A Critical Study of GIS Services in Research Libraries: A Case Study of SUNY Albany and New York State Libraries

-Tsering Wangyal Shawa

More and more government agencies are providing digital data to depository libraries, and many of these digital data can be used in various geographic information systems software. In June of 1992, the Association of Research Libraries (ARL) and Environmental Systems Research Institute (ESRI), the largest maker of GIS software formed a partnership to started a project called the ARL/GIS Literacy Project. This project encouraged many libraries in the country to introduce GIS service. To start the project, they initially invited thirty research libraries, gave free workshops and software. SUNY Albany and New York State libraries were two of the first libraries invited into their project. SUNY Albany library could not provide effective GIS service and officially discontinued the GIS service by the Fall of 1996. New York State library has run a very successful GIS service in their library. This research paper is an attempt to discover the reasons why one library did well in pursuing this new library tool and another failed to continue with it. The paper is based on interviews with concern librarians and their administrators. The author outlines various reasons and explains each success and failure of GIS service in the respective libraries.

Various state and federal government agencies provide digital data to depository libraries around the country, without software included. These libraries were facing the new challenges of storing, maintaining, and providing access to these data. The data includes the Topologically Integrated Geographic Encoding and Referencing system (TIGER) / Line Files and 1990 decennial census data from the Bureau of the Census, the Digital Line Graph files from the U.S. Geological Survey, and economic and agricultural data. Many these data can be accessed by using various Geographic Information Systems while (GIS) software packages. In response to these changes, research libraries explored various strategy to use digital data. A few libraries took the initiative and introduced GIS service in their libraries, other libraries were uncomfortable taking this initiative in introducing this new service in the library environment.

The real initiative started with the development of the ARL/GIS Literacy Project in June 1992. This project evolved when the Association of Research Libraries (ARL), in partnership with the Environmental Research Science Institute (ERSI), one of the world's largest developers of GIS software, decided to develop GIS programs in various libraries. The aims of this project were:

  1. to develop a core of GIS professionals in the library community willing to lend time and expertise to new applications, user training, and education programs related to GIS;
  2. to stimulate and encourage the establishment of "centers of excellence" for GIS information;
  3. to promote research, education and the public right to know through improved access to government information;
  4. to initiate library projects to explore new applications of spatially referenced data;
  5. to introduce GIS to public, academic, research, state, rural, and large urban libraries in order to address the diverse information needs of disparate user communities.

    Initially, the project invited thirty research libraries to participate. The SUNY Albany and New York State libraries were two of the thirty libraries invited to participate in the ARL/GIS project. This project became so popular among the libraries that it lead to the development of GIS programs in more than seventy libraries in the United States and twenty-eight libraries in Canada.

    What is GIS, and how can it be used in the library setting? "GIS is designed for the collection, storage, and analysis of objects and phenomena where geographic location is an important characteristic or critical to the analysis." Since the primary function of libraries is the management of information, GIS will provide an appropriate tool for libraries in collecting, storing, and giving access to the digital spatial data. "More and more information is becoming available in digital form and libraries are finding GIS technology an effective tool for providing information to its users."

    Recently two library journals (the June 1995 issue of Information Technology and Libraries, Vol.14, No.2 and the July 1995 issue of the Journal of Academic Librarianship, Vol.21, No.4) devoted their entire issues to GIS. One can deduce from these articles that GIS is a very important tool for research libraries. Joseph A Boisse and Mary Larsgaard point out that GIS is a service increasingly in demand by users of academic libraries, and if libraries fail to provide this service they will be marginalized by the academic community. GIS also provides exciting opportunities: its potentials exist in virtually all subject disciplines. Cline and Adler noted that "Librarians who can adroitly use GIS techniques will have increased opportunities to access and incorporate large amounts of spatial data published only in digital form." It is apparent that "the growing quantity of digital spatial data is phenomenal, and more geographical information is available today in digital format than on paper. For some users this means greater empowerment, but for others there is a risk of isolation. Libraries remain a location to which user can turn for access to this information." "Perhaps one of the most powerful benefits of GIS is its ability to integrate different databases into one environment. In effect, a GIS database may be thought of as a database of databases."

    GIS is certainly a very useful tool for research libraries. The SUNY Albany and New York State libraries joined the bandwagon as soon as ARL/GIS project started. The staff in charge of GIS service from both libraries were sent for various hands-on training by the ESRI, and they also took GIS courses at the SUNY Albany geography department. Both libraries introduced this GIS service in their respective libraries. SUNY Albany library was not very successful in providing the GIS service to its library. The library has never expanded its GIS service beyond the one Geographic original workstation since the inception of the GIS service in the library. In fact, they officially decided not to provide the GIS service in the library from the Fall 1996 semester until further notice. However, New York State library has been very successful in introducing the GIS service and integrating it into their library system. They get lots of GIS related reference questions, and making their GIS librarian one of the busiest librarians. Their GIS service is also fairly well known within the GIS library community, so that the GIS Librarian is frequently invited to new give presentations in different GIS-related library seminars.

    The Purpose of the Study

    The main purpose of this study is to explore the various reasons why SUNY Albany and New York State had different rates of success in maintaining GIS service in their respective libraries. The SUNY Albany library was not successful in expanding their small desktop GIS service to their library users, while New York State library managed to make GIS a successful library tool. This paper will address various questions including: Why was SUNY Albany library's GIS service discontinued? Is it due to lack of funding, lack of administrative vision, lack of library staff skill, or a lack of communication between the planners of the service and the end users? Why did New York State library's GIS manage to become a popular library service? This study will also try to of outline some problems, and some successful services provided by the two libraries.


    This research is based solely on interviews with the GIS librarians of the SUNY Albany and New York State libraries and their respective administrators. It is done in this fashion so that author can understand the various aspects of GIS services in their libraries. It was also helpful for the author to understand the differences of policies between and old administrators. Some interviews were taped.

    GIS Service In The SUNY Albany Library

    The SUNY Albany Library was one of the first thirty libraries invited to join the ARL/GIS Project. They decided to join in the project because they know the GIS technology was out there and they wanted to explore it to see what was involved and also to see whether they could use the technology or not. They talked to the SUNY Albany geography department, who thought it was a wonderful idea, because at that time the geography department had only a couple of ARC/INFO workstations and no ArcView software. The ARL/GIS Project wanted to introduce and experiment with desktop version of GIS application called ArcView, which is supposed to be user-friendly GIS software.

    The librarian in charge of the SUNY Albany GIS was sent to various training sessions and also took some GIS courses in the geography department. When she finished her various workshops and courses and was ready to introduce GIS tools in the library, she could not do it in time because the library did not have the necessary hardware available. When they got the hardware, free software, and technical help from ESRI, the library presented GIS to the reference librarians and discussed the implementation of GIS in the reference area. After viewing the GIS presentation, the librarians were really afraid to put it in the reference area for library patrons to use, because it is not easy to use and requires a fairly steep learning curve. They realized that they could not just put the GIS service in the reference area and expect patrons to create maps. In order to do anything meaningful with it, a person needs to know something about statistics, geography, and cartography.

    The initial aim of introducing GIS service in the library was to provide simple instruction on how to use GIS to students and allow them to use this tool for displaying, analyzing, and manipulating of digital data. However, the librarians learned that it was not as simple as giving instruction on how to use the Internet or other database systems. It requires a much deeper understanding of the software and needs some knowledge of the GIS for a person to use GIS service in the library. Knowing these facts, the SUNY Albany librarians realized that in order for the library to successfully implement this new service in the library, they would need at least one staff devoting most of their time to specializing in GIS. The librarian in charge of the SUNY library GIS service, had responsibilities other than maintaining GIS service in the library. At the same time, the geography department acquired more computers with ArcView software. Most of the GIS users in the library were geography students, and since their department provided extended hours to use their computers, many of them started using the geography department's GIS service, instead of the library's GIS service. There were also some changes in the SUNY Albany library system, and the supervisor who had taken the initiative in introducing GIS service in the library had left Albany. The new supervisor did not find it necessary to provide GIS service for various reasons, which shall be explain later in this article, and hence, the GIS service was gradually discontinued in the library.

    Let us examine some of the reasons why the GIS service was discontinued in the SUNY Albany library.

    Lack of Policy on GIS Service

    Initially, when the library administrators decided to join the ARL/GIS project, they did not made any concrete plan of how they would to use GIS in the library. This lack of planned service resulted in many unanswered questions. First, there was no written policy on how to use GIS service in the library. Second, librarians were not sure what type of GIS service they planned to offer in the library and therefore, there was no agreement of a policy on GIS service. Third, they were not sure where to put the GIS service and hence the GIS computer was kept in the GIS librarian's office, which made public access to GIS service more difficult. Fourth, the staff person in charge of GIS service was not given specific time slots to maintain GIS, which caused her to give less time to GIS then was needed to maintain it. Fifth, the library never advertised the GIS service to its users, so the service did not attract many users. only a few geography students, who came to know about the service through the geography department, took advantage of the GIS service in the library.

    Change of Administrator

    An other reason for discontinuation of GIS service in the library was the change of administrator. The new administrator had a different view of GIS and its service in the library. She gave various reasons why the library decided to discontinue the GIS service from the library. First, she found that it was not a very useful tool in their library because there was a little demand for the GIS type of service in the library. Second, departments who usually need GIS service have their own stations in their own departments and many of the high level research type questions were handled completely in their respective departments. Third, the GIS computer was stationed in the GIS librarian office because nobody was sure where to put it; this make it difficult to access GIS service on a regular basis. Fourth, the library did not have enough funds to assign specially trained staff to maintain GIS service, and the lack of funds also made it difficult to upgrade the GIS equipment. Lastly, students who need simple census information can get this information from the Internet. The administrator cited the above as the main reasons which made her decide not to offer GIS service in the library from the Fall 1996 onwards (This formal policy of not offering GIS service in the library from the Fall 1996 was made because of this author's insistence of using GIS in the library).

    General Lack of Skill and Interest in GIS Among Librarians

    Geographical Information System requires specialized training and knowledge of the computer. When the library was planning to introduce GIS service, very few librarians had shown interest in learning this new library tool. The librarians who were directly related to this subject, such as the geography bibliographer, had shown little interest in taking charge of GIS. In fact, there was some turnover in the geography bibliographer's position. Except for the librarian in charge of GIS, there were no other librarians with the skill and interest in GIS. This was a major factor contributing to making this service less attractive to the librarians. The GIS service seemed too unimportant and too difficult to offer.

    GIS Service in New York State Library

    The New York State Library, in Albany, NY, was one of the first thirty research libraries invited to join in the ARL/GIS Project. The decision to join in the project was made by the director of the library. Before deciding to join in the project, the library made some concrete plans concerning how they intended to implement this new service in the library. After the decision was made, the administrator appointed a librarian to take charge of this GIS service. She was selected on the basis of her skill and interest in computers. This librarian was sent to various ARL/GIS Project workshops and encouraged to take GIS courses in the SUNY Albany geography department. She was given enough time to develop GIS skills and knowledge of ArcView software (the primary GIS software used by the library). She was also given less and less time in her previous routine librarian job, and given more and more time to work on developing a GIS service plan in the library. The library also assigned two more librarians to assist the GIS librarian.

    The New York State library understood the complexity of GIS technology and the skill required for successful implementation of this innovative service into the library. The library administrators have given the full responsibility of managing the GIS service in the library to the GIS librarian. This encouragement together with her own interest in learning more about the GIS, has contributed a great deal to making the New York State library's GIS service a successful library service. Because of her and other librarian's suggestions, the administrators did not immediately put the GIS terminal in the reference area for general public use. However, the library uses this new tool for answering various GIS related reference questions for the library users. This new library tool has been so effectively used to process spatial information, it has now became a show piece for dignitaries who visit the state library.

    Some of the successful services the New York State Library introduced with this new tool are: helping state legislatures to get information on their districts, keeping track of a user's location, providing innovative GIS services, and helping the library development division.

    Helping State Legislatures to Get Information on Their Districts

    The New York State Library provides spatial information to the state government, the legislature, and state agencies by extracting information from the U.S. Census and other databases. One of the most important services the library provides is giving spatial information to the state legislatures. The information, including total population, basic racial composition, number of housing units, median value of housing, median family income, school and library districts, and location of various legislative districts are usually provided in map forms. Theis visual information is more powerful than the textual data. Some of the most popular GIS reference questions the library get involve these areas.

    Keeping Track of A User's Location

    The New York State Library also uses GIS to keep track of people using their services. They keep a record of the zip code and date for every reference question they get. The information is used for creating maps, so that the library will know who uses their services. They found that the library is not only used by people around in Albany area, but also from other parts of New York State. This information helps them in planning their resources, and it also helps them to bargain with various legislatures about getting more funds for their library.

    Providing Innovative GIS Services

    The New York State Library also uses GIS for other innovative services. One of these is the Newspaper Locator Project, which uses simple GIS tools to locate historical newspapers published in the New York State since 1725, searchable using either map or table. The Newspaper Locator presents an interactive map of the counties and cities of publication of newspapers in New York State. It is linked to a table with titles, cities, counties, detailed holdings, publication dates, and call numbers of New York State newspapers on microfilm held by the New York State Library. This easy to use GIS tool is put in the reference service for general public use. Another innovative service is historical and recent seismicity information in New York State (1700's up to 1986 ). This project was developed in partnership with the State Emergency Management Office. The library stripped off complex earthquake data from this State Office, renamed those fields that are relevant to the general public, and created an interactive map which is searchable using either map or table. Information such as year, month and day, location, magnitude of earthquake, type of earthquake, and depth of earthquake are provided. Should the patron want more detailed information on an earthquake, they will be given access to the original, unstripped earthquake data. The information on historical earthquakes, together with the Newspaper Locator Project, gives patrons access to a wealth of information on New York State. The administrators saw these as potential uses of GIS service in the library.

    Helping The Library Development Division

    The GIS service also helps the State library's division of library development.The GIS librarian helps this department by improving the various spatial data, such as location of public and school libraries, in correspondence to their addresses and districts. Many of the library development data do not have correct address locations in their digital data because of poor digitizing. The GIS librarian does research and geocodes the address correctly on the spatial data. The refining of data helps the library development people to plan for the needs of the various public and school libraries.

    After studying the implementation of GIS services in both the libraries, it was possible for the author to find out some of the main factors which played roles in making one library service a success story and another a failure. The major factors are: administrative support, staff skill, interest and enough staff time to learn GIS technology, proper coordination between various departments, advertisement of GIS service, and interest in creating innovative services.

    Administrative Support

    This is a crucial for the developing of GIS service in the library. Administrators are the ones who make decisions on which services to introduce and which ones to discontinue. In SUNY Albany's case, the administrator who supported the idea of GIS in the library resigned from the library and the new administrator found the GIS service not very helpful for the library, so it was discontinued. In the New York State Library, on the other hand, when the administrator who supported the GIS service left the library, the administrator continued to support the continuation of GIS service in the library. Hence, this service is still continuing.

    Staff Skill, Interest and Enough Staff Time to Learn GIS Technology

    In order to run successful GIS service, the library needs to hire a person who has skill and interest in GIS, or choose a librarian who shows interest in learning the skill. It is not only important to get the right person to run the GIS service but it is also important for the library administrator to alllow enough time for the staff to develop GIS skills. A good example is the GIS librarian at the New York State Library. She is neither a Documents nor a Map Librarian, and yet she has developed a successful GIS service (most of the GIS service is run either by a document librarian or by a map librarian). The reason behind this success story is that she took an interest in GIS, and her supervisor has given her enough time to work with GIS tools. If enough time is not given to a librarian, the person can quickly loose the skill already acquired, and therefore, may slowly loose the interest of providing GIS service to the users. In the SUNY Albany library, although the GIS librarian had an interest in learning GIS, she was not given enough time to develop her GIS skills. This has made her loose touch with the complex applications that are associated with GIS, and she gradually lost interest in maintaining the GIS service. This service cannot be run successfully unless the staff person is given enough time to work with GIS technology and develop their interest in the GIS applications.

    Proper Coordination Between Various Departments

    GIS can not be developed in isolation; it must be developed in partnership with other departments, both inside and outside the library. Librarians interviewed for this project cited various partnerships they had with the different departments in order for a GIS service to run successfully. They need to work closely with someone in charge of computer networking or a system administrator. It is also important to maintain a close working relationship with subject bibliographers, data services, and other academic departments which use GIS tools. Instead provided of taking responsibility for making their library a center of accessing various spatial data, the SUNY Albany library decided to let each department buy their own software and data to run GIS in their departments. The New York State Library, however, not only maintain spatial data in their library but also acquired more data from various other agencies so that they could store the data in a centralized location and provide GIS service to various agencies wanting spatial information.

    Advertisement of GIS Service

    Any new service that a library plans to implement should be advertised to its users. It is wrong on the library's part to assume that the new service will be known by the patrons without any advertising. This is especially true for a service like GIS, which is not only new to many library users, but is also a new tool for the library. Without proper advertisement of this new tool, nobody will use its service. The university library never advertised this service to the general library users. In fact, the author was not aware of the GIS service in the university library until he was told by one of his professors about it. One of the main reasons given by the library administrator for discontinuing the GIS service in the university library was that there were few students who use its service. On the other hand, New York State library advertised their GIS service to various agencies and also announced the new service on their Web page. The advertisement made more people aware of the GIS service, thereby getting more reference questions based on spatial data.

    Making Innovative Services

    Libraries are in the information business. They need to identify, acquire, describe, and make information in any format accessible to library users. GIS is one of the new tools in the library which analyzes, modifies, and displays digital spatial data. In order for libraries to use this new tool effectively, librarians need to understand the complexity of GIS technology and decide what level of service they plan to introduce with the help of GIS. The use of GIS as library tool to process information is a very new phenomenon, and therefore the service is not fully matured. It will be the responsibilities of the libraries to create the service according to their needs. Hence, libraries need to be innovative in providing GIS service to their users. The New York State Library understood the usefulness of GIS and created some innovative services such as the Newspaper Locator Project and the Historical Earthquake information, whereas, the university library at Albany failed to exploit the GIS technology as new library tool.

    The case study of GIS services in the SUNY Albany and New York State libraries has shed some light on what needs to be done in libraries in order for them to introduce this service successfully. It also provided various ideas of new GIS services. GIS technology is so powerful that it is used by virtually all disciplines, such as by police to understand patterns of crime in neighborhoods, and by epidemiologists to track the spread of disease around the world, and by schools to understand the diversity of their school district population. GIS is certainly not a simple tool with which most librarians are familiar. It cannot be mastered within a few months, and it requires constant training and practice for the staff GIS person to provide effective GIS service.


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