Peering into the IS of GIS

By Diana S. Sinton

Wade Bishop teaches in the School of Information Sciences at the University of Tennessee, Knoxville. He is particularly interested in geographic information organization, access, and use, as well as the study of GI occupations, education, and training. From 2012-2015, he was a co-investigator, along with Tony Grubesic of Arizona State University, of the Geographic Information Librarianship Project, which was funded by the Institute of Museum and Library Services. GIL sought to understand and document the types of knowledge, skills, and abilities that geographic information librarians need to be successful in their positions. Direction Magazine’s Diana Sinton recently interviewed Dr. Bishop about the project and its final product, the new book from Springer, Geographic Information: Organization, Access, and Use.

DM: The Geographic Information Librarianship Project has been the only program of its type.  What was the motivation for the project?

WB: Well, when I was a graduate student, I fortunately met Pete Reehling, the Geographic Information Systems Librarian at the University of South Florida, and his enthusiasm for GIS and the fact that there were (and still are) many job postings in libraries, museums, archives, and data centers, got me interested in learning more. The library school did not offer courses, so I learned GIS through electives offered in geography. I was the only library and information science student in the GIS classes, but I quickly noticed that my LIS skills were very useful in crafting search strategies to discover data and keep data organized once it was found. The curricular gap was obvious to me: Information science expertise for digital curation, metadata creation, information retrieval, and user experience design that would benefit GIS education. Also, LIS programs needed GIS courses to meet workforce demand for the growing number of information professionals working with geographic information. So, the GIL project was distinctive in that it was the first and only of its kind. Sure, some schools have offered GIS as a fun elective once in a while, but GIL built a purposive pathway, produced through curricular development informed by current practitioners, and focused on the “abilities to locate, retrieve, analyze, and use geospatial data” — not just teaching GIS software. This Springer book is the final outcome of the project, and codified the lectures into book chapters so that more people could benefit from the content.

DM: Producing a manageable set of student learning outcomes over the course of GIL was a major accomplishment. Now that the funding has ended, are these and other outcomes being adopted and implemented in curricular programs?

WB: We surveyed practicing GIS and map librarians, archivists, and other information professionals to validate the core competencies established in 2008 by the Map and Geographic Information Round Table. We assumed that professionals in the real-world could weigh in on the most important items to cover in these electives, and they have been adopted here at the University of Tennessee. The core student learning outcomes likely will not change, given the fundamentals of geography, cartography, and information science related to organization, access, and use do not alter that much with each new geospatial technology or data format. MAGIRT is currently revising their core competency document and that will inform future versions of the courses, but I think the core of knowing what GI is, and how to discover and curate it, will stay the same at the introductory levels covered in the book.

DM: I’ve heard you describe the world of GIS as being two-thirds “information science,” while you also recognize that it is two-thirds “geographic information.”  From your perspective, straddling those worlds with the work you do, have you found it easier for librarians and other information scientists to learn about geography and geospatial data, or for geographers and geospatial data experts to learn about library and information science?

WB: Acronyms cause problems in every field. It has been easy to poke fun, even if most don’t find it funny as a GIS outsider. I had a unique perspective in GIS classes as an information scientist (a term from 1967) and frankly found it odd to read about the GIS wars and geographic information science/systems debates in the discipline. In information science, simply defining the term information itself stirs the intellectual waters, and a science for all systems reigns supreme in our IS acronym as systems change in any networked environment.

But to answer your actual question, the difficulty of learning anything new depends on the individual and their own motivations. Certainly, the most successful people in any field are those life-long learners that never stop acquiring new skills and remain on the cutting-edge of their areas. These meta-disciplines are full of experts that are used to being agile learners much like Eratosthenes, chief librarian at Alexandria and inventor of geography. For example, librarians might be liaisons for several disciplines and must retain and gain a breadth of knowledge to best meet different information needs and now many resources. When it comes to finding stuff and keeping it organized, IS has a long history and great strength in that area, albeit mostly for documents or text-based information. One of the purposes of the book is to formally introduce information science regardless of what that ‘S’ in GIS may mean to readers.

One noticeable barrier between the two groups is that at the heart of many traditional information agencies is the concept of sharing, or, at least, connecting users with available information that meets their needs. I am confident that geographers and geospatial data experts understand their own GI better than anyone else ever could, but once one shares data beyond the typical user community, problems and questions are likely to arise. Those charged with answering those questions may face difficulties. With born digital objects, the distinction between where data ends and metadata begins is problematic. I do see a clear distinction between the two groups in their understanding of metadata, but that may not be worth unpacking here, other than to say that it does impact the reuse of GI by empowering users to determine fitness for use.The metadata chapter of the book covers the terminology, value, and knowledge organization concepts in greater detail and would be a great stand-alone primer for those needing an introduction to, or updated review of, metadata.

DM: What advice would you give to geospatial professionals who want to know more about work opportunities in the library or information science community?

WB: Apply. There are many professionals that come from GIS to LIS given there are more openings than LIS graduates with these skills. It’d be great if more iSchools taught this specialty, but that requires more faculty with this expertise. Most academic jobs are posted on MAPS-L. One GIS librarian coming from geomatics said it best when I asked him why he moved to working in a library: “At the library, every day is different. Each user and their questions lead to new things, which is more fun than the monotony of the same analyses day after day, over and over again.” Additionally, I believe there are plenty of work opportunities for geospatial professionals in their current organizations related to information and data. I think many would benefit from additional workshops and training on data curation offered through several information science programs. If nothing else, there is this new book that reveals the interstitial research spaces between GIS and IS, including information organization, data discovery, fitness for use, user experience design, information services, human information seeking behavior, and digital curation.

Published Wednesday, April 5th, 2017

Written by Diana S. Sinton

Published in



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