Academic journal article Cartography & Geographic Information Systems

Spatial Data and the Digital Library

Academic journal article Cartography & Geographic Information Systems

Spatial Data and the Digital Library

Article excerpt

ABSTRACT: As geographic information technologies develop and gain new and often nontraditional users, librarians are working to develop services and collections to meet their needs. Acquiring, managing, describing, and distributing information are traditional library functions that must be adapted for spatial data. The heavy toll on libraries, in terms of budgetary and staff resources, however, make service and collection decisions difficult. With assistance, spatial data services in libraries can grow to complement and aid the GIS user community. This article discusses collecting spatial data, partnering with GIS professionals, and implementing GIS services within the library.


Faster computers, graphical user interfaces, simpler electronic mapping, and the Internet, have all sparked interest in the applications of geographic information systems (GIS) beyond the established user community of geographers, cartographers, and environmentalists. Geographic information systems have become a popular technology, adopted by private business, big industry, government, research, education, the general public, and libraries. To many, GIS represent a new way of looking at information. Users retrieve, analyze, and display data in a visual form to find trends or patterns in the data.

Two events account for the migration of GIS into library services. First, the United States Government Printing Office distributed the 1990 census data on CD-ROM. Overnight, the depository libraries, which had been responsible for offering access to the census in print form, became guardians of a vast quantity of digital data. Second was the emergence of relatively inexpensive and powerful minicomputers and software in the 1990s. This led to programs such as the GIS Literacy Project of the Association of Research Libraries (ARL), which, through partnerships with the Environmental Systems Research Institute (ESRI) and others, introduced GIS into many ARL libraries in the U. S. and, eventually, into Canadian libraries (Lang 1992).

A growing body of literature testifies to the reaction to these events and the subsequent emergence of spatial data (and related services such as GIS) in libraries (Hernon 1995; Leonhardt 1995). As librarians are becoming accustomed to handling digital information, libraries are transformed into repositories of digital map collections as well as paper maps. Established reference services, a mission to collect and serve the public, and the perception of the library as an archive and a public good, all make spatial data a logical extension of regular library services. The question is no longer whether libraries should provide geospatial data and GIS but rather how.

Nonetheless, many issues common to all libraries still need to be resolved, among them how to acquire and manage spatial data; build support and services within the library; build community or campus support; and find resources. There will be as many types of implementations of GIS and data services in libraries as there are institutions, because each has a different service mission and user base. This article looks at the issues involved in mounting GIS in libraries, illustrated by various projects in both the U. S. and Canada.

Data Acquisition

Locating and acquiring geo-referenced data may be quite different from traditional library purchases. Librarians accustomed to ordering materials through standard library vendors will find spatial data more challenging and will require more creative strategies. The library will expend more staff time and resources locating, transferring, and converting the data than it would take to acquire printed matter. This is balanced by the fact that some spatial information can be obtained for the price of the transfer media (or less). Though many datasets are available for sale through vendors, many others can be acquired from governments, researchers or utilities and other actual data producers. …

Search by... Author
Show... All Results Primary Sources Peer-reviewed


An unknown error has occurred. Please click the button below to reload the page. If the problem persists, please try again in a little while.