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Issues in Science and Technology Librarianship
Fall 2007


Geospatial Information Literacy and Outreach in a GIS Environment

Eva Dodsworth
Geospatial Data Services Librarian
University of Waterloo
Waterloo, Ontario, Canada

Copyright 2007, Eva Dodsworth. Used with permission.

In an age when digitization and electronic formats are either complementing or replacing paper editions of map products, map librarians are finding themselves in different roles, with new job titles, searching for refreshing ways to promote and educate users about electronic mapping, or GIS (Geographical Information Systems). My position at the University of Waterloo is Geospatial Data Services Librarian -- a new position created this year. An important initiative is geospatial information literacy with campus-wide outreach: to educate faculty, staff and students who often are not GIS-savvy (or who have never heard of it) and to demonstrate to them in a workshop or presentation how GIS can be included in their course content and project work.

Promoting and providing access to geospatial data is different than endorsing the usage of traditional library paper maps and aerial photography. The traditional map librarian doesn't teach how to use a map to the same extent as the GIS librarian teaches about GIS data and technology. I have come to realize that if students and faculty are to use GIS then they must first be taught how to use it. Many are not in the geography department and have not been exposed to mapping or geospatial data. Instead of visiting classrooms and discussing our vast array of digital data, I now engage the students with a live demonstration of our datasets in a context that would interest them. For example, I plot all of the coffee shops in the region; create a map of all food services open 24 hours; and help them find housing that is either on a bus route or walking distance to the university. Once I have won their interest in this visual display of information, I offer separate hands-on workshops to teach them how to do it themselves using GIS software. Some workshops are tailored for the novice user, some for the more advanced, but all include elements of geospatial information literacy: the skills to locate geospatial data, to utilize it with software, and to evaluate geospatial resources.

The geospatial data services that we offer are entirely based on the needs of our clients. If they do not want to use a proprietary GIS product (for licensing, cost or functionality reasons) we offer a list of alternative GIS software products that we compile and update. If they cannot attend a workshop, we create paper and online guides to help them on their software or data journey. The bottom line is, if the users do not know how to use the software or the data, or don't understand the elements of data evaluation, then they either simply will not use it or they will opt for the lower resolution, lower quality and debatable accuracy of maps and GIS data available on the internet. Our users today are looking for information that is easy to use and quick to retrieve. The librarian's job is to remove the obstacles for a successful, continuous journey of learning. We must observe our clients, watch what they do, listen to their questions, and put ourselves in their shoes, and reflect upon their needs, their skills, and their time commitments. Then we can develop services that meet their needs.

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