because people tend not to look at it. Having a little legal knowledge can be dangerous, that is where the Maryland People’s Law Library can help. The original design of the project was already on Drupal, but it needed to be updated to Drupal 7, and not custom code was used for the updates. They used Adaptive Theme to create a custom responsive design. They utilize the National Subject Matter Index for cataloging purposes and to tag articles.  Security patches are applied routinely. Search functionality is important, and to aid their users the developers incorporated Apache Solr Search. Drupal provides support for multilingual content with the aid of Lingotek Translation.

April 28, 2015

Keynote 2: Creating a New Nostalgia

Dialogue with:David Ferriero, Archivist of the United States, &  John Palfrey,Head of School, Phillips Academy Author of BiblioTech; President of the Board, Digital Public Library of America

“Even though there are other ways to get information…we still need libraries.” They are more important than ever. As U.S. citizens, we have a literal and moral obligation to support libraries. In lots of communities there is a sense that libraries served a purpose… there is a bigger purpose for libraries than people tend to see. There is an expectation for libraries to do more than ever. The internet has not made everything digital, but it has made libraries more potent. We have to keep building an infrastructure. A new nostalgia is developing that will help libraries persist in the future by combining the virtual and the physical. Libraries have always been in the business of meeting the needs of our customers. Tools are successful when we have humans test them. Libraries also need to continue developing their workforce in the digital age. Many of the people needed to meet this transition are already here. Library schools can be a part of that. Librarians can think of themselves as network actors. Libraries, and librarians, should think about the public interest and what it is they want to build. Think about what the library can be in the digital era.

There is a growing digital divide in societies that can be summarized as a digital literacy and and information literacy gap. There is a difference between having access to technology and having skills to use it. The divide is more subtle than it once was with the pervasive nature of mobile technology, particularly smartphones. It is hard to do homework on a mobile phone. Palfrey, who is head of the Digital Public Library of America (DPLA) Board of Directors,  believes that as we digitize materials we will all come up into a system that will be open access. His hope is that the DPLA will serve as a rising tide that lifts all boats. Libraries engage, inform, and delight in a democratic system, and “our flavor of participatory democracy relies on libraries.” In schools, teachers are not well prepared for teaching digital literacy, and there is a correlation between having a good library and good performance. School librarians are just as important as teachers.  There are opportunities for collaboration between public and school libraries. Palfrey fears “for libraries getting outpaced,” and believes that they need to get an app.

The public library is where many people are getting their internet. With respect to the physical space, we can expand the audience for libraries. There are other ways to see the environment such as by having after school programs or by meeting the needs of the community with needs outside of the library. Libraries can be a huge asset as a natural partner for businesses. They are also a great place to study for kids by creating knowledge together. We give children something wonderful when we give them libraries. The spatial model for libraries in the digital era should be closer to community centers. Libraries are more than a community center. Gradually, there will be a reduction in physical space and the digital space will take more creativity. We will need to get information architects into the design process. Libraries will also need to think about physical space for their digital library. The law can also be a stumbling block for libraries, particularly with respect to copyright. There is a need for copyright reform. For example, once a library pays for a physical book they own that book; this is not the case for ebooks because libraries rent them instead of purchasing them outright. There is an effort to revise section 108 of copyright law for libraries and archives.


Analytics & Big Data: Terms & Tools for Info Pros

Dr. Frank Cervone School of Public Health, University of Illinois at Chicago

What is analytics and big data about and how is it implemented? There is a lot of confusion. When talking about big data, we are referencing an incomprehensible amount of data. There isn’t consistency in the amount of big data or what it means. There are huge amounts of real time data that need to be analyzed. Big data changes some of our fundamental conceptions about how we know things, and analytics is different than statistics. Analytics tells us what is happening, it does not tell us why. Big data can help us to understand patterns by revealing hidden correlations. With big data, we can visualize what this looks like (i.e. google flu trends). The whole concept of big data started with research done at google through the collection of real time data that needed to be processed and visualized.

Hadoop is one program that allows users to comprehend big data.  It is a series of open source products that process big data; it is not a traditional open source management system. It has a very complicated ecosystem where information goes into a central cluster and lower level servers do the processing. The core of big data is the reducing process, and computers need to work in tandem to process data. The map reducing process takes data distributed throughout the cluster and figures out how it should be organized and then read the results from key of data. Analytics help us understand what is happening. Dr. Cervone then went into explaining various Hadoop tools:

  • Zookeeper: distributes the work that happens throughout.
  • Yarn Mapreduce: a resource negotiator
  • Flume: ingests real time data; holds the data to be sent out; as real time data comes in, it is batched up
  • Scoop: Collects data in a batched process; not real time data; collected periodically; uses structured data
  • Hive: provides SQL like language to send unstructured data into a relational database
  • Pig: data processing language for unstructured data; groups data by variables; a basic language; used for loading and distributing data
  • Oozie: allows for the setup of workflow; similar to data mining
  • Mahout: the learning process of a statistical ecosystem; develops classification system
  • Ambari: a control panel

Kiosks & Interactive Displays: Patron Interaction

Amanda Goodman

Libraries refer to a lot of different things as Kiosks so it is important to know the purpose of the kiosk before purchasing one. There are three broad purposes for kiosks in a library: directional, informational, and functional. Directional can include floor maps or other non dynamic pieces of information on where to find things. Informational can help users find live things. Lastly, functional kiosks can showcase events, show users how to do something, or even serve as a video reference desk. With respect to content: events need to be kept up to date, librarians should know who is responsible for content, it should be known who is responsible for pushing out the content onto the displays, and how long the content will stay up. Information can be made hyperlocal to people coming to particular programs and events. The features that will be added to the kiosk will depend on budget, interest, and ability to update. One way to break down content is by 30% general and 70% site specific content. When designing anything it is imperative to bear in mind accessibility. Throughout the design process, have users come in to test the design and provide feedback. When doing user tests, stress that the testing is of the system and not the user. Other advice for user testing includes: sticking to a script, make sure tests are the same as possible, work in teams of two, encourage thinking out loud, ask to film hands, and offer compensation. Common resources for kiosks include: hardware (tvs, monitors, tablets, mac minis), paid software (coolsign, firesign, visix, and screenly), free software (signage studio, concerto,xibo, html templates, and intiutface), other software (wayfinding by UC Davis, Mapplic, and wordpress digital signage).  Other advice for libraries thinking about installing kiosks included not putting the kiosks in direct sunlight, making sure that maps are oriented towards the building, and enable sms feature to phone or email.

Goodman also shared with us some unique Kiosks that she had come across:


April 29

Keynote 3: Technology & Libraries: Now & Into the Future

Mary Augusta Thomas: Deputy Director Smithsonian Institution Libraries

We can look back and manage the past- know what it is and we can know the future. Her personal thoughts on the future are that we must discuss technology and change, we need to keep the libraries, that practices have changed and people are working differently, new fields emerge rapidly, and that one of the reasons we keep “the stuff” is because we don’t know what we will find. Knowing our history is important, and knowledge management need to include history. The history of the Smithsonian includes over 170 years of scientific exploration and maintaining a wide body of objects. Their founding mission for the institution was “to found at Washington, under the name of the Smithsonian Institution, an establishment for the increase and diffusion of knowledge among men.” Librarians must be willing to find out what works now, and what worked in the past, to find out what will work in the future. Smithsonian Research Online supports the research of the institution and helps with grants. The libraries are offering to maintain the records of the researchers. Smithsonian libraries are publicly available. The libraries serve as a partner in communities. “Future librarians will have highly developed skills to collaborate and cooperate.” Libraries need to learn how to tap into the user community as it is learning. We need to manage the knowledge of community and it’s history. We can develop vocabularies  based in people’s experience and culture. Library print collections are moving from books and shelves to special collections. The United States government has, since it’s inception, received gifts from all over the world, and many of them are stored in the Smithsonian Institution. In the library of the future, the way we look at books will change. Images are a challenge, but technology will help us. Illustrated books are often the only records of early images. We don’t know how people will approach our material. “Technology will be important as libraries move into the future, as it has always been.” We need to ask people what it is they really want to know (e.g. scientists really want linked data, but is that how they are asking for it?) We may want to  be slightly disorganized for multiple access points. “Our strong public face is our website,” and we need to give up ownership in favor of access. The library can become an “information commons” area or even an office space. Fullfilling our mission as librarians makes us want to be better.


Creativity & Innovation for Libraries

Matthew Hamilton

Makerspaces and maker movements are important for libraries; Hamilton recommended reading Makers by Chris Anderson. It is important to begin by doing research and identifying the needs of the community. One thing Hamilton’s library did before opening their makerspace was to design a staff development day where they broke the library into groups and modeled experiences, though it is ok to learn alongside the customers. Libraries could allow for curricular programming and development or searching out for community volunteers to work on projects. He recommended the article Is it time to rebuild and retool public libraries and make techshops?  and suggested that the key role of libraries is to fill gap.  When designing policies, libraries should be flexible and think about if their projects will require waivers. The Chicago Public Library has a report on their process of designing a makerspace and implementing programs entitled Making to Learn: What the Chicago Public Library and it’s patrons are learning as new members of the maker movement. Hamilton’s library opened up their makerspace to intergenerational programming. The community built relationships with the staff. He spoke of a spiral of learning that included imagine, create, play, share, reflect, and then repeating the steps. Connected learning is at the center of friendships in the community and is part of the academic and learning environment. Hamilton’s library is building the space, and hoping that they will come. Libraries have the opportunity to become informal learning spaces, and, since librarians are professional learners and professional researchers, libraries have a rich base of content to facilitate self education with librarian’s help. Libraries hold a trusted place in the community because they make people feel comfortable since they are welcome, and accessible, to all. Anyone is free to come and learn.

Some of the challenges with makerspaces in libraries include the amount of staff time it takes to develop skills, understanding what we are doing (the scope of the makerspace), and connecting to the community. The last challenge can be mediated by reaching out to other organizations in the community that are doing similar things. He recommended searching The Connectory for ideas on STEM related programs, sharing projects on, and advertising library maker programs on Another great place to check for ideas is on and Libraries and Maker Culture: A Resource Guide. As with anything, there is a cost involved in building makerspaces and designing programs. Hamilton recommended finding grant funding, seeing if citizens will help establish spaces, finding the needs of the business community to see if they will pay for community training, or trying crowdfunding. Crowdfunding can be more trouble than it is worth, and it may not be advantageous to pursue this route.   Doing a demonstration is not learning, but it can drum up media buzz. It is a good idea to do large projects over many weeks. After the maker program is complete, libraries should undertake the arduous task of doing assessments and evaluations to see how they measured.


Social Media & Mobile apps: Tips & Tools for Innovative Services

Cheryl Peltier-Davis

The benefits of doing social media for libraries include delivering highly customized value added services, instant implementation, and performing specific tasks without downloading any software. Peltier-Davis listed the following as areas of concern for libraries doing social media: accuracy of information, privacy and security issues, ability of current iteration/versions, and evaluation before implementation. To work your way to social media success, it is important to know why the library is doing it, what value will the library be adding to their users, how they want to interact and network, and how will the library stay informed and inform their users. She then described various tools that libraries and librarians could utilize:


Tech Gadget Goodness:Learning from CES

Brian Pichman

Brian Pichman had the opportunity to visit the Consumer Electronics Show this year in Las Vegas in which he used the opportunity to advocate for libraries and their participation with technology. He encouraged us to attend because it is a great chance to experience the technology that is available in the market and to encourage technology in libraries. Most people think that libraries are important. While there, ask questions such as: Have you considered working with libraries?, Do you value libraries?, Would you consider letting a library beta test your product?, and  Can you see your product in a library?.  He encouraged us to see if companies would be willing to allow libraries to showcase their products as a benefit to them of free advertising and a benefit to the community with learning new technologies. Pichman then shared with us some of the great technology that he was able to see and play around with including:


Innovative Funding Alternatives

Brian Pichman

There is an art of asking for funding help, but you must begin with a clear project in mind and should also have a developed business plan. Things to have ready include a completed website, a network of people to support you, and a brand. Crowdfunding is not free. He recommended checking out Dan Shapiro’s blog for entrepreneurial advice.  When doing crowdfunding know the amount that needs to be raised, keep rewards simple, have a short (less than five minutes) video, and ask clearly for what is needed. After everything is set up and launched use social media to drive traffic to your campaign. This is where the large network of support becomes crucial. Remember, people are trusting you with their money so you must be able to explain everything. Know the difference between people who want your product and people who believe in your idea, and target your campaign to each. Keep your backers informed of any updates, and stay engaged with them. For branding purposes things to keep in mind include: knowing your style, knowing your skills, knowing what you do better than anyone else, knowing what value add to your customers, and knowing how to get people to research you.

Social media is about networking, and to do innovative funding you will need a strong network. Make sure people know who you are and support you. Identify your users and consumers. Social media is a lot of work. Link your brand to your website. Do analytics to measure impact. One great idea is to schedule posts. People are more engaged with photos generally speaking, so if you can have a photo, it will take your campaign further. Share, recommend, and endorse others. Continue building your image by reaching out to companies that you don’t know. If you want to know something, ask! Reach out to vendors, and don’t be afraid to work up their organizational chart. Build relationships with them, and talk about the things you are doing. Share your ideas and visions to see how they can help. There are two ways to ask questions: directly and indirectly. Never take the first price offered from a company, and, if you need to,  regroup with them at a later time.

The Anatomy of a Book- Part 1


Authors Note: This is part one in a multiple part series on the anatomy of the book. This part will talk about the basics of books including materials and formats, next one will identify parts of the book itself.

View of Beinecke Rare Book Library's Cube of Books. (Source Simon King, CC BY-NC-ND 2.0) View of Beinecke Rare Book Library’s Cube of Books. (Source Simon King Flickr, CC BY-NC-ND 2.0)

When I got to library school I may have loved books and reading but damned if I had no idea what made up a book. Worse for me, my first days on campus were started in a rare book library where I quickly learned through a crash course of book history. My lack of knowledge for the parts of the book became quickly clear to me, and so, as part of a two part post, I’d like to impart what I’ve learned about the anatomy of books to future and current (and, hey, former as…

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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.


Herbert Putnam: The Man with the Responsible Eye

Herbert Putnam- Previous Librarian of Congress- Image from LoC

There are many visionaries in the library world, and each has brought their own ideas into how to shape and better the profession. Herbert Putnam is one such man, and as the 8th Librarian of Congress, serving from 1899-1939, his legacy has reached far and wide. This presentation pays homage to him.

Ethics, Privacy Law, and the Library

S Conger et al make the claim that “Globally, privacy law is not a settled issue;” (S Conger et al p. 402)  they then go on to show the differences between multiple countries or groups of countries in terms fo privacy law. I would like clarification on this topic, to understand further what they mean.  For instance, the Constitution of the United States was ratified in 1791, and in this document is one of the major underpinnings of privacy rights in the United States.  To quote  the fourth amendment for our discussion here:

“The right of the people to be secure in their persons, houses, papers, and effects, against unreasonable searches and seizures, shall not be violated, and no warrants shall issue, but upon probable cause, supported by oath or affirmation, and particularly describing the place to be searched, and the persons or things to be seized.” (U.S. Const Amend. IV)

Now, it is evident from the text of the amendment that this limits what the government can do with respect to intrusion on personal privacy, but the importance of this in the context of privacy laws is this: we ought to be secure in our persons, including electronically. So this is an ethical question not a legislative- meaning that we need to address how people act, and not address it as a matter of legislation.  I would argue strongly that new laws will not make people more moral, and what good is a new law if the old one’s are not respected by, and benefit, all members of a society?

The reason I started the post out with this manner is to address the nature of the beast of the online self with respect to privacy.  Each of us should be secure in our persons, and not fear that an ethical breach will occur, because as a society we should trust one another. I know this does not address the transnational/corporate arguments of S Conger et al’s paper, but it all must be viewed in the context of simplicity; it is the idea of personal freedom that ought to be protected.

S Conger et al explore the four different levels of relationships between online parties, or entities. The first level “is the individual with his personal information. The second party is a vendor/provider with whom the first party engages in a transaction to obtain benefits.” (S Conger et al p. 404) The second party can only obtain what the first party gives it, and there is always a limit to what a person is willing to reveal online which reaches different individuals at different times; this can be referred to as “perceived reasonableness of data.” (S Conger et al p. 404) The authors go on to speak of a social construct of personal data transactions “in which the individual gives up some amount of privacy in order to obtain benefits” (S Conger et al p. 405); at many times in the article, S Conger et al speak about the “collective good.” The third level in this dynamic of relationships is within the realm of “data-sharing partners” (S Conger et al p. 406) such as Experian and  governments (mentioned in numerous places within S Conger et al’s article). S Conger et al state that “legally ambiguous methods used by some third parties include pretexting, that is, posing as a customer to obtain information, using spyware to collect data and click streams, and repurposing collected data without permission.” (S Conger et al p. 406) The fourth party described in this relationship of entities is the “illegal entities.” This last list includes: “hackers, thieves, and third party employees who violate company policy.” (S Conger et al p. 406)  The fourth party is what is at the heart of the privacy debate, because it is this group which sows the most seeds of mistrust for which privacy issues must be addressed. For instance “ More than 550 million records including personal identifying information have been breached since 2005 in the USA, while reported global losses add another 200 million records.” (S Conger et al p. 407)  If you haven’t heard of businesses like LifeLock yet, please look into them for your own personal data protection. No system is perfect, but having someone else protect your online identity and privacy may just be worth looking into. (Note: I do not currently, nor have I ever worked for LifeLock.)

S Conger et al proceed to discuss four emerging technologies and their impact on personal information privacy: GPS, RFID, Smart motes, and bio-organisms (the links go to articles I found pertaining to the selected topic). “Characteristics of the emerging technologies that pose threats to privacy relate to their ubiquity, invisibility, invasiveness, collectability of heretofore uncollectible information, programmability and wireless network accessibility.” (S Conger et al p. 409)

It is hard to extrapolate the real significance of this article for libraries, except that we should be highly in tune with ethical actions and Personal Information Privacy. Within that mindset, libraries must think about such things as user accounts, patron data, Digital Rights Management (Zimerman p. 95), and cloud computing (Bansode and Pujar p. 506).

Do you ever feel like…

Cloud computing provides one of the easiest targtes for the fourth party described by S Conger et al. “Even though there are some concerns in using cloud services such as privacy, security, etc., some of the libraries have already embraced this new technology to run some of their services.” (Bansode and Pujar p. 506)  Bansode and Pujar provide an excellent analysis of different types of cloud computing and cloud computing initiatives which highlight the benefits of various cloud computing services. I would like to look at a disadvantage of cloud computing that they go over in their article: data security and privacy.

“The biggest concerns about cloud computing are security and privacy, especially if the organisations are dealing with sensitive data such as credit card information of customers. If the proper security model is not yet in place, then  the data stored on the cloud is vulnerable to attacks from viruses, theft, etc. In addition to that, since the services are offered over the Internet it is very difficult to assess the physical location of servers and software and security audit is hard to undertake.” (Bansode and Pujar p. 510)

So, what are the roles of information professionals in dealing with the issues and challenges. I think the biggest thing we can take away from this discussion, though it was brief, is that we must be concerned for the other’s data privacy and protection.  As an institution, the library, it is our duty to meet the privacy needs of our patrons and keep them informed of their rights to the best of our ability and understanding. We should also, when optimal, provide information literacy sessions on online privacy, even if it is incorporated into the user’s regular library experience.