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?