The Role of GIS Librarians

Olivia Harne


Most research, technology, and articles created about geographic information systems gear their focus on the use of geospatial data for implementation, with little devoted to the mentality of preserving this data for the future. While focusing on implementation may seem the most necessary in the short-term, when looking at the development of geographic technology from  a historical viewpoint, we see that saving geospatial data in libraries – to contextualize and improve upon current transportation, architecture, and other planning – is necessary. We focus on flashier titles, orienting GIS toward geospatial developer, analyst, or planner, while simultaneously overlooking GIS librarians.

Well this may be apparent, the many colleges in the US have geared their GIS programs towards these corporate and governmental positions, while ignoring preservationist oriented careers and classes.

The learning curve with most GIS software can be lessened with the help of librarians that are able to explain software, recommend useful media, and preserve geospatial data. Being able to simplify and distribute information to the public is in line with library science professional core competencies. Adding onto this, individuals who work with geospatial Information systems may not know how to explain these concepts to students, in a way that is easily accessible.

To further explain this concept, the American Library Association  posted a 2002 research presentation by Tsering Wangyal Shawa, analyzing the place of GIS in public libraries. It examines an important question that still hasn’t been clearly defined. What sort of GIS services should be offered to the public?

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Stanford's Branner Library has dedicated GIS staff.  Photo: Caitlin Dempsey.
Stanford’s Branner Earth Sciences Library has dedicated GIS staff. Photo: Caitlin Dempsey.

Libraries offering GIS services – such as information on mapping, data analysis, and the like – aren’t incredibly common. But those that do have such services do not always have specialized librarians with the education needed to provide these sources. The presentation suggests that this could be due to librarians presuming this topic is too complex. But when services like Google Maps, ArcGIS Online, and location-based applications exist; it seems as though that now more than ever, the general public is learning about the essentials of modern GIS technology.

The presentation does, however, take the time to highlight certain qualities a GIS librarian should have:

  • The GIS Librarian could be a bridge to the future Map Library.
  • The GIS Librarian and the traditional Map Librarian could help each other in moving from just a paper map collection to a digital map or geospatial information center.
  • The GIS Librarian could help the Map Librarian to convert static analog maps to digital georeferenced maps and give patrons endless possibilities of using digital maps.

On top of this, the American Library Association has a document detailing what they feel to be GIS and Metadata Librarian Core Competencies. They claim that, “the role of the map librarian is changing and that new role requires adaptability, knowledge, and initiative to keep map collections dynamic and useful. Map librarians must navigate the world of both print and digital cartographic resources as well as oversee all aspects of the map library, its collections, and services.”

But as we can see from these two files, these geography oriented library services were in focus several years ago, yet the field of GIS continues to grow more complex, more open and – by extension – more accessible to the public. This stagnation on including geospatial information in library settings puts up barriers for those willing to learn more about the subject, but may not have access to expensive software, educators, or the advice of GIS professionals.

About a month ago, a controversial Forbes Op-Ed piece– titled, “Amazon Should Replace Local Libraries to Save Taxpayers Money” (since deleted by Forbes) – highlights that there are still very clear misconceptions amongst the more economically privileged about the need for public educational services. If we’re able to see the need for public libraries, shouldn’t this understanding be extended to GIS, and helping more individuals improve their communities through mapping?

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About the author
Olivia Harne
Olivia Harne.