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Issues in Science and Technology Librarianship
Fall 2004

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[Board accepted]

The Arizona Electronic Atlas: A New Reference and Instructional Tool

Jeanne Pfander
Associate Librarian
University of Arizona Libraries

Danielle Carlock
Graduate Student
School of Information Resources and Library Science
University of Arizona


The growth of geographic information systems (GIS) technology within academic disciplines has been mirrored in the past decade within libraries. The Association of Research Libraries (ARL) GIS literacy project, initiated in 1992, is widely regarded as the impetus for the spread of GIS-related services in academic libraries. Libraries have utilized a wide range of approaches, from setting up single dedicated GIS workstations to establishing GIS labs and creating positions for a GIS specialist. Taking the idea of GIS services one step further, the University of Arizona Libraries has created the {Arizona Electronic Atlas} -- an innovative, web-based interactive mapping resource that allows users to create, manipulate and download accurate and current maps and data. This paper describes the background and development of the Atlas, as well as its reference and instructional applications.


GIS (Geographical Information Systems) technology is an innovation that has evolved rapidly from its beginnings in the 1960s. It allows users to view, manipulate, analyze and display geospatially-referenced data in graphic form (typically maps). GIS requires hardware, software, and data, as well as training on the part of the user. (Yu 1998; French 2001; Sweetkind-Singer & Williams 2001) The applications of GIS are so broad and versatile that it has become commonplace for researchers in a wide range of disciplines to utilize the technology. For example, health researchers use GIS to analyze the relationship between disease incidence and various environmental factors. Market researchers use GIS to determine the best place to site a new store. Criminologists use GIS to track crime trends and correlate them to other factors, such as demographics (Spiegel & Kinikin 2004). Homeland security issues have recently heightened interest in and use of GIS technology.

Within the sciences GIS became firmly established in the higher education curriculum in the mid-1980's (Hunter & Ogleby 2002). For many science majors, GIS training now begins at the undergraduate level. For example, at the University of Arizona, 16 different {undergraduate GIS courses} are offered, emanating from departments such as Geography, Natural Resources, Soil, Water and Environmental Science, and Electrical and Computer Engineering.

GIS has increasingly become recognized as a separate discipline, and as such, many colleges and universities are now offering complete undergraduate and/or graduate programs in this field (Hunter & Ogleby 2002). Minors and certificates in GIS are also widely available (see the online database of GIS programs managed by the Environmental Systems Research Institute, Inc (ESRI) at {}). Graduates of these programs will have very good employment prospects, according to both the U.S. Department of Labor (2004) and the American Congress on Surveying and Mapping (2004).

Librarians are known to operate at the cutting edge of technology, so it should come as no surprise that many libraries have been offering geographic information systems (GIS) services to users for at least a decade. The first major impetus to establish GIS services in libraries arose from the 1992 {ARL GIS Literacy project}. The goal of the project was to introduce librarians to GIS and provide training. Initially, 31 libraries participated in the project, including the University of Arizona (French 2001). ARL partnered with ESRI, the leading GIS software developer, to provide free training and software for participating libraries (Suh & Lee 1999). A follow up survey of participants revealed that 88% of the respondents were offering GIS services. Such services were typically offered in a government documents center (48%) or a map library (52%). The typical staffing scenario for GIS services included a librarian, a support staff member, a graduate assistant and a student worker (French 2001).

A small body of literature has come out of libraries, primarily those participating in the ARL project, documenting their experiences with GIS services. Some libraries, such as Washington State University established one GIS workstation within the library and provided a GIS-trained librarian as a consultant by appointment (Suh & Lee 1999). Other libraries secured outside funding to establish GIS services. For example, the Illinois Institute for Technology was awarded an LSTA grant to establish a GIS Laboratory and Research Center within their library (Atkins 1999). Weber State University used a Higher Educational Technology Initiative (HETI) grant to purchase equipment for a GIS workstation (Spiegel & Kinikin 2004). Many librarians have established vigorous outreach programs seeking to promote the use of GIS to a wide variety of academic departments (Sweetkind-Singer & Williams 2001). GIS workshops run by librarians have also been commonplace (Atkins 1999; Gluck & Yu 2000). In some cases, specialized librarian positions have been created to run newly established GIS centers and provide outreach and training. For example, North Carolina State University created the position of Librarian for Spatial and Numeric Data Services, a position to be filled by a GIS subject specialist (French 2001). Some public libraries have also established GIS services, such as the New York State Library (Strasser 1998) and the St. Louis Public Library (Watts 1996).

GIS at the University of Arizona

As a major research university with strong programs in the sciences and social sciences, it is not surprising that GIS would be heavily used in research and teaching at the University of Arizona. There are several centers of expertise for GIS on campus.

The Advanced Resource Technology (ART) Group, established in 1988, is affiliated with the School of Natural Resources and provides the primary focus for research and extension in cartographic and spatial analysis for the College of Agriculture, The ART Group also encourages and facilitates cooperation among faculty with similar expertise and interests campus-wide.

The Center for Applied Spatial Analysis (CASA) at the University of Arizona is a Geographic Information Systems research facility within the College of Social and Behavioral Sciences. As part of the Social and Behavioral Science Research Institute (SBSRI), CASA supports and develops research projects and encourages the wider use of GIS and related techniques in the social sciences through collaboration on grants, demonstration, training, teaching and internships.

The {Southern Arizona Data Services Program}, a partnership between the USGS Southwest Biological Science Center Sonoran Desert Research Station (SDRS) and the University of Arizona, has the goal "to more efficiently serve commonly requested GIS data to the public and the greater University community." It provides access to geospatial data libraries such as Arizona GAP (Common species and plant communities from the GAP Analysis Program); Arizona General Reference (Data from the Arizona Land Resource Information System); and the Sonoran Desert Research Station (data produced by SDRS researchers).

The {Arizona Regional Image Archive} (ARIA) provides digital image and remote sensing data for the Sonoran desert region, including the US Southwest and northern Mexico.

GIS at the University of Arizona Library

In this context, the University of Arizona Library instituted a GIS service in 1996 as a result of participation in the Association of Research Libraries (ARL) GIS Literacy Project. Identification and acquisition of geospatial data sets for the Library collection was initiated, focusing primarily on data available on CD-ROM through the Federal Government Depository Program. (Mount 1998). ESRI Arc View software and geospatial data was loaded on two dedicated workstations, one in the Main Library and the other in the Science-Engineering Library. To anticipate user needs and facilitate use of Arc View, 12 pre-designed Arizona maps were created using 1990 Bureau of the Census TIGER files, Census of Population and Housing data, and Arc View. These maps were fashioned after the Urban Atlas: Tract Data for Standard Metropolitan Statistical Areas (U.S. Bureau of the Census 1974). In addition, a user manual and GIS tutorial were created. Several training sessions for library reference staff were held which emphasized the importance of GIS for the library, demonstrated the tutorial and some of the pre-designed maps, and presented information from the user manual. The expectation was that reference staff would help students to use the pre-designed maps and more detailed questions would be referred to one of the librarians with Arc View expertise (Kollen 2003).

Our experience with this initial library GIS service showed that the majority of students needed considerable one-on-one assistance because ESRI's Arc View software was difficult for non-technical users to learn in a short time frame at point of need. To address this, the Library partnered in 1998 with the School of Natural Resource's Advanced Resource Technology Group, to create GeoFac - a user-friendly graphical user interface to Arc View for creating maps from the 1990 TIGER files and Census data for Arizona. GeoFac consolidates a 20-step process down to a manageable point-and-click interface requiring only three simple steps. It requires no previous knowledge of GIS or Arc View and users can create their own maps within a few minutes (Kollen 2003). Drawbacks of GeoFac, however, are its limited accessibility (one workstation in the Main Library, available only when the building is open) and its limited (and now dated) scope of data.

The Arizona Electronic Atlas

Atlas Planning and Partnerships

Feedback from students and faculty encouraged us to extend the GeoFac concept by taking it to the web and providing access to a wider range of Arizona-specific geospatial data. As a result, a team of librarians and staff from the Library's Social Sciences Team, the Digital Library and Information Systems Team and the Science-Engineering Team came together in fall 2000 as the Arizona Electronic Atlas Project Team. The Institute for Museum and Library Services (IMLS) National Leadership Grant for Libraries, Preservation and Digitization was identified as a potential source of funding to support creation of the Atlas.

The project team surveyed faculty and graduate students in the sciences and social sciences at the University of Arizona to obtain their feedback and comments on the proposed Atlas project. The results of this survey convinced us of the need to move forward on the grant proposal.

Campus and state experts in geography and GIS made invaluable contributions to the development of the proposal by advising on the early drafts. Funding was requested for hardware, software and to contract out data conversion and programming. The proposal was submitted in January 2001 and in September of that same year IMLS awarded the University of Arizona Library a two-year (2001-2003) grant for the Arizona Electronic Atlas project. Our official project partners were the Arizona Department of Library, Archives, and Public Records (i.e., the State Library, and through them the Arizona State Board on Geographic and Historic Names), and the State Cartographer's Office.

After the grant was awarded, the Arizona Atlas Project Team developed a Request for Proposal and ultimately selected Farragut Systems of Lafayette, Colorado, working in partnership with ESRI-Denver, to do data conversion and programming for the Atlas mapping interface. The Project Team was responsible for the general web page design and development of content.

To inform the Atlas design, we conducted a focus group session with faculty and researchers from a wide range of University of Arizona departments. We also met separately with other campus groups or individuals that had an interest in the Atlas project. In these sessions participants were surveyed regarding use of maps in the curriculum, potential uses for the Arizona Electronic Atlas, as well as features and functionality to be included in the Atlas.

In addition, we also established a Campus Advisory Group that was composed of faculty and researchers from Geography and Regional Development, the College of Agriculture's Educational Communications and Technologies group, Office of Arid Land Studies, and School of Natural Resources, the School of Social & Behavioral Science's Center for Applied Spatial Analysis, and the USGS Sonoran Desert Field Station. This group provided the project team with technical expertise concerning data, hardware, software, and atlas functionality.

Data Selection

Data selection for the Arizona Electronic Atlas has been an ongoing process. We started out by using the Arizona Government Information Locator (GILS) database to identify potential data sets. In addition, we looked at the Congressional Information Service (CIS) Statistical database and the Arizona Statistical Abstract for leads on other relevant data. We surveyed the campus data sources mentioned above. Our state project partners also informed us of data sets to consider and helped us get access to them.

From this inventory, we narrowed down the list of data sets based on faculty input and our own experiences working with students. We also had to decide on a consistent approach to level of detail. For example, very detailed data sets are available for the major metropolitan areas of Phoenix and Tucson but the other cities and towns in the state do not often have available the same kind of data. We did not want to have uneven coverage in the Atlas so we made the decision to include only data that are available state-wide.

The project team agreed on the following categories of data sets:

To select specific data layers to include in the map interface of the Atlas we looked at each data set and as a group decided on the most critical layers. Some data sets such as Census of Population and Housing, Census of Agriculture, and Vital Statistics took considerable discussion because of the number of layers available in these sets.

Even after narrowing to the most critical, there were too many layers to display on one map, so we decided to group the data into the following four thematic maps or themes:

The Natural Resources theme provides a selection of data for a wide range of natural resources in Arizona. The data layers allow the user to explore relationships between climate, water resources, wildlife, vegetation, mineral resources, etc. The information comes primarily from state and federal sources such as the Arizona State Land Department, U.S. Geological Survey, U.S. Bureau of Land Management, and U.S. Forest Service. Some examples of data layers include:

The Business and Economics theme focuses on Arizona's economy and includes employment statistics, agricultural output and mining. It focuses on communities such as counties, census tracts, and American Indian areas. Layers include agriculture-related data such as the average size of farm by county, cotton by county in acres and market value of livestock and crops by county. The information comes primarily from federal sources such as the U.S. Bureau of the Census and the U.S. Department of Agriculture.

The People and Society theme focuses on demographic information about communities such as counties, census tracts, and American Indian areas. The information comes from state and federal sources such as the U.S. Bureau of the Census, and the Arizona Department of Health Services. Using these layers, Atlas users can create maps that show the social characteristics of Arizona and its communities.

The People and Environment theme provides a variety of data layers on environmental features and population characteristics. It focuses on communities such as counties, census tracts, and congressional districts. The information comes primarily from federal and state sources such as the U.S. Bureau of the Census, the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency, Arizona Dept. of Water Resources, and the Arizona Dept. of Health Services. Data layers available include:

[Sample image]

Figure 1: Mean Total Precipitation (Annual)

For more information on project planning, design, and hardware/software configurations, see "The Arizona Electronic Atlas Project" at {} and recent papers by project team members (Kollen 2003; Pfander 2004).

Atlas Debut

The Atlas was released on November 6, 2003. Within the campus community, announcements were sent out to various academic departments as well as press releases to UA News, which includes the campus newspaper, radio and TV. station. Atlas demonstrations were given to various departments including Natural Resources, Geography, Education, and Soil, Water and Environmental Sciences.

A ribbon-cutting event was held in January 2004. All stakeholder communities were invited. Brochures and Post-It notes with the Atlas logo were designed for the ceremony.

Reference and Instructional Applications in the Library

The Atlas is useful in a variety of reference situations. Basic fact-finding reference assistance, such as the location of geographic places, can be provided via the Arizona Electronic Atlas using the Place Finder function. In addition, facts such as the number of farms with grazing permits or percentage of deaths by county due to certain diseases can be quickly checked and graphically displayed. One of the authors (Pfander) has referred students to the Atlas during in-depth reference consultations on the following topics: Arizona watersheds; mammal and bird species in the San Pedro riparian ecosystem; and bird species richness in pinyon-juniper forests.

Reference staff can also refer users with more advanced GIS skills to the downloadable data on the site. With the exception of the Census data from Geolytics, Inc. and the highways layer from the Arizona Department of Transportation, all data are available for downloading, including some that are not yet in map themes. We plan to incorporate these data sets into new or existing themes in the future.

The Atlas site contains other materials that may be helpful reference tools in their own right. The {glossary} includes GIS or content related terminology that one would encounter in a variety of fields. The {links page} serves as a guide to a wealth of map resources and map data.

The tutorials and learning modules can also be used in reference interactions and consultations when users need a basic, self-paced introduction to use a web-based GIS resource such as the Arizona Electronic Atlas.

Atlas Application on Campus

The Arizona Electronic Atlas is ideally suited to help promote and strengthen geographic literacy. Geographic literacy is defined as understanding fundamental themes of geography (such as location, place, relationships, movement, and regions); developing basic geographic skills (such as asking geographic questions, acquiring, presenting, and interpreting geographic information), and developing and testing geographic generalizations (Backler 1996).

Recognizing the importance of geographic literacy and the contribution that the Atlas could make in promoting it, a central goal of the project has been to integrate the Atlas into the classroom. As a first step, several {learning modules} were created and uploaded to the site. One of the authors (Carlock), a former science teacher serving as a library intern, created additional modules in a variety of disciplines, including ecology, sociology, economics, American Indian studies, and epidemiology. In each module, students create and manipulate maps in order to investigate a specific topic or problem. Questions and ideas for further discussion and/or research are provided as extensions. Step by step directions are included, thus it is not necessary for the student to have any prior knowledge or skill in using the Atlas. This was done in the hope of making the Atlas more accessible for instructors and their students.

In spring 2004, the opportunity arose to work with a few faculty members to begin integrating the Atlas into the following courses (Pfander et al. 2004):

To further the efforts to promote the Atlas to faculty on campus, a list has been prepared of UA courses in which the Atlas could be relevant. Atlas project team members and other UA librarians will continue to reach out to faculty teaching those courses to extend the integration of the Atlas into the campus curriculum.

Next Steps

As the Atlas gains exposure and usage increases, we have received feedback from our users. Their comments often confirm areas or topics that the Atlas team has already targeted for improvement and ongoing development. For example, we will continue to identify data and develop themes to add to the Atlas. We are creating additional learning modules to support and encourage use of the Atlas in the classroom. There are other specific enhancements that we plan to implement, including:


GIS is a versatile technology that has rapidly diffused into many disciplines. Many libraries have followed suit by expanding their offerings to include some form of GIS service. At the University of Arizona Library we have taken the idea of GIS service one step further with the Arizona Electronic Atlas to better meet the educational and research needs of a wide range of users.

The UA Library is committed to supporting the Arizona Electronic Atlas with staff time and infrastructure (although certainly the Atlas team continues to pursue additional outside funding). We will continue to collaborate with experts on campus and at the state level to enhance the Atlas and position it at the cutting edge of GIS services.


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