The Value and Importance of GIS Librarianship at Universities

June 8, 2022

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While geospatial technologies are found at almost every U.S. university, the placement of GIS within the organizational structure of the institution is varied. Some universities have GIS or geography departments. Some house GIS under their geology, data science or anthropology departments. Other universities place GIS in their libraries. These universities often have a designated GIS librarian who plays an important role in facilitating research involving geospatial data, as well as in communicating the importance of data preservation to the academic and wider community.

On April 1, the Friday before Librarian Awareness Week, I had the pleasure of moderating a panel discussion with three GIS librarians, Lucinda Hall, Jeff Essic and Stace Maples, as part of our speaker series for William & Mary’s Center for Geospatial Analysis. Hall is a map librarian at Dartmouth College. Her subject specialties include environmental studies, film and media studies, geography and polar studies. Essic is a GIS and data librarian at North Carolina State University. His subject specialties include geography, GIS data, maps, ICPSR, numeric data and government information. Maples is the assistant director of Geospatial Collections and Services and the head of The Stanford Geospatial Center at Stanford University. 

I started the conversation by asking about their roles and how their work fits into their academic institution. Essic described his role as a GIS librarian at NC State, a university with a robust geospatial program. He helps students get started on answering geospatial questions for class assignments or projects. Hall also answers student questions; in addition, she is the GIS administrator for Dartmouth College. She creates maps for faculty publications and works to digitize and georeference maps. Maples answers student questions and manages the GIS software at Stanford University, building GIS infrastructure for GIS data, including digitized and georeferenced data. A large part of his job involves running EarthWorks, Stanford’s collection of publicly-available GIS data. From their tone, I could tell all three librarians enjoyed working with students.

Though their roles have a lot of similarities, they differ in regard to how they support the geospatial needs of their universities. They also arrived at GIS librarianship from significantly different paths: Essic began using geospatial technologies while earning his degree in natural resources and working in natural resource labs. Maples found GIS through archaeology; he is heavily involved in digital humanities. Hall began her work as a librarian, focusing on maps and cartography throughout her training. She learned GIS software along the way.

All three agree that interpersonal communication and a strong drive for knowledge are critical skills when working as a GIS librarian. In addition to knowing the technical GIS software, GIS librarians need to quickly analyze the technical level of the student or person asking for help, then find and provide an answer in a way the student will understand. As Hall stated, GIS librarians, and librarians in general, must have “curiosity because you have to be willing to dig when someone asks you a question.”

The field of GIS librarianship has changed drastically over the past five years, and the three panelists anticipate the field will continue to evolve. Maples explained that the geospatial field used to place importance on the software, but has shifted to the importance and integration of programming. He predicted that big data will become more important as data becomes more available. Hall is already seeing the shift, with an emphasis on online software and the growing importance of R, specifically among academics not trained in geospatial technologies. Essic agreed, seeing the growing importance of R and cloud-based mapping software. During the transition to remote learning, he saw an increase in requests for online mapping and StoryMaps activities to connect and learn virtually. 

At one point in our conversation, Hall, Essic and Maples all chuckled and agreed that many people do not fully understand the work they do. Many assume GIS librarians do the work of traditional librarians, cataloging books and paper maps, and this assumption is partly correct. Hall pointed out that we still need paper maps because the world of GIS is not entirely online. The maps and data that enter a GIS or map library need to be cataloged, organized and understood. But GIS librarians do much more than these traditional tasks. They also work on data procurement, outreach and content education. They build GIS infrastructures. GIS librarians must understand not only the GIS technologies, but also the data in their library collections.

The data with which GIS librarians work is complex. Hall described the transient nature of data: as new data becomes available, outdated data may be discarded, but GIS librarians prefer to archive it for its historic value. The conversation shifted to the difficulties of archiving GIS work in general. Essic assures his students that the online maps and StoryMaps they create will be available in the short-term, but he is unsure of the long-term. It is difficult to archive GIS maps, data and online products. Maples and Essic agreed that using open source platforms, such as geoJSON, are a great way to archive GIS materials.  

The non-GIS librarians in the audience asked our panelists how they could learn more about their work. Hall suggested talking to colleagues doing GIS work; most are happy to share information and resources. The more knowledge one has, the better equipped they are to answer questions that come their way. Essic reminded us to ask spatial questions with curiosity. He pointed out that data often has spatial elements, so he works with non-GIS users to create geospatial questions and answers. Maples recommended playing with free and open-source GIS data and software, such as GeoJSON, QGIS or Google Earth Engine, or free trials of licensed software, such as Esri products, to begin digging into the GIS world. 

After an hour of lively discussion, I closed the panel with a question about their favorite part of being a GIS librarian. All three agreed that the most rewarding part of the job is being able to answer student questions. Essic mentioned the “thrill of helping students answer their questions,” and said he enjoys working with local and community GIS partners, networking at local conferences, and planning events. Hall agreed, saying, “Giving a person an answer they can work with, that always makes me happy.” She also enjoys creating maps. Maples enjoys solving a good puzzle and working on GIS technologies in public health, consulting with researchers and faculty on answering spatial health questions with nomadic pastoralists. 

I’d like to take a moment to thank Lucinda Hall, Stace Maples and Jeff Essic for their time and willingness to discuss their work. Through their responses, I was impressed not only with the work they do, but also with how passionately they spoke about their jobs. GIS librarians have an important role to serve in academia and within their broader communities. They not only help students reach a new level of GIS understanding for their own work, but they are the preservers of GIS data, technologies and maps. 

To watch a recording of the panel discussion, visit the Center for Geospatial Analysis’s website for a full archive of our speaker series.



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