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Issues in Science and Technology Librarianship
Fall 2008

[Board accepted]

Geospatial Technology Support in Small Academic Libraries: Time to Jump on Board?

Carrie M. Macfarlane
Reference and Instruction Librarian for the Sciences
Middlebury College
Middlebury, Vermont

Christopher M. Rodgers
Assistant in Science Instruction
Middlebury College
Middlebury, Vermont

Copyright 2008, Carrie M. Macfarlane and Christopher M. Rodgers. Used with permission.


Many librarians at small academic institutions have been wondering if they can, or even should, support the use of geospatial technology on their campuses. At the Middlebury College Libraries, we have developed a model of support for geospatial technology which we think might be versatile and transferable enough to try elsewhere.

Deciding to support the use of geospatial technologies in a small college library is kind of like deciding to board a train. If you don't board it at the platform then you might have to run to catch up, but you don't want to get on too early in case you change your mind -- disembarking mid-trip is a painful prospect.

Here at Middlebury College Library and Information Services, we boarded the GIS (Geographic Information Systems) train in 2006. We gripped our luggage -- a funding request for a full-time GIS intern -- with white knuckles. We felt giddy when, with the help of faculty in the Geography Department, we recruited an optimistic Middlebury graduate to fill the position. Fortunately, our nervousness was unfounded. After our first one-year internship, we were able to fund a second, and now we're moving geospatial technology support to a more permanent place in the library. The landscape has changed in the past few years, and the time might be right for other small academic libraries to jump on board.

Our GIS interns succeeded in promoting, supporting and assessing the need for geospatial support on campus. Their skills and motivation were the major contributing factors to their success, but recent growth in the visibility of web-based mapping applications such as Google Earth, NASA World Wind, and Microsoft Virtual Earth certainly helped. Over the course of two years, we've learned that software as accessible as Google Earth can spark the interests and meet the needs of many of our users. It's this realization which has made it possible for us to experiment with a more long-term commitment to geospatial support.

Why does this matter? When we were wondering how to improve the spatial literacy skills of researchers, other small schools were wondering too. In 2005, here in this very publication you saw, "Survey of GIS Implementation and Use within Smaller Academic Libraries," (Kinikin & Hench 2005a) and its successor, "Follow-up Survey of GIS at Smaller Academic Libraries" (Kinikin & Hench 2005b). In 2006, Library Trends ran a special issue on GIS in libraries (Library Trends 2006). Soon afterwards, "GIS and the Academic Library: A Survey of Libraries Offering GIS Services in Two Consortia" (Gabaldón & Repplinger 2006) and "Geospatial Information Literacy and Outreach in a GIS Environment" (Dodsworth 2007) were published. It seemed like a good time to buy a ticket and board the train.

The past few years have been revolutionary for geospatial technology. Web-based mapping applications have flipped the geospatial industry on its end. Google Earth has millions of users worldwide (Ohazama 2008) and the programming language it uses has been deemed an international standard (Open Geospatial Consortium 2008). GPS (Global Positioning System) units are more accurate than ever, and accessibility restrictions to manipulating this type of information have receded. All of these developments mean that building and sharing resources with embedded geographic information is becoming easier all the time.

Although the increased availability of geographic data creates new and exciting ways to conduct research, there are reasons to be wary. Since the rate at which this technology is being utilized is probably growing faster than the rate at which training can be extended, it's likely that many researchers aren't familiar with the principles of how to incorporate geospatial data properly. Consequently, it seems safe to expect that inaccurate data may be proliferating online. Geospatial technology support should continue to grow in importance even as geospatial applications become more accessible.

Our GIS interns researched models of GIS support in other academic libraries and then publicized their own services to students, faculty and staff at Middlebury. Library users were targeted through posters in library stairwells, and academic departments were targeted through posters in academic buildings. Senior thesis writers learned about GIS in a message advertising research support from the libraries. Faculty learned about GIS in messages with subject-specific examples. Our LIS eNewsletter ran a story and our RSS feed devoted a posting to the topic. People who had asked for assistance with GIS in the past were contacted. Face-to-face introductions were made to academic department heads, grant writers, writing tutors, academic technologists, librarians, other LIS staff -- and anyone else who we happened to bump into as we walked across campus. And the requests for GIS support started to roll in.

During their back-to-back ten-month terms, our interns ran class-related and walk-in workshops for students, faculty, staff, and the Middlebury community. They provided consultations and authored research guides that enhanced presentations, term papers, articles, books and other projects around campus. They helped with lab maintenance, tested software, and even showed geology faculty how to make use of new GPS-enabled tablet PCs within their curriculum. They put our free educational Google Earth Pro licenses to use with student projects such as, "Food Mapping: From Farm to Plate," (online at and an interactive Catamount Trail Association map (online at -- requires Google Earth application).

At the end of their terms, each intern produced a report which summarized their activities and suggested a path for future LIS support. Both reports pointed to the growing popularity of web-based mapping applications like Google Earth. Our first intern predicted, "As extremely user-friendly interfaces such as Google Earth gain more sophisticated functionality, they will likely usurp traditional GIS software for many tasks." Our second intern called Google Earth, "the stepping stone that generates interest and leads on to further research and projects."

Our interns found that Google Earth helped to answer the question that had prompted us to jump on the GIS train. It created an opportunity for us to improve the geospatial skills of our researchers by encouraging them to experiment with geographic information. Faculty, staff, students and community members asked for workshops and requested ongoing assistance with projects using Google Earth. High-end, traditional geospatial software such as ArcGIS still was utilized by the usual suspects -- Geography, Geology and Environmental Studies -- and our interns and the GIS Specialist in the Geography Department supported it. Google Earth appeared to be bringing in users whom we otherwise might not have seen.

So now, instead of supporting GIS through an internship which we must renew each year, we will support Google Earth (and some GIS) more permanently through student tutors in our media lab. All media tutors have attended training sessions on Google Earth, and one tutor, a geography major, will act as the local expert on Google Earth and other geospatial technology. Complex inquiries which require more time and expertise will be referred to the GIS Lab and the GIS Specialist in the Geography Department.

It will be convenient to have a centralized contact point for geospatial needs on campus, but the media lab and its student tutors offers more than just that. When this model of support was applied to other technology on campus, it increased the cross-disciplinary application of the technology. We're hoping the same phenomenon will happen this time. As more students use Google Earth in their course-related research projects, perhaps the interest will filter up to faculty. That may have begun already; this fall, a professor in the English Department will have his students use Google Earth to bring together interviews and documentaries of residents of a nearby community. If this trend continues then we might need to develop our model further and offer additional support.

Trains have economy seats for the masses and business class seats for the more demanding traveler, and the GIS train is no different. Just about anyone can enjoy clicking and scrolling their way around a virtual globe, but some users will have more precise, data-driven needs which can be met only with high-end software like ArcGIS. One major obstacle for library support of geographic information needs in the past has been the complexity of the requisite software (Argentati 1995). Learning how to use ArcGIS and maintaining one's skills over time is a time-consuming and daunting task. Web-based mapping applications have opened up new possibilities not only for researchers, but also for the libraries that wish to support them.

Learning how to navigate Google Earth is fun, but using the software for educational purposes requires a little more expertise. Libraries wishing to reach out to researchers who are interested in adding a geographic element to their work will want to teach their staff to be power users. Creating multimedia tours, inserting historic overlays which illustrate change over time, and incorporating charts that show quantities in a geographic context -- these are just a few examples of the Google Earth tools and add-ons which our interns utilized with researchers at Middlebury.

The good news is that our interns taught themselves how to use these tools. If staff at your library wishes to do the same, it is probably within their reach to do so. Have them go online to visit the resources below. Bon Voyage!

Resources for learning and teaching Google Earth:
This is the first site beginning users should go to for entry level information. Includes short video tutorials (
This site is the general gateway for learning how to understand and edit Google's KML and KMZ file formats. Start out with the KML tutorial to learn about all the different ways you can manipulate placemarks, lines, polygons, overlays, etc.
This is where you find the KML Samples file showing you how you can edit and format KML in Google Earth or Google Maps.
This outreach site has some great video tutorials and other showcase material to highlight and encourage Google Earth's utility for the non-profit community.
This is a good place to search user created content.
This site goes over some advanced elements in the program that can really help you extend your usage of Google Earth and KML.
Google Earth Graph, use this program to extrude and make 3D charts on the surface of the earth.


Argentati, C. D. 1995. Expanding horizons for GIS services in academic libraries. Journal of Academic Librarianship 23(6):463-469.

Dodsworth, E. 2007. Viewpoints: geospatial information literacy and outreach in a GIS Environment. Issues in Science and Technology Librarianship 52. [Online]. Available: [Accessed October 9, 2008].

Gabaldón, C. and Repplinger, J. 2006. GIS and the academic library: a survey of libraries offering GIS services in two consortia. Issues in Science and Technology Librarianship 48. [Online]. Available: [Accessed October 9, 2008].

Kinikin, J. and Hench, K. 2005a. Survey of GIS implementation and use within smaller academic libraries. Issues in Science and Technology Librarianship 42. [Online]. Available: [Accessed October 9, 2008].

Kinikin, J. and Hench, K. 2005. Follow-up survey of GIS implementation and use within smaller academic libraries. Issues in Science and Technology Librarianship 43. [Online]. Available: [Accessed October 9, 2008].

Library Trends. 2006. Special issue on GIS in libraries. Library Trends 55(2).

Ohazama, C. 2008. Truly global. Google Lat Long Blog [Online]. Available: [Accessed October 9, 2008].

Open Geospatial Consortium. KML - OGC. OpenGIS Standards and Specifications. [Online]. Available: [Accessed October 9, 2008].

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