Historical Air Photo Digitization Project University of Waterloo Map Library

By Dodsworth, Eva | Partnership : the Canadian Journal of Library and Information Practice and Research, July 1, 2008 | Go to article overview
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Historical Air Photo Digitization Project University of Waterloo Map Library

Dodsworth, Eva, Partnership : the Canadian Journal of Library and Information Practice and Research


The University Map Library (UML) at the University of Waterloo developed an online collection of digitized and georeferenced aerial photography of the Kitchener-Waterloo area from the 1930s and 1940s. Using GIS technology, the air photos were digitized with geographical coordinate tags for use in GIS software programs including online mapping applications such as Google Earth (GE). By creating and offering downloadable georeferenced images compatible with popular mapping tools, the air photos have gained significant popularity and utilization by not only regular library users but by community groups, organizations and corporations who have never used library resources before. The integration of modern technology with traditional paper mapping has proven to be both a method of preservation and a means of increasing and varying utilization of the collection.


The University of Waterloo Map Library is a cartographic and GIS resource centre for academics, community organizations and interested members of the local community. With a collection of over 100,000 maps, 49,000 air photos and serving as the campus' hub for geospatial data, the library is frequented by many user groups and individuals - and serves a variety of interests and purposes. Until most recently, many of these users were only able to access the collection in person, during library hours. Now, one of the library's most popular paper collections, the historical aerial photographs, has become available online for users to view and download from their home and business computers.

The Map Library's air photo collection includes stereoscopic images of the Region of Waterloo taken from as early as 1930 to as recently as 1995. The air photos are widely used by students, business contractors, history buffs and home owners who like to study the air photos for land cover, property information, feature identification and changes in these over time. Due to several access limitations, the Map Library wanted to provide the community with easier access, available 24/7 and remotely via the Internet.

In October 2007, the University Map Library launched an archival air photo scanning and digitization project, in which approximately 1200 historical air photos of Kitchener-Waterloo and surrounding areas for the years 1930 and 1945-47 were scanned, digitized, georeferenced and made available online for viewing and downloading. A number of image formats have been made available to the users, including both higher and lower resolution outputs as well as GeoTiffs for GIS purposes and the popular KML files for the utilization of the georeferenced images in Google Earth and Google Maps.


The purpose of the project was to address several issues that have been associated with the use of archival air photos by library clients. The primary concerns have been the physical handling of the photos, which occasionally resulted in permanent markings, creased corners, and misfiling of photos. In a few instances, theft has occurred as well. Since the print collection is only available during limited library building hours, it is not conveniently accessible by off-campus clients. The library, therefore was interested in not only archiving and preserving original material, but it also wanted to expose the photos to a larger community and provide easier access. The library's interest in utilizing modern technology also had a large influence on the project's overall outcome.

Preservation and Archiving of Photos

The Map Library's aerial photography collection is highly used by both academic scholars and the public community. One of the most important objectives for the library was to decrease the amount of handling of the original photographs. Images were often handled, scanned by the users and then filed in the cabinets by library staff. Occasionally photographs were placed inadvertently in the wrong cabinets, and a great deal of effort was spent trying to locate them again.

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Historical Air Photo Digitization Project University of Waterloo Map Library


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