Despite what you may have heard, libraries are not dead! From the local bookmobile to the Library of Congress, libraries are thriving, feeding a thirst for knowledge that has been going on for thousands of years. Libraries are not merely archives, but dynamic institutions that are growing and discovering innovative methods to incorporate geospatial technologies into their operations. In this article, we’ll explore how libraries are using, teaching and sharing geospatial resources.

“Reading is Fundamental”

Does anyone remember the program, “Reading is Fundamental?” As a boy, I was fortunate to have a local library within walking distance, the Monroe County Public Library in Bloomington, Indiana. Their programs have grown in the last three decades, and when I spoke with a librarian there, I was pleased to know that the library’s mission is continuing and adapting to meet the needs of a new generation.

Other public libraries are also adapting, and incorporating GIS and geospatial technologies into their programs. The Seattle Public Library staff frequently helps patrons set up public AGOL accounts and offers basic tutorials. It’s a wonderful feedback loop—the staff keeps their AGOL skills sharp without formal training, and the patrons learn new skills and possibilities.

The Seattle Public Library Maritz Map Room also recently released their collection of over 40,000 maps and over 100 current and historical atlases into circulation—proving as I stated in my very first article, that the death of the paper map has been greatly exaggerated. Now that the public is allowed to check out these maps for recreational or research use, visitation to the map room has greatly increased, especially as people are itching to get outside. (My librarian friend assured me that these are duplicates, so if they are damaged or lost, they can be replaced.)

Several maps are still reserved for in-library use only, including the amazing Sanborn Fire Insurance Maps, which mapped Seattle’s individual parcels from 1893 to 1959 at a scale of 50 feet to an inch. They have been digitized, but the originals are too valuable to be released into circulation.

At the academic level, many universities have robust GIS programs in their libraries. At the local and municipal level, it is a different story. I called libraries in places I used to live, as well as a few random picks in Albany, Ga. and Albany, N.Y. (I didn’t make it to Zanesville, Ohio.) The general response was “No, we don’t have or use GIS at the library, but we wish we did.” Generally, there isn’t much demand for it, so there is little funding. When people need GIS maps, the libraries typically refer them to the city or the county GIS departments, which have more capacity and more expertise than library staff.

One exception is the Monroe County Public Library in Indiana. They have developed a participatory mapping project, Monroe County Field Notes, to “exhibit history for people who didn’t own cameras or couldn’t read or write.” Participant mappers do research at the parcel level through historical archives, and enter their location along with a text description, using the city and county GIS databases. These are then entered into an Excel database managed by the county library system. The project is nascent, but the ultimate goal is to build a story map showing the history of Bloomington and the surrounding counties.

The MCPL also maintains a geo-coded database of addresses for non-profit organizations that help people in need, with a public-facing map that can be easily accessed from a library computer.

Maps, as we know, are essential to an informed and engaged society, but only if people are willing and able to use them. In presentations to lay audiences at library events, I’ll pull up a base map online and ask someone for an address, then zoom to it (or I’ll use 1060 West Addison, Chicago.) Eyes light up. Do mine next! Then I explain, “You can do this! It is easy and free, and the world is at your fingertips. You just need to find it.”

In our basic GIS course at Oregon Tech, we mainly use AGOL with a dabbling in other programs. When the students start to see the potential, their young agile minds start flashing with curiosity. If students can do it, so can other people. No one is too old to learn and to be curious.

If you can’t come to the library, the library can come to you!

Whether by mule or automobile, libraries have been driven to bring materials to those who don’t have easy access to a library, literally and figuratively. The Pack Horse Library, a Works Progress Administration project from 1935 to 1943, “covered the remote coves and mountainsides of … Appalachia, … on foot and on hoof.” These were the first bookmobiles, and they are still operational today.

With the pandemic, bookmobiles are as popular as ever, but short-staffed, so they need to use their resources as effectively as possible. The Seattle Public Library uses QGIS and ArcGIS to deliver books to underserved communities. They analyze external data, such as results of standardized tests, census data and transportation availability to determine where bookmobiles should be deployed.

Similarly, Burnaby Public Library in British Columbia developed an app in order to automate route mapping for book delivery in the city. Using ArcGIS Navigator, library and GIS staff were able to streamline route selection for the drivers, who make 10-20 stops per day to deliver books to people who are not able to go the library, whether due to lack of transportation, disabilities or other impediments. 

Of course, history is vast, well beyond the temporal and spatial scope of a small county or city. The Library of Congress is the largest library in the world, with over 55,000 items in its map collections, many of which are downloadable as images. They also offer a plethora of story maps, such as the D-Day invasion, told by veterans of that epic battle.

The Smithsonian also has a site with rich resources from their own collections as well as other collections and training materials.

“The Library is the heart of the University”

So reads the engraved stone arch at the Yale University Library. University libraries have embraced GIS as an essential tool. Working on my thesis at Oregon State, I spent hours going through drawers of maps and aerial photography, scanning the hard copies and georeferencing them in ArcInfo.

Much has changed since 1997. Dr. Joseph Kerski has an inspiring (and entertaining!) podcast with Stace Maples, the map librarian at Stanford University. Academic institutions have the resources and talent to build GIS capacity, but as Maples says, it’s also about creating demand through outreach and communication. To paraphrase many colleagues (and the movie “Field of Dreams”), “If you build it, they will come.” But … only if they know it is there.

Along with dozens of other universities, including Princeton, the Big Ten Academic Alliance, MIT and NYU, Stanford is a participant in the GeoBlacklight project, a searchable portal where universities share access to their collections and metadata. Blacklight has been used as a research tool for years, and GeoBlacklight has advanced its capacity by adding a geospatial component.

Tied to this is Stanford’s EarthWorks, another portal that offers searches based on location, map type, date and author, among others. Searching on Oregon, I received 831 results!

Also at Stanford is the famous David Rumsey collection, with “over 200,000 maps, atlases, globes, and related materials. But more than that, it is an archive of our world’s landscapes and environments as well as human cultures, myths, arts, and scientific developments.”

Preservation of ephemerality

Stace Maples told Dr. Kerski that his greatest concern is the preservation of ephemeral digital data. Paper maps, to a librarian, are treasures; some have been around for hundreds of years. The Louisville Free Public Library is one of many that have maps that are unique snapshots of days gone by. Digital maps show these same pictures, albeit in a shorter time frame, and they can be lost with a click of the mouse. Nevertheless, in decades or centuries, they could be as valuable as a world map from the 1500s.

Partnership and collaboration are essential to the goal of preservation. Not just local libraries but government organizations (e.g., county surveyors) are seeking to partner with each other and academia to preserve these data for posterity. Building awareness is critical to these efforts but needs to be supported with infrastructure and training. In my interviews with librarians, I evangelized about AGOL and Google Earth. There are many excellent free trainings out there, from Esri, the GeoTech Center and many others.

Libraries understand the power of geography as both an archival and dynamic resource. As Maples says in his podcast with Dr. Kerski, “Geography is like bacon; it makes everything better!”