{Series} Emerging Careers in Librarianship: GIS Librarianship

05/07/2012 § 10 Comments

Screenshot of Google Earth map

Proof of my foray into GIS technologies!

Earlier this summer I attended the Digital Humanities Summer Institute (DHSI) in Victoria, British Columbia. While I was there I took an intensive course on GIS and the Humanities. I was a complete novice but I enjoyed the chance to begin developing a brand-new skill set. This course was fresh in my mind as I pondered what to write about for my next HackLibSchool post, and I was reminded of number of job postings I’ve seen over the past year for GIS positions within libraries. Consequently, I’ve decided to explore it a bit as part of our Emerging Careers in Librarianship series. I’m hoping readers can add to my ramblings since I am admittedly nowhere near an expert in this field, just a curious dabbler interested in promoting awareness about this type of librarianship and starting a discussion.

First of all, what is GIS? Geographic Information Systems (GIS) is software capable of storing, manipulating, and visualizing geospatial data. However, some people also think of GIS as Geographic Information Science, or the name of the discipline that deals with location-based information (technically, the abbreviation is GISc). I’m convinced that much of the mystery of GIS comes down to vague terminology, so I appreciate Wikipedia’s succinct way of drawing the two together: “In the simplest terms, GIS is the merging of cartography, statistical analysis, and database technology.”

For those interested in a career as a GIS Librarian (or related position), you’re headed into a thriving field. There is a lot of need for librarians with geospatial expertise, as evidenced by the spate of GIS-related positions that have opened up in libraries over the past year. These positions include a GIS Librarian at Washington University in Saint Louis, GIS Specialist at Yale University, Numeric and Geospatial Data Librarian at Northwestern University, Numeric and Geospatial Data Services Librarian at Oxford University in Miami, Geospatial Librarian at the University of Hawaii, and most recently that I’ve seen, GIS Specialist at Purdue University. (Keep in mind that most of these positions have ceased accepting applications; I linked to them mainly so that the qualifications could be examined by anyone interested.)

Even in positions without the title of GIS Librarian, knowledge of GIS technologies is an increasingly valuable asset; science librarian, digital humanities/digital projects librarian, and the aforementioned data librarian come to mind as jobs where GIS knowledge would be a good fit. Whereas universities with strong programs in geography or other sciences might have traditionally hired a librarian with GIS knowledge, the quick rise of digital humanities projects using location-based information have added to the need for GIS Librarians in a growing number of institutions.

As always, experience is the most important qualification that those who want to land a GIS Librarian position should take into consideration. Many universities want to hire librarians who have prior experience providing GIS consulting to end users, since that is the main responsibility in most of the positions I’ve linked to above. Gaining this type of experience as a student could be achieved through a government documents department, digital library program, digital humanities center, with a science librarian as a mentor… or of course, a GIS Librarian if one is available! The availability of gaining GIS experience is highly dependent upon your institution. Another idea for gaining experience is to work with area businesses and local government on GIS projects–often these groups will be using GIS technologies. That experience can be used as a springboard for an independent study or project focused on GIS applications in libraries.

I realize it is quite possible that you’re reading this right now and thinking, huh, GIS… this has nothing to do with me. I understand because I probably would have thought that a year ago myself as a recent Rhetoric and Composition grad with little interest in geography and a downright loathing of stats. Trust me, discovering that I enjoy working with geospatial projects is just one part of a long line of challenges to what I thought I liked/didn’t like, what I thought I am good at/not good at… so I guess you just never know. Play around with GIS a bit if you have some free time. See if your university has ArcGIS; if not, QGIS is the open source alternative. Sign up for a free MapBox account. Explore the treasure chest that is the Google Maps API. Interested in the digital humanities? Follow along with the tutorials on the UVa Scholars’ Lab Spatial Humanities website. There are more options for exploring geospatial projects than ever before and you may just enjoy it.

Here’s when all the real GIS experts out there can chime in; do you have any wisdom to share? Also, is anyone considering GIS Librarianship (or another role using knowledge of GIS technologies) as a possible career path?

§ 10 Responses to {Series} Emerging Careers in Librarianship: GIS Librarianship

  • Chris Eaker says:

    Thanks for the introduction, Brianna! GIS is another new service libraries are offering to faculty and students just like data curation services I wrote about earlier. I used ArcGIS extensively as an engineer and never knew it would come in handy as a librarian, too, until I began seeing all those job postings you mentioned. And it’s neat that people are pairing GIS with the humanities. I wouldn’t have considered that, but I can see the benefits. Are you interested in getting a GIS Librarian job?

    • Hi Chris, thanks for your comment! I’m not necessarily interested in a straight-up GIS Librarian job at this point as I think I’d like to work broadly with digital projects, but as you mentioned, having a skill set that includes exposure to geospatial information is becoming more and more common. I’m actually doing a map-based discovery services internship right now through IU’s Digital Library Program–basically researching and prototyping ways to display maps of our archival image collections. It’s the sort of digital archives project I’ve always wanted to work on and along with DHSI it has opened up my eyes to this whole new world. I am nowhere near an expert but I’m learning… I think the important thing to remember with any sort of technology is that sometimes it’s just about being able to talk the talk and communicate within a team setting. This concept has been stressed upon in my programming classes and even some of my metadata classes; there’s no way to know it all unless you really want to specialize, but you can learn to speak the language.

      • I hope both of you have seen Neatline, which just launched last week. Super cool stuff happening, and lots of opportunities for new librarians with a variety of skills.

        • Yes! Neatline is really great… I saw a sneak peek when it was presented at DHSI and I’ve communicated with one of the developers working on it, David McClure. We thought it might be a viable option for the DLP’s archival mapping but I’m not sure it’s the right fit. I’m itching to use it though! I don’t have any applicable projects right now but I’m excited to see what people come up with.

  • csdunklee says:

    Hi Brianna,
    Thanks for posting about this! GIS librarianship is one of those things that I’ve been curious about, and you’ve given me a great way to dip my toes into the ocean without committing to coursework. Thank you!

  • Celia Dillon says:

    Tthis was an interesting and informative read, Brianna. I’m interested in GIS/geography and (obviously) librarianship but didn’t know that there are careers that combine the two.

  • Thanks for your comments, csdunklee & Celia! Glad you enjoyed this post. I’m tremendously excited that librarians are taking on roles as data managers (whether geospatial or not). It’s definitely tricky to prepare yourself for this kind of role… unless you have a geography/science background or you know for your entire library school career that this is what you want and tailor your experiences to it. I know that my program at IU-B offers a 1.5-credit GIS workshop during the summer, but curriculum-wise that’s it. It’s also branded as an information science course rather than a library science course, so I’m not sure if non-iSchools offer similar courses. I’m curious as to whether other programs are preparing their grads for data/GIS librarian positions. Mine really isn’t at all.

  • Nicole says:

    I’m glad you posted this Brianna. I just graduated with a BA in Geography and I’m thinking about getting a library science to become a GIS librarian. Job search in general isn’t going great so I’m keeping my career path open.

    • Hi Nicole! You should definitely keep librarianship in mind because your skill set would be valued. In my experience library school is full of liberal arts majors (myself included) so those with science backgrounds bring a much needed perspective. I think programs should do a better job at communicating to science undergrads that they are excellent candidates for the profession. Certainly with a BA in Geography you’d be an ideal fit for a GIS Librarian position. If I were you I would contact a GIS Librarian for an informational interview, even if it’s just an email exchange–it might help you figure out if this is a good fit for you. If you decide that it’s the direction you want to go I’m sure they could also help you structure your library school experience to be the most useful. Good luck!!

  • [...] Find mentors in the field and don’t be afraid to ask questions. In my case, I bugged the digital asset manager  at WGBH enough that she let me work on a few projects – I took on extra work, but she mentored me and I got to work on the Vietnam project which led to me working with TEI encoding. Because I had TEI knowledge, Boston College hired me, and I decided to start looking into forming a digital humanities group on campus. I also got funding to attend the Digital Humanities Summer Institute in Victoria, B.C. last June – where I was able to meet more like minded people in my field both librarians and profs. (Note: As did fellow Hacker Brianna Marshall, who has touched on this subject before!) [...]

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