GIS and Mapping for Reference Librarians: A Short Guide

by Sarah Elichko

open street map of Haiti earthquake damage

Chances are high that you’ve used Google Maps (or Bing Maps or Mapquest) to find your way somewhere.

But there are far more interesting applications of these technologies than finding the nearest coffee shop (essential though that is).  I’ve learned about some of these possibilities from the short online course from RUSA called Spatial Literacy 101, taught by Eva Dodsworth of the University of Waterloo.

I’ll skip professional-level GIS programs (e.g. ArcGIS) and focus on freely available resources that you can explore and share with your library patrons.  Here are a few of the resources we’ve looked at in the course.  (The course goes into these resources and others in much greater depth, so this is just a preview.)

Possible applications: create a map with library locations (or just a particular branch) highlighted (example on a LibGuide), place markers and labels on locations of historic interest, make a map of favorite places in your local communityScribbleMaps allows users to create custom maps for free and save or share them in a variety of ways (e.g. via email or social media, download as an image).  Google Maps act as the base layer.  Then users can draw, label, add placemarks, and highlight locations on the Google Map for the area they’re viewing.  I found it fast and easy to use, and registration is optional if you just want to test it out.


Possible applications:  create a walking tour of a particular area, add historic images of a building to its current location on the map

You’ve probably seen the different layers available in Google Maps (satellite imagery, roads, traffic).  Google Earth allows you to use a much wider variety of layers in exploring and mapping parts of the world.  Like with ScribbleMaps, it’s easy to highlight specific places on the map using Google Earth.  But in Google Earth, you can zoom out to the global level or view 3-dimensional imagery on the ground (buildings, terrain, etc.).  Unlike Google Maps, Google Earth requires downloading software, so it isn’t the quickest approach for simple map-related questions.  Yet for more in-depth geographic exploration, it provides a level of detail far surpassing its online counterpart.

Open Street Maps offers maps that (overall) look similar to those from Google, except that OSM operates on a wiki model, relying on the user community to add and correct data (names of places, roads, etc.).  This model makes OSM a good resource for finding detailed information at the local level. I find it easier to search because of its reliance on the GeoNames API (a database of placenames).  For example, while Google Maps gives a list of (often irrelevant) choices for the search term “University of Pennsylvania,” OpenStreetMap zooms directly to the center of campus.

Open Street Map is far from perfect, as coverage is uneven and the search feature doesn’t correct spelling.  Yet a user-generated model like this allows for flexibility in the wake of events like the 2010 earthquake in Haiti.  You may remember hearing about efforts to map Haiti via cellphones equipped with GPS technology.  OSM volunteers were particularly active in this effort, mapping the location of roads, displaced persons camps, and other facilities, as well as identifying buildings that had been damaged in the earthquake.  This data was then used by aid workers and others to find their way on the ground.  The map at the beginning of this post offers an example of an OpenStreetMap from Haiti at the time of the earthquake.

Google Fusion
This last resource is probably most interesting to academic library users because it allows you to plot data in a table (e.g. Excel spreadsheet) onto a map.  You need some kind of location-related data in the table, such as zip codes or addresses.  (Google Fusion will convert this data to latitude and longitude coordinates.)  For example, if you have survey results that contain the zip codes of respondents, you can use Google Fusion to map the locations of respondents to the survey.  In the map view, you can use filters to view only respondents from particular locations and see if location correlates to responses.  Or you can view the locations of respondents who offered specific responses to survey questions.

The easiest way to see the possibility of this program is to play around with the live Fusion table Google has set up.  For example, you can use the live map to see if a particular species of caterpillar tends to live in one region or if it is spread further out.  Google Fusion itself is fairly easy to use, but the set-up of your data table and the options you select while creating a Fusion table will determine how well it works.


2 thoughts on “GIS and Mapping for Reference Librarians: A Short Guide

  1. Pingback: Chasing Reference: One Year Later | Chasing Reference

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