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Issues in Science and Technology Librarianship
Spring 2005

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[Refereed Article]

Survey of GIS Implementation and Use within Smaller Academic Libraries

JaNae Kinikin
Science Librarian
Weber State University

Keith Hench, Ph.D.
Associate Professor & Department Chair, Science
Kirkwood Community College, Iowa City


This paper describes a survey of the implementation and use of Geographic Information Systems (GIS) in smaller academic libraries (Carnegie Classification Master's Colleges and Universities I & II) (Carnegie Foundation 1997-2003). Two hundred, sixty-eight libraries were surveyed and 138 surveys were returned. We sought to determine to what degree smaller schools have adopted GIS and how the implementation of GIS was accomplished. The survey focused on hardware/software, staffing, levels of service, training, monetary support, and use. Twenty-two smaller academic libraries have adopted GIS and 27 plan to incorporate this technology in the near future. This analysis will focus specifically on those libraries that already have adopted GIS.


Literature focusing on Geographic Information Systems (GIS) services to patrons at larger academic research libraries is extensive, but few studies have analyzed the use of GIS at smaller academic libraries. This project surveyed Carnegie Classification Master's Colleges and Universities I & II (Carnegie Foundation 1997-2003) to examine how they are implementing and using GIS. The survey focused on hardware/software, staffing, levels of service, training, monetary support, and use in the implementation of GIS. An analysis of these aspects is critical for libraries when deciding whether to provide GIS services to patrons.

Definition of GIS

GIS is a computer system comprised of hardware, software, and data which allows the user to layer different types of information together provided the data have a common geographic location (Badurak 2000). This layering capability provides users with the opportunity to view data graphically or spatially rather than in tabular form. In addition, GIS provides sophisticated analytical and statistical operations on data to produce new knowledge (Yu 1998). For example, income and age data, a base map, and the locations of shopping centers could be layered in a GIS to determine potential networks for more efficient bus routing.

Literature Review

Moulder (2002) compiled a GIS and libraries web bibliography that included more than 130 entries. The Journal of Academic Librarianship dedicated two full issues (July 1995 and November 1997) to the subject of GIS in libraries. The book Geographic Information Systems And Libraries: Patrons, Maps, And Spatial Information published in 1996 contained a variety of articles which provided an overview of GIS including organization and access to spatial data, applications of GIS, and the implementation of GIS in libraries (Smith and Gluck 1996).

Unfortunately, many GIS studies apply only to specific library settings providing little insight into the overall picture of GIS use by libraries. For example, Atkins (1999) described the implementation of a GIS Laboratory and Resource Center at the Illinois Institute of Technology. This project was designed to provide additional technology services to the library's users. Suh and Lee (1999) provide a historical background about how GIS was implemented and how current GIS services operate at Washington State University.

Very few studies have examined GIS implementation at multiple libraries. Badurek (1999) focused on 12 GIS or map libraries at large research institutions across the United States. He surveyed these libraries to determine hardware and software use, satisfaction of the librarians with the GIS product being used, and how GIS instruction is being provided to patrons. Badurek concluded from his study that there will be an increase in the use of GIS at libraries and that this increase should result in a more standardized GIS set-up. In 1997 the Association of Research Libraries (ARL) conducted a survey of implementation and usage of Geographic Information Systems at ARL libraries. The results from this survey provided information on the administration, staffing, hardware, software, and data used with GIS within larger research libraries. With advancements in technology and the increasing availability of user-friendly GIS software, GIS will become more common in libraries. Kowal (2002) described the different levels of GIS services that libraries can offer-high-level (full GIS set-up), mid-level (GIS applications available via the Web which require user input), and low-level (static maps available through the Web). This study will focus on high-level GIS implementation and use in smaller academic libraries. It is hoped that the results from this study will provide a foundation upon which schools can design and implement their own geographic information systems to provide an additional level of service to library patrons.

Objectives of the Study

The objectives of this study are to determine:

Importance of the Study

This study focuses on two main questions 1) has GIS been adopted by smaller academic libraries? 2) if so, how has this implementation been accomplished? The authors' institution, Stewart Library at Weber State University, a Master's Colleges and Universities II, is in its first year of implementing GIS services and is interested in how other similar sized institutions have managed their GIS development.


The survey was sent to institutions classified by the 2000 Carnegie Classification system as Master's Colleges and Universities I and II. Class I awards "...40 or more master's degrees per year across three or more disciplines." Class II awards "...20 or more master's degrees per year." These classifications were chosen because the institutions within these classes fall within the same category as Weber State University (WSU), a Master's Colleges and University II (Carnegie Foundation 1997-2003).


The Survey of Geographic Information Systems Use and Implementation in Academic Libraries (Appendix I) consisted of 17 questions in the areas of hardware, software, staffing, training, administrative support, and types of users. The cover letter accompanying the survey noted that it was completely confidential and that only the Carnegie Classification would be used to identify the institution. The survey was sent to 268 libraries representing 48 out of the 50 states and the District of Columbia.

Data Analysis

Sixty-three percent (168/238) of the surveys were completed and returned. Twenty-two (13%) of the returned surveys indicated that their library supports GIS. One hundred nineteen respondents indicated that they do not use GIS and do not plan to implement GIS services. Twenty-seven (16%) of the surveys indicated that they do not currently use GIS, but plan to implement GIS services in the future. From the responses given, the number of libraries with GIS at smaller institutions should almost double in a five to ten year period. This paper will concentrate on the twenty-two institutions that returned the survey indicating their library is currently using GIS.


Questions 3 & 4 on the survey dealt with hardware that was used to support GIS services. All twenty-two respondents indicated that at least one computer was used to support GIS services and a majority (15) indicated the use of a printer. Some respondents also indicated the use of a scanner (6), server (4), digitizer (3), Global Positioning System (GPS) unit (2), and plotter (1). (Table 1) Additionally, respondents were asked the frequency at which the GIS computer is upgraded with eight responding every three years and seven "other" responses with comments such as "as needed" and "when funding is available." Question 5 dealt with what operating system was currently being used by these institutions to run GIS. All twenty-two institutions responded that they run GIS on the Windows platform. (Table 1)

Table 1: Analysis of Computer Hardware and Software for Those Institutions Using GIS*
Computer Hardware Computers (22)
Printers (15)
Scanners (6)
Servers (4)
Digitizers (3)
GPS units (2)
Plotters (1)
Computer Platforms Windows (22)
Macintosh (0)
Unix (0)
Software Packages ArcView (21)
LandView IV (5)
ArcGIS (5)
ArcInfo (6)
MapInfo (1)
Community 2020 (1)
MapArt/Adobe Illustrator (1)
Spatial & Image Analyst (ArcView Extensions) (1)
ArcExplorer (1)
Idrisi/Erdas (1)
Data Acquisition GPO Depository program (18)
deposit by state agencies (9)
purchase (10)
donation (3)
other (8):
Internet Resources (2)
grant-funded purchases (1)
software package data (1)
reference database with spatial data (1)
co-operative purchases (2)
archives & institutional research (1)
Software Availability Loaded on individual workstations (19)
Accessible via a campus-accessible server (1)
Both (2)
* Values represent actual count(s) on returned surveys indicating GIS use.(22).


Questions 6 through 8 dealt with software and data. Respondents were asked which GIS software they currently use and the majority (21) indicated using ESRI (Environmental Systems Research Institute) ArcView. The other top software packages being used were ESRI ArcInfo (6), ESRI ArcGIS (5), and LandView IV (5). MapInfo, Community 2020, and Idrisi/Erdas were each only used by one institution. Some institutions use more than one software package. Nineteen of the respondents indicated that the software was located on individual workstations. Two institutions responded that the software was available both through the campus network and individual workstations. Only one respondent indicated that the software was accessible via a campus server. (Table 1)

Eighteen of the respondents indicated that the data required by the systems is acquired through the Government Printing Office Depository program. Many of the surveys also indicated that data is acquired via state agencies (9) and through purchase (10). Three indicated that the data was donated, while eight indicated other ways that data is obtained including grant funding, cooperative purchases, archives and institutional research, Internet resources, bundled with the software package, or other reference databases. (Table 1)

Staffing of GIS Services

Questions 9 through 11 dealt with the staffing issues involved with GIS services. Some of the institutions indicated more than one response to these questions, but the majority (10) of surveys indicated the response "one full-time employee who assists with GIS along with other duties." Five institutions also marked "students with some knowledge of GIS." (Table 2)

Table 2: Staffing of GIS Services*
Full-time Employees Part-time Employees
Survey Statement Count Survey Statement Count
One full-time employee dedicated to GIS only 0 Several part-time employees 3
One full-time employee who assists with GIS along with other duties 10 Students with some knowledge of GIS 5
Several full-time employees that spend a portion of their day on GIS 2 Other 7
* Values represent actual count(s) on returned surveys indicating GIS use (22) and are not mutually exclusive.

The service level provided to patrons varied greatly among the surveyed institutions (Table 3). Nine of the libraries indicated more than one service level; the majority (15) marked "users with some knowledge of GIS are given open access to a computer loaded with GIS software." Although not mutually exclusive, six of the institutions indicated their library serves as a clearinghouse for information, six indicated a library employee creates a map at user's request, and six said they give initial instruction and then the user works on his/her own asking the library employee for help only when necessary. (Table 3) Eighteen of the respondents indicated GIS services are only available during the hours the library is open.

Table 3: Service Levels Provided for GIS services*
Library Non-Library
Service Level Count Service Level Count
Provides a clearinghouse for geospatial information. 6 Users with some knowledge of GIS are given open access to a computer loaded with GIS software. 15
Library employee creates map at user's request. 6 Library does not support GIS Lab. GIS Lab is only used for discipline-specific courses. 1
User may consult with library employee for help, if needed. 6    
Users can make an appointment with staff or students for help with projects. 1    
* Values represent actual count(s) on returned surveys indicating GIS use(22) and are not mutually exclusive.


Question 12 related to GIS training provided by the library. Fourteen of the respondents indicated that no training is available, two stated that training is available, but not in the library, five responded that training is available on-site, and one gave no response. Of the five that stated that training is available in the library, two specified that it is accomplished through one-on-one instruction with an individual instructor, one indicated group-based or tutorial training, and another indicated that training is done using tutorials or one-on-one instruction. Further survey research on GIS training in libraries should be done to clarify how training is best accomplished.

GIS Administrative Support

Questions 13 through 15 dealt with monetary administrative support for GIS services. Eighteen of the respondents said that the amount of administrative support provided for personnel training on GIS software is between $0-$999, two institutions reported support between $1,000-$1,999, and one replied $2,000-$2,999. Only one institution replied that support is on an "as needed" basis. Question 15 asked about administrative support of GIS software and hardware. Fourteen replied that support is between $0-$999, three replied $1,000-$1,999, two said $3,000+, and three gave "no" or "other" as an answer. (Table 4)

Table 4: Funding for Training, Software, & Hardware
Funding Amount Training Software/Hardware
$0-$999 18 14
$1000-$1999 2 3
$2000-$2999 1 0
$3000+ 0 2
Other 1 3

Library Users of GIS Services

The majority of institutions reported that the main users of GIS were the geography and geology departments (19) followed by natural resources (11). Other academic departments listed included business, engineering, sociology, political science, environmental science, biology, landscape architecture, city & regional planning, history, and nursing.


Sixty three percent of the surveys returned showed libraries' interest in GIS, but the survey also showed lack of support for GIS as indicated by the limited number of computers supporting the software and/or the small amount of administrative support for training and for the purchase of required software and hardware. Only half of the libraries surveyed have staff devoted to GIS part-time.


When the information for the survey was collected (Fall 2001) WSU had one workstation loaded with ArcView 3.3 in the reference area of the library. Although the administration at WSU was supportive of the library's efforts to introduce GIS to the campus, departments, students, and the surrounding community, outside grants including a university-funded grant and a state-funded LSTA grant were crucial for a more complete implementation of GIS services within the library. Today (Fall 2004) the library supports a GIS laboratory containing 3 GIS workstations, a color printer, and one full-time staff person who works with GIS part-time. The information gained from the survey can be used to assist other similar-sized institutions in deciding whether to or not to begin offering GIS services within their libraries. The authors believe that if smaller academic libraries considering the adoption of GIS examine what worked and did not work at other libraries reported by the survey, their implementation of GIS has a better chance of success.

Future Opportunities

GIS is an interdisciplinary tool that can be used in all university departments (Johnson & Phoenix 2003). Libraries at smaller colleges and universities tend to be focal points for students, faculty, and the community, and since GIS is data-centered, the library is an appropriate place for GIS research to be conducted. With a basic GIS set-up and a knowledgeable staff member, a small academic library can market its GIS services to a variety of departments (i.e. criminal justice-crime analysis, marketing-new business site analysis, and biology-wildlife population projections). As libraries struggle to retain funding and adjust to changes in technology, GIS can be used as a marketing tool in get people into the library and using library resources. Additionally, GIS provides a gateway to information that is often underused in the library setting including Census data, satellite imagery, and local and state data.


The authors wish to acknowledge the following people for their contributions: Kathy Payne for her helpful comments and suggestions on the survey and the paper, Steve Kerr for assisting in the development of the survey questions, Brandon Kennedy for developing the Web-based survey, and Briana Beckstrand for compiling the names and addresses to whom the surveys were sent.


Association of Research Libraries. 1999. The ARL Geographic Information Systems Literacy Project: A SPEC Kit. Washington, DC: Association of Research Libraries, Office of Leadership and Management Services.

Atkins, A. 1999. Library-based GIS initiative at the Illinois Institute of Technology. Illinois Libraries 81(2): 67-74.

Badurak, C. 2000. Managing GIS in academic libraries. WAML Information Bulletin 31(2): 110-114.

Carnegie Classification. 1997-2003. Carnegie Foundation for the Advancement of Teaching. [Online] Available: {} [Accessed Nov. 2002].

Johnson, A. & Phoenix, M. 2003. GIS across campus. ArcUser: 16-17.

Journal of Academic Librarianship 21(4) [July 1995] and 23(6) [November 1997].

Kowal, K. C. 2002. Tapping the web for GIS and mapping technologies: for all levels of libraries and users. Information Technology and Libraries 21(3): 109-114.

Moulder, C. 2002. Current Literature on Geographic Information Systems and Libraries. McMaster University Libraries. Lloyd Reeds Map Collection. [Online]. Available: {} [Accessed September 13, 2004].

Smith, L.C. and Gluck, M. 1996. Geographic Information Systems and Libraries: Patrons, Maps, and Spatial Information. Urbana-Champaign: Graduate School of Library and Information Science.

Suh, H. and Lee, A. 1999. Embracing GIS services in libraries: the Washington State University experience. The Reference Librarian 64: 125-137.

Yu, L. 1998. Geographic Information Systems in library reference services: development and challenge. Electronic Resources: Use and User Behavior (ed. by H. Iyer), pp. 87-110 New York: Haworth Press.

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