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Issues in Science and Technology Librarianship
Summer 2002

Database Reviews

Columbia Earthscape: An Online Resource to the Global Environment

Yelena Pancheshnikov
Agriculture, Biology, Geography and Environmental Sciences Librarian
Acting Head of the Natural Science Library
University of Saskatchewan, Canada

Columbia Earthscape is a portal to information resources in a wide area of earth and environmental sciences developed by Columbia University and Columbia University Press for all levels of academic users, decision makers, and lay people. The project was supported by a grant from the National Science Foundation and by financial assistance from SPARC. It was launched in December 1999 and new materials are being added on a daily basis. The Association of American Publishers awarded Columbia Earthscape its 1999 Best New Internet Based Electronic Project Award and Scout Report has cited it as the best web site in the sciences. Access to the database is available on an annual subscription basis for $495.00.

Columbia Earthscape is not a bibliographic resource in the traditional sense of the word and not a substitute to any of the existing resources in the same or related areas. It is a multi-media collection of an exceptional variety of resources, the larger part of which are different types of scholarly web sites.


The database includes books, journals, papers, lectures, labs, image banks, videos, and syllabi.

At this point it provides access to 60 full-text and 114 partial-text books. Among them: about 30 full-text books published by Columbia University Press, and by other university presses; partial text of the Encyclopedia of Volcanoes and Encyclopedia of the Solar System and dozens of partial-text books published by MIT University Press, other university presses, and Island Press Books. Some of these monographs are very well known and are quite likely to be already available in print in university library collections.

The journal collection includes 25 full-text journals and 24 partial-text journals. Among those that are available full text are Conservation Biology, Conservation Ecology, and Geotimes. Journals with partial text include Limnology and Oceanography, Geology, Journal of Geology, Canadian Journal of Earth Sciences, The Geological Society of America Bulletin, and GSA Today. Partial-text journals cover a few back years, but do not provide access to the current year issues.

Unique components of the database are Papers and Lectures. The first includes over a thousand papers published by authors from such reputable institutions as American Geophysical Union, American Museum of Natural History, American Chemical Society, Royal Institute for International Affaires, and London University School of Oriental and African Studies.

The lecture collection includes over a hundred lectures prepared mainly by leading university researchers, as well as by scientists from NASA, the British Geological Survey, and other organizations.

Many of these lectures and papers are available on the Internet. Columbia Earthscape created a collection of these valuable materials and thus made them easily accessible. Other material types are videos on a variety of earth and atmospheric issues, syllabi, image banks and case studies. They are selected and evaluated by authoritative specialists who insure high quality content and make them reliable resources for beginners in the field.

Organization of the Portal

The content of Columbia Earthscape is grouped into four categories: Research, Teaching, Learning, and Policy.

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The Research web page is very likely to be the first stop for most of the academic users, as well as for librarians. It can be browsed by research issue and research discipline, as well as by research institution, research data, and research links.

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Research issues are grouped into seven broad areas, unavoidable in any of the environmental sciences courses: biodiversity, climate change, energy and technology, natural hazards, pollution, sustainability, and water resources. Research disciplines include applied sciences, astronomy, ecology and environment, economics, geography, geology, meteorology, oceanography/hydrology, and paleontology. It is obvious that materials selected under all of these broad disciplines cover environmental issues.

The research data section at this point does not contain much information. In the future it will present links to data sets, classification and modeling systems, as well as links to online databases.

Materials on the Teaching web page are grouped by classroom models and syllabi. Instruction guides will be added in the future. The section also presents links to teaching resources. Classroom models are mini-courses that contain innovative approaches to education in the earth and environmental sciences. At this point they cover climate change, geologic hazards, and water resources.

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The Learning web page may be of interest to lay readers, as well as to students without a background in the earth or environmental sciences. The major elements of it are: e-seminars in a wide range of subjects taught by members of Columbia University faculty as non-credit courses and produced by the online course development unit of Columbia University; and the Quick Answers section. The last one contains answers to frequently asked questions, as well as an e-mail reference service supported by the U.S. Global Change Research Information Office and U.S. Government agencies. The Learning section also introduces Journal Earth: an online forum for student writing and research, which provides a peer reviewed venue for student scholarship.

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Resources on the Policy web page are grouped like on the Research web page: by Policy Issue, Policy Discipline, and Policy Institution with the same subcategories for each of the groups. The list of institutions exceeds 100 and includes a variety of well known organizations and university presses. The policy web page also presents the online only journal Earth Affaires which was conceived to show earth sciences as an interdisciplinary area. The journal goes back to 1999 when Columbia Earthscape was launched and includes four issues. The articles are written by university faculty and researches.

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Columbia Earthscape can be searched or browsed. Browsing a resource like Columbia Earthscape, unlike browsing resources of a different nature can be very productive. Searching can be done by word, or by subject in the simple or in the advanced modules. The simple search module provides a few basic search options.

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The advanced module allows field-specific searching, including subject searching, and provides more limit options.

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Conclusions and Recommendations

Columbia Earthscape is portal and a multimedia collection of a high university level. It includes the best Internet resources and covers all areas of environmental and earth sciences.

Online books and journals are a good supplement to rest of the collection. Their numbers are growing; however at this point they can't be seen as a replacement to traditional resources in this area.

Search capabilities of Columbia Earthscape are adequate to the multi-media nature of the database, which can't be expected to be as easily searchable as more homogeneous collections. In many cases browsing may be a better approach.

Columbia Earthscape is a good addition to any collection of library materials at a university that supports programs in environmental and earth sciences. It can be a helpful tool for off-campus programs, and for any form of distance education.

A superficial look at Columbia Earthscape may not always produce a desirable impression on teaching faculty because of the dominating web site component. In order to achieve an adequate introduction to the use of Columbia Earthscape as a teaching and learning resource its content must be explained and promoted. Among the valuable elements of Columbia Earthscape are numerous lectures and papers, extensive coverage of environmental policy and public concerns, and various classroom materials. Providing current information and teaching tools in the environmental aspects of earth sciences is the goal of the portal which was successfully achieved.

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