Libraries and GIS: Mapping Out a Partnership

Many thanks to everyone who participated in last week’s Geography Awareness Week events! In reflection of last week, Dorris Scott, social science data curator and GIS librarian, talked with Jennifer Moore, head of Data Services, about how academic libraries are using and spreading the word about geographic information systems (GIS).

How do the Washington University Libraries utilize and promote GIS? We’ve been supporting GIS as part of the University Libraries system since 2013. Prior to that, the GIS office was outside of the University Libraries system. The office has always supported the full campus, including the Medical School, with GIS needs, and it continues to do so. The way we support the campus is through GIS consultations. We work with researchers on GIS projects, and most of us teach GIS via workshops or semester-long GIS classes.

A GIS user’s group was started in 2013 or 2014, and it usually had a graduate student chair, and they organized monthly meetings to bring the campus community of GIS users together. That group hasn’t been meeting recently, but it’s something we hope to revive.

We actually had a very good promotion of Geography Awareness Week this year. Before that, we were mainly event focused in terms of our promotion of GIS. Every GIS Day, we have a big event. I think our biggest year was 2015 or 2016, when we did workshops and a speaker forum in the form of lightening talks. The talks were presented by on-campus and external researchers.

Jennifer Moore, head of Data Services at the Washington University Libraries

In terms of GIS education and outreach, what unique roles do you think libraries can play? Academic libraries have been doing instruction in classrooms for a long time, hand in hand with the instructors. That’s one way we can be helpful on campus, because we can work on larger topics a class is interested in and tailor a workshop or presentation to fit the materials. For instance, we often go to the Brown School of Social Work and provide two-hour presentations on how GIS works. Depending on the department, we do different things. We do story mapping workshops in the Department of Anthropology.

We also provide, through library funding and in association with some other funders, a site license for the campus. We provide data sets and resources to find data sets, even if we’re not holding the data set in our repository. We help people connect to where they can get those data sets. We also are building a geospatial repository, so people can pull data sets from there that are more local—something you wouldn’t necessarily find on the Internet. I think the help desk/consultation model is a really useful thing that academic libraries can do.

Also, academic libraries can partner with public libraries to do presentations to the larger community and do trainings. I think this goes pretty well with the Chancellor’s call for us to be Washington University for St. Louis. Our academic library could partner with public libraries, so that they got this kind of training. It’s another way that students could see themselves at WashU as they make use of their public library services.

What is the future of GIS in the library setting? I think that GIS is only growing in popularity. I see us continuing to provide the support that we do at this level. Certain things are changing, as more tools become available online. Hybrid models such as ArcGIS Pro are something you can work between desktop and online. I see us moving toward supporting that kind of tool, as well as supporting open-source tools such as QGIS. But I also see that we’ll need to be preparing students to use automation more in their GIS work and to use programming skills to pull data sets down that are not necessarily available in a neat and tidy format.

Can you tell me about a project involving GIS that you worked on? When I worked on the Mapping LGBTQ St. Louis project, I was the project manager for the GIS portion of it. I hired a student to take all of the data they had been collecting for the project, geocode it, build it into an ArcGIS online map, and build a story map. The project took longer than anyone anticipated, so when the student graduated, I had to finish the work myself. But that was actually really wonderful. It was a wonderful project, and I felt really close to it.

Why is it important for students and researchers to add a geographic perspective with their work? I think it’s important because things are happening all the time, but they’re always happening somewhere. There’s a spatial element to every problem, and when we don’t consider the spatial impact of a problem, we’re kind of leaving out a big part of the puzzle. When I teach GIS, I always talk about how it allows us to describe, analyze, and infer. I think that is a great way to break down what GIS can do for us in a spatial sense, but that can be applied in so many ways. I think it’s a great way to think about data, because the visualization is so powerful.

What advice do you have for those who are wanting to develop their GIS skills? There are a lot of resources online. If you’re affiliated with WashU, you should know first of all that we have a site license, and you can have access to that site license right now. Just email someone on the Data Services team, and we will help you get that underway. There are a lot of ArcGIS tutorials that you can use to do some basic things, but we’re also here and ready to help you. You can come to our help desk, and we will help you get started on a project.

If you’re not affiliated with the university, QGIS is a really great tool that has a lot of great tutorials. StackExchange is amazing to get your questions answered. If you have a problem, and you have some data you want to explore spatially, I would recommend trying out either of those tools. WashU’s certificate program in GIS in University College is a great way to get a more structured learning experience.

Why do you think it’s important for people to be more geographically aware? If we understand the geography of the world we’re living in, we can better connect to what is happening. I think if we’re going to solve any big problems in the world, we have to consider the geographic implications, how geography is impacting people, and how the problem is associated with geography.

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