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Book Review: Integrating Geographic Information Systems Into Library Services

Sylvie Lafortune reviews a much needed work on offering GIS services in libraries.

No one will dispute that geographic information is an integral part of contemporary life. Who has not looked up driving directions on MapQuest or used Google Earth to look at a city of interest on their personal computer? And most cars manufactured in the last few years can come equipped with GPS technology. Interestingly enough, though, most users of these tools have only a vague idea that they are based on digital geospatial data such as satellite imagery and digital elevation models (DEM). But the reality is that most students now entering universities or technical colleges have been introduced to geographic information systems (GIS) more formally and will be expecting some level of GIS service at their institution's library.

In North America, the levels of GIS services offered in academic libraries vary a great deal. The underlying reason for this remains, as stated in the preface to this book, a matter of resources: 'Even the most basic of GIS services requires significant investment in training programs and resources for librarians and staff'. So it seems that the title under review is very timely and indeed unique, since a quick query in Global Books in Print reveals no other book on this topic has been published at least in the last decade.

This book is co-authored by four academic librarians working at the University of South Florida Libraries system. It offers ten chapters, each of which is written by all or some of the authors. The work's prefatory comments briefly provide the context in which GIS emerged, noting that it was not until the mid-1960s that, alongside print maps, 'GIS, a computer-based database for capturing, storing, analysing, and managing data and associated attributes that are spatially referenced to the earth' was introduced as a new way to look at populations, location, and natural resources. The view is clear: GIS does not replace but augments the services of the map library.

The content loses its focus as it attempts to address too many issues at both the practical and the theoretical levels. This becomes apparent from the preface where the authors introduce their work and hope 'the reader will be intrigued, provoked, and reflective', be they practitioners, students, educators and non-specialists. Given the title of this book, it is more than likely that librarians will be reading it and since most of us are all too familiar with the development of the virtual library and some of the effects of the information economy, the first two chapters do not add very much to the book.

With chapters 3- 6, the reader is introduced to key components of GIS: spatial data and databases, Web GIS services, descriptive standards for geospatial information and semantic interoperability. Chapter 3 provides a useful overview of distributed spatial databases (mostly American ones) and spatial data infrastructures which integrate geospatial data and metadata. Furthermore, the reader finds in this chapter a useful discussion of current issues with webGIS applications such as the interoperability of heterogeneous data among different systems and the quality of data delivery which varies with Internet bandwidth. Although chapter 4 starts off with a set of interesting questions along the lines of 'What kind of bibliographic records or metadata will be required to meet the different uses of geospatial information and user needs?', it ends up mostly as a detailed overview of existing descriptive standards for print maps. Most readers may want to skip this rather long survey!

Chapter 5, however, goes to the heart of the matter: the current state of GIS data standards. It starts with a useful definition of spatial data and a review of two better known co-ordinate systems: geographic and projected. Moreover, there is a sound overview of existing standards. In this chapter, readers are reminded that 'Standards promote maximum reusability, interchangeability, and mergeability'. For anyone working with data, this has become somewhat of a mantra!

Chapter 6 deals with the fundamental question of access to geospatial information. More specifically, the author of this section argues that while 'substantial progress has been achieved in technical interoperability, semantic interoperability remains a significant hurdle'. Indeed, part of the complexity of GIS is that it is based on the use of technical specialised vocabulary which varies across information systems. This state of affairs is not surprising when one considers that the use of GIS is fast increasing, mostly in private and public sector organisations where data are used and produced to meet the needs of targeted user groups. This situation has slowed down progess in GIS use among organisations and this, in turn, has had a negative impact on research in universities. Semantic interoperability, therefore, is not only important for data discovery but also for data exchange. The role of the library in pushing forward possible solutions is examined. These solutions vary from intelligent retrieval software and topic navigation maps to the creation of personal project spaces in libraries.

Chapters 7 and 8 cover familiar territory for most librarians: reference services and collection management issues with regards to geospatial information. Chapter 7 examines many aspects of GIS reference services in a library, such as levels of services, important skill sets which librarians should have, information-seeking behaviours of GIS users and information competencies required of GIS users. Unfortunately, this chapter is more descriptive than prescriptive, which is what this reader was expecting in a 'guide for academic libraries'. Chapter 8 is the most solid and effective section in the book. It covers a wide variety of collection management matters such as policies, sources of data, legal considerations, preservation and new areas in evaluation such as webware, hardware and software. It provides in addition useful suggestions including lists of GIS software vendors, resources to assist in GIS software selection and geographic/geospatial collection building.

The last two chapters, 9 and 10, cover geographical information and library education and future trends in GIS. Currently, very few Information Science programmes have integrated the GIS specialty area into their curricula. Most of the learning is done on the job and through various forms of mentoring. Younger librarians will probably navigate more easily through GIS's multi-application computing environment. The final chapter looks at where GIS is heading and how libraries can plan effectively to deliver GIS services. But the authors rightly argue that, for many librarians, GIS simply goes beyond their technological comfort zone!

As a first survey of a field which is still emerging this book is to be commended. However, I had difficulty reading most chapters without skipping the first third of the content which tended to provide too much background information. The authors attempt to write for too broad an audience and as a result, the content is scattered. Furthermore, the book would have benefited from tougher editing in order to rid it of the excessive description as well as typographic errors. Nonetheless, the strength of this work is that it is well researched, providing input from a variety of GIS experts. Each chapter ends with an extensive bibliography indispensable for field professionals.

Author Details

Sylvie Lafortune
Government Information and Data Librarian
J. N. Desmarais Library
Laurentian University
Sudbury, Ontario

Email: slafortune@laurentian.ca

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