In the same way that the internet and digitization have created new ways to make books more discoverable and facilitated new ways of exploring text, so, too, have they opened avenues for a greater exploration of maps and their underlying data.
As what has been a deliberative process, the UT Libraries have tended toward later adoption of new currents in libraries and librarianship in order to take advantage of the trial and error mechanics that so often are part of embracing untested technologies and frameworks. Geographic information systems (GIS) technology has been in the ascendant for several years now as a burgeoning area of expertise in libraries, and with the expansive cartographic resources we have at UT and the evolution in the growth of local datasets, it was time for the Libraries to embrace GIS as part of its overall strategic expertise.
Geospatial data identifies data that has a geographic component to it…any data that includes locational information – such as coordinates (latitudes and longitudes), addresses, cities, zip codes, etc. – and can be applied to some position on the Earth. We rely on geospatial data to track weather, find the best route to a destination, manage air traffic, make decisions about where to invest in infrastructure projects and to determine how best to deploy marketing resources. And all of these data forms can be mapped. GIS helps to organize and visualize that data in ways that make it eminently more useful.
The Libraries finally entered the landscape of GIS last year with the hiring of Geospatial Data Coordinator Michael Shensky, and a major undertaking in his short tenure has been to spearhead the development of an interface that will facilitate discovery of the cartographic resources and geospatial datasets in our collections by researchers, faculty and other university constituents.
The Texas GeoData Portal uses an open source geospatial discovery application – GeoBlacklight – to power a web portal that gives users the ability to search, browse, preview, and download geospatial datasets. Visitors to the website will be able to search through a variety of geospatial datasets, including georeferenced scanned map images from the PCL Maps Collection and vector datasets developed from items in other special collections like the Benson Latin American Collection and Alexander Architectural Archives.
The portal will allow users to download data in several different standard geospatial formats so that they can easily be loaded into GIS software for advanced visualization and analysis.
Coordinated use of GeoBlacklight software and collaboration through the OpenGeoMetadata project has created a community among partner institutions for the sharing and standardization of data and metadata, expanding the opportunities for discovery and creating a robust search functionality among a large corpus of resources. Users can filter search results based on various dataset characteristics including geographic extent, subject matter, institution, data type, and format.
“I’m really excited to be a part of this project because I know this portal has the potential to benefit everyone in the campus community regardless of their role and area of specialization,” says Shensky. “Faculty can use the portal to find data for developing instructional materials, students can find data to use in research projects, and visitors will have access to a variety of unique maps and datasets that they can explore.”
The Texas GeoData Portal is in the closing stages of development with a full launch expected later in the fall, at which point users will be able to access the new resource through the Libraries’ website. Already discussions are underway regarding future functionality, which could include UT single sign on authentication for viewing license-restricted data, integration with the unified search on the Libraries’ website and integration with the Texas Data Repository and the Collections portal (more information to come on this project).
Michael Shensky joined the Libraries last year as the GIS and Geospatial Data Coordinator to enhance the resources available from the Research Data Services unit with added expertise in Geographic Information Systems, which are increasingly becoming central to our online lives. Shensky took some time to talk about the importance of GIS and where he sees it in the future.
Michael Shensky: Whenever I’m asked what GIS is, and I often am when I tell people what I do for a living, I always start with a very simple definition and expand from there. I typically tell people that GIS is an acronym that stands for geographic information systems and that it is the technology that is used to manage the data behind many of the maps they encounter online and in mobile apps. I also find it helpful to explain that the “geographic information” part of GIS refers to geospatial data (data that features both coordinate information identifying a place on Earth and attribute information that describes something located at that place) while “system” refers to the software and hardware components that are used together to manage this unique type of data effectively.
GIS is incredibly important in our daily lives because it is used to guide and facilitate much of the work that local governments, state and federal government agencies, utility companies, non-profit organizations, and academic researchers carry out. If all GIS software were to suddenly stop working tomorrow, it would be very difficult for those who rely on geospatial data to effectively manage their operations and this would have a dramatic impact on the lives of everyone, not just GIS users. For instance, cities might have difficulty assigning work crews to conduct road repair work if they cannot access their database of pothole locations, fire departments might struggle to respond to the locations of emergencies if they can’t quickly look up the location of an address, and technology companies would see apps that include mapping functionality suddenly break as the data fails to load properly.
While most people do not realize the significant role that GIS software plays behind the scenes in the operations of many organizations, if they look closely enough they can find traces of its impact in their daily lives. If they come across a map when browsing the web, there is a very good chance that GIS software was used to design its layout and manage the data behind the features depicted in it. If a new store or restaurant opens in their neighborhood, it is likely that GIS software was used to analyze demographic and consumer spending data for their local area to determine that this would likely be the most profitable location. If they use the routing functionality built into their car dashboard, the street data used to route them was likely created or edited with GIS software. If they visit the website of their local city or county, it is quite likely they will find a web page designed specifically for sharing geospatial data that has been developed with their taxpayer money and which has been made publically available for anyone to download and use in GIS software.
Given the organic nature of its development, how can standards be developed to manage the proliferation of GIS data?
MS: In the GIS world, there are open standards developed by non-profit organizations like the Open Geospatial Consortium (OGC) and there are often competing proprietary standards developed by for-profit companies like Esri, whose software products dominate the GIS industry in the United States and many other countries. While we are very fortunate that these standards exist so that there is agreement on how data should be structured and how it should be read by GIS software, there are downsides to having multiple standards to choose from. Having multiple standards to choose from puts GIS professionals in a tough position when we want to share data with others, since we often need to ensure that data is available in multiple standard formats to make it easy for other GIS users to work with the data regardless of whether they are using open source software or Esri’s ArcGIS software. This situation is further complicated by the fact that the popularity of specific standards can fluctuate over time and occasionally completely new standards are developed while older standards may fall into disuse and become functionally obsolete.
For the geospatial data in the UT Libraries’ collections that we are currently in the process of trying to make more easily accessible, we are aiming to share the data in every common standard format that we can. Our goal is to facilitate access to our data for all GIS users, regardless of which software they use or standards they prefer. This approach of making shared datasets available in multiple formats has become quite common on data portals operated by other universities as well as those developed by cities, counties, and federal government agencies. As any good organization would, we plan to stay on top of the latest geospatial data standards and ensure that we are making datasets available in the formats that GIS users expect to find and like to work with.
How did you become a specialist in GIS?
MS: That’s actually a really interesting question, because I sometimes look back on the last decade and wonder that myself. The career path I envisioned for myself shifted quite a bit during my college years and a few chance decisions that didn’t seem particularly significant at the time ended up playing a very substantial role in leading me to the position I’m in today.
As a junior, I was contemplating my changing my major to anthropology or geography since I had really enjoyed taking classes in both disciplines, and I ended up selecting geography partly because I knew that GIS was a required class in that program and that this class would provide me with a technical skill upon graduation. At the time, I had never used or even seen GIS software but I knew it was used to make maps and that sounded really interesting to me. I didn’t actually end up taking that required GIS class until my last semester as an undergraduate and I did I was a surprised to find it a little less exciting and more challenging than I had originally expected. Right after graduation I started applying for a variety of jobs that I thought I might qualify for and the first one I was offered was a paid GIS internship. I didn’t find the job all that interesting at first and during my first few months there did not see myself making a career out of GIS.
This initial lack of fulfillment actually even ended up being a contributing factor in my decision to enroll in a Geography graduate program – I wanted to develop new skills that would open up different job opportunities. While in grad school I continued to work at this same GIS job part time and found that I started to become more interested in the work I was doing as I was assigned more advanced and challenging projects. Because of the GIS skills I gained in this role, I was offered a GIS research assistant position during my last two years of graduate school and then ended developing my master’s thesis project from the work that I did in this role. By the time I completed the work for my master’s degree, my perspective on GIS had changed dramatically, and when I was offered a full time job teaching GIS classes and managing the GIS computers labs for the Geography department at California State University, Long Beach, I was thrilled to have the opportunity to advance my career in GIS. I ended up spending several years in this position which allowed me to further develop my technical skills, gain teaching experience, and develop an even greater respect for the value of GIS software in academic research – all of which prepared me for well for my current role here at the UT Libraries.
What sort of projects have you been working on at UT?
MS: I’ve been working on a few different projects since I started here at UT, the biggest of which is focused on developing a new geospatial data portal that will be part of the UT Libraries website. This portal will allow users to search for geospatial data in our Libraries’ collections that can be used with GIS software. We have been referring to this project internally as the “GeoBlacklight” project because it uses open source software of that name to provide a web interface and data search capabilities. We are optimistic that this project will be completed in the first half of 2019 and that it will be available to the campus community before the start of the fall semester. Once it is rolled out, visitors to the website will be able to search through a variety of geospatial datasets including georeferenced scanned map images from our PCL Map Collection and vector datasets developed from items in other collections like the Benson Latin American Collection and Alexander Architectural Archives. I’m really excited to be a part of this project because I know this portal has the potential to benefit everyone in the campus community regardless of their role and area of specialization. Once the portal is finished and made available, it should be easy for faculty to find data that they can use to develop instructional materials, for students to find data they can use in research projects, for Libraries staff to find data they can use to highlight notable collections, and for everyone in general to browse through when curious about the interesting maps and datasets we have available here at the UT Libraries.
addition to the GeoBlacklight project I have also been working on a program of coordinated outreach and education about GIS both internally within the libraries and externally with departments across campus. As part of this effort I have helped organize events like our recent Local Perspectives on the State of Open Data discussion panel which brought GIS experts from the City of Austin, Travis County, Texas General Land Office, and Texas Natural Resources Information System here to campus to share their thoughts on GIS and open data. I’ve also taught several GIS focused workshops that provided an opportunity for all members of the campus community to learn about GIS and further develop their geospatial research skills. In order to introduce library personnel to some of the capabilities of GIS I’ve also spoken at and helped organize a series of linked data information learning group meetings. I’ve been glad to see that this multifaceted approach has been successful in helping get the word out about GIS on campus and I’ve noticed that I am starting to hear from more and more people each week who are looking to learn more about how they might be able to use GIS in their work.
What are some of the interesting ways GIS will be used in the future?
MS: While it’s impossible to know exactly how the way in which we use GIS might change in the future, I think there are a few developments that are all but certain. One of the major developments I foresee is growing awareness of GIS and rapid improvement in the capabilities of open source GIS software like QGIS leading to greater adoption of GIS software in a variety of disciplines and industries. If this prediction proves accurate, the lowering of financial and technical barriers that currently hold people back from using GIS software would greatly benefit small businesses, startups, non-profits, municipalities with limited resources, and more. It should also have a profound impact in the academic world as it will make it easier for researchers to incorporate GIS into their work. I think we will see GIS software being used much more widely in fields like history, journalism, linguistics, ethnic studies, and in the humanities more generally. If this does in fact happen, it will not only open up new avenues for research in these fields but will also make it easier for those working in these different disciplines to work together with each other across departments because they are using a shared technology. Even in disciplines where GIS is already widely used, like geology, biology, geography, and anthropology, I think there will be increased rates of adoption, especially among researchers in developing countries who can start using open source GIS software without having to worry about expensive software licensing or significant software limitations. From my experience in a previous GIS position at another university, I saw firsthand how difficult it could be for researchers in my department to work with colleagues from universities in other countries whose institutions could not afford access to the same proprietary software resources until they all started using open source software to facilitate collaboration.
In addition to the many benefits I think we will see from growing awareness of GIS software and open source GIS software in particular, I think GIS technology will become more useful and powerful as technology continues to improve. Perhaps the biggest impact on GIS will come from new and emerging categories of mobile devices that will make it possible to view and interact with geospatial data in ways that are quite different from the manner in which we engage with geospatial data now on the flat screens of our computer monitors and cell phones. In the 9 years that I have been in this field, there have been several completely new categories of devices that have been released (smart watches, augmented reality glasses, and virtual reality headsets being the most notable) all of which can be used to display new types of maps and I think we will see these technologies mature in a way that will affect how maps are made.
Virtual reality is the currently the most significant of these technologies for working with geospatial data due to the availability of relatively affordable consumer grade headsets and their ability to give users a three dimensional immersive map experience. While I think virtual reality maps will become increasingly common and useful, I think augmented reality devices ultimately hold the most promise of any emerging technology. Right now augmented reality glasses are held back by their high price points, large size, and limited field of view but companies like Microsoft, Google, and Apple have all indicated that they are working on addressing these challenges. If any of these companies (or newer companies like Magic Leap who are also focusing on augmented reality technology) can create a wearable device similar in size to a pair of regular sunglasses, sell it for close to the price of a high end cell phone, and have it effectively overlay 3D objects on top of a user’s normal field of view, I think this would revolutionize how GIS professionals manage data and produce maps. It would also of course open up enormous opportunities for researchers who are looking for new ways to explore geospatial data and visualize their research findings. While a breakthrough like this may not happen this year or next, I think it is just a matter of time before our technology reaches this point and GIS software will have to adapt to facilitate the production of geospatial content for these new types of devices.
The notoriety of the online Perry-Castañeda Library Map Collection has afforded us many amazing gifts. Two recent gifts are particularly notable. The family of UT alumni Roy J. Beery graciously gifted us with the maps he used when he served in the World War II Invasion of Normandy. And the Army Heritage Center gifted maps and other materials that Colonel Roland T. Fenton, who served in machine gun battalions in World War I and World War II, used during his service. The fact that these maps survived the treacheries of war is amazing. We are lucky to be able to preserve and share them with generations to come.
Generally we hope for maps in pristine condition, but in this case the wear and writing are an important part of the story. This is the map used by U.S. Navy, Lieutenant Commander Roy Beery while on sea duty in the Atlantic amphibious force during the assault on the Coast of Normandy, France.
As part of the 103rd Machine Gun Battalion, (then) Lt. Fenton was on the front lines of WWI. The gift materials that belonged to him consist of trench maps, front line maps, and the following long distance firing range calculator for Hotchkiss machine gun.
This Sketch Map shows the trenches in the Meuse region of France. The red represents the Allied Forces and the blue German.
In WWI the strategic overprint was often printed on an existing topographic map, rather than a map created specifically for combat. This “Meuse-Argonne Offensive map showing daily position of front line” is one such map.
The terrain of this area was important to combat and affected the outcome of battles, knowing the topography was vital.
During the month of November we as a nation honor our military veterans. We can’t think of a better way for The University of Texas Libraries to honor their legacy than by telling their stories and making these materials that clearly meant something to them available to researchers for generations to come. Keep an eye on our website for more in depth profiles of these men and the maps they used. Thank you all for your service.
Read, hot & digitized: Librarians and the digital scholarship they love — In this new series, librarians from UTL’s Arts, Humanities and Global Studies Engagement Team briefly present, explore and critique existing examples of digital scholarship. Our hope is that these monthly reviews will inspire critical reflection of and future creative contributions to the growing fields of digital scholarship.
Mapping Inequality: Redlining in New Deal America lets users visualize the maps of the Home Owners’ Loan Corporation (HOLC) on a scale that is unprecedented. The HOLC was created in 1933 to help citizens refinance home mortgages to prevent foreclosures. Directed by the Federal Home Loan Bank Board, the HOLC surveyed 239 cities and produced “residential security maps” that color-coded neighborhoods and metropolitan areas by credit worthiness and risk. These maps and the discriminatory practice they exemplified and enabled later came to be known as redlining.
If you zoom to Los Angeles, CA in Mapping Inequality (I recommend taking a moment to read the short introduction and how to) you will see the historic redline maps overlaid on a web-based map, a color-coded legend that describes areas from Best to Hazardous, and an information panel where you can immediately explore an overview and download raw data. Zoom in further, click a red section of the map, and the “area description” will load in the information panel. The initial view is curated and gives you an immediate impression of how these maps and accompanying documents perpetuated and institutionalized discrimination. You can also view the full demographic data and a scan of the original paperwork.
I encourage you to look at cities you are familiar with, it’s startling how the effects of these maps are apparent today. This is a work in progress so not every city surveyed by the HOLC is represented or complete. Unfortunately, the accompanying documents for Austin are not available, but you can view the entire 1935 Austin map on the PCL Map Collection website. (You can also find a digitized reprint of the notorious Austin city plan from the 1920s at Texas ScholarWorks.)
I chose to highlight this mapping project because redlining maps are a critical example of the power of maps and this interface was beautifully constructed to illustrate their impact.
In this important world map, the extent of North America and the distance across the Pacific Ocean are hardly understood while the outline of South America is better represented.
The cartography is attributed to a collaboration between celebrated German mapmaker Sebastian Munster, and a renowned Northern Renaissance artist Hans Holbein, contributed the rich ornamentation at the map’s border.
Holbein’s additional embellishments — including realistic renderings of flora and fauna, as well as fantastic and frightening sea beasts — makes this a superlative example of cartography from the period.
The Tobin International Geological Map Collection provides map materials in support of teaching and research within the Jackson School of Geosciences, its programs and related disciplines. As graphic summaries of earth and planetary data, maps are an integral part of geologic and geographic study as well as an important information source in various aspects of research in such fields as energy, engineering, land use planning, oceanography, physical and space sciences, environmental studies and the life sciences. To serve these disciplines, geologic, tectonic, stratigraphic, physiographic, geodetic, seismographic, outline, topical (such as soil and water survey), geophysical, structural, cross section, and index maps are required.
Located in the Walter Geology Library, the collection contains more than 50,000 maps and map texts that are arranged geographically. It functions as a working research collection that is more concerned with the utility of its maps for research rather than with their rarity as objects.
Tobin Surveys, Inc. of San Antonio endowed the Tobin collection in 1980 when it established the Tobin International Geological Library Fund to enable cartographic acquisitions. The collection aims for worldwide coverage of maps on geology and related subjects, but it is particularly dense in maps of Texas and select U.S. and foreign areas of geologic interest. The resources provide thorough coverage for North America (especially Texas and the Southwest), Mexico, Britain, Italy, Australia, Brazil and Turkey, with moderate coverage for the rest of the world.
The geologic map collection portrays surface and subsurface features, ages, and rock types at a variety of scales. Such maps are used for research in hydrocarbon and mineral exploration, hydrology, geomorphology and paleontology, archeology, and some engineering and architectural applications. The collection also includes some topographic or surface feature maps. Geologic and topographic maps largely are produced by and for governments around the world; however, some commercial maps are included in the collection.
The Tobin collection, in partnership with the Perry-Castañeda collection, serves as a federal depository for the maps of the United States Geological Survey (USGS). Through that arrangement, the collection maintains an almost complete set of the map series published by the USGS, including maps of various scales that provide users the ability to examine a continent, country, or more local geographic regions.
A large collection of geological maps of Greece and Italy, which are of special interest to archaeology and classics researchers, also are held in the collection. Overall, the resources of the Tobin Map Collection serve not only researchers within the geology, architecture, classics, archaeology, engineering, and geography departments, but also the general public.
A facsimile reproduction made in the Florentine workshop of Alejandro Ruffoni of an original early 17th Century drawing of the Port of Acapulco by Dutch engineer Adrian Boot. The reproduction was commissioned by Mexican historian Francisco del Paso y Troncoso.
The panoramic shows the port and fortification at Acapulco, with depictions of the natural flora and geography of the region.
While we’re apt to sound out the world-class general and distinctive materials maintained by the Libraries, these resources are just a single galaxy in a greater universe of extraordinary collections across UT campus.
In the first of its kind accounting, the University of Texas Press has just released a massive assemblage of the rare, unique and exceptional collections that reside on the Forty Acres in the form of The Collections, a necessarily significant tome documenting the various holdings — recognizable and not so — from around UT.
Represented in the book are Libraries mainstays such as the Benson Latin American Collection, the Alexander Architectural Archive, the PCL and Walter Geological Map Collections and the Historical Music Recordings Collection, as well as highlights from discrete collections across the branches.
The book features hundreds of items from more than 80 collections campus-wide, covering a range of subject areas: archaeology, ethnography, fine and performing arts, rare books and manuscripts, decorative arts, photography, film, music, popular and material culture, regional and political history, natural history, science and technology.
Edited by Andrée Bober with the support of more than 350 staff from across the university, The Collections features a foreword by UT Austin President Gregory L. Fenves and a historical introduction by Lewis Gould, professor emeritus of American history, whose essay traces the formation of the collections and acknowledges many people whose visions are manifest in these material resources.
It’s certainly the case that our perception of the world’s geography is rooted in our experience with the maps we’ve encountered, developed and designed over eons by both hand and machine. Even though we may have become increasingly reliant on disembodied voices to lead us where we need to go, the archetype for understanding the concept of location which we carry in our minds was instilled by the road guides of family vacations, massive retractable world maps of the elementary classroom and spinning globes of our past.
Equal parts art and science, maps are one of the most effective methods for conveying information visually in virtually any field of inquiry. In the miniaturization of space that is necessary to explain vast areas on a personal scale is a documentation of history and of change; of character and personality, value and values; of plant and animal; of health and illness, feast and famine; of motion and stasis; and of nearly any aspect of life and place that can be categorized for better understanding the world in which we live.
And that, perhaps, is what makes the map collection at the Perry-Castañeda Library so incredibly valuable. Its scope in both size and subject is immense enough to maintain an intrinsic value — both as historical artifact and as a tool of modern research and reference — that goes unaffected by the passage of time.
Though the Perry-Castañeda Library Map Collection is considered a general collection, it’s anything but. Residing on the first floor of the university’s flagship library, it features more than 250,000 cartographic items representing all areas of the world. And its online component is not only one of the most highly visited websites at the university — garnering nearly 8 million visits annually — but is in the top ten most popular results for a Google search of “maps.”
The university began informally collecting maps previously — at the General Libraries, but also through efforts at the Geology Library, the Barker Texas History Center and the Benson Latin American Collection — but it wasn’t until the PCL opened in 1977 that the Map Collection was established on the first floor of the building as an independent collection.
The core of the collection emerged with the acquisition of the U.S. Geological Survey topographic maps, which date from the late 19th century and cover the entire United States, U.S. territories and other parts of the world where governments contracted U.S.G.S. for mapping, such as Saudi Arabia.
The collection also houses an extensive collection of atlases, from a street atlas of El Paso to the National Atlas of India. The library also purchases commercial and foreign government-issued topographic map series, country, city and thematic maps. The collection also includes a small but popular collection of plastic raised-relief maps and globes, not only of earth, but of the Moon, planets and other various celestial bodies.
Most of the maps in the collection date from 1900 to the present, and the collection is constantly being updated with newer materials, and complements a number of significant historical map collections housed on campus in the Center for American History (historical maps of Texas), the Benson Latin American Collection, the Harry Ransom Center and the Walter Geology Library.
Paul Rascoe — the Libraries’ Documents, Maps, & Electronic Info Services Librarian — has been the driving force behind the collection at PCL, especially in the formulation and execution of the collection’s online component. And it hasn’t hurt to have the planets align, at times.
“In 1994, we decided that we were going to scan maps,” says Rascoe. “We had a Macintosh computer and a Mac scanner, which I believe cost $100. We had a plan to put them in sort of a web menuing system called Gopher, but fortunately, simultaneously with our wanting to put maps online, the first web browser was introduced in that year.” Continue reading →
Having such a large collection of cartographic history in one place and accessible by anyone with a browser is extraordinary enough. But it’s not the only online map collection of note. The University of Texas’s Perry-Castañeda Library Map Collection has been a familiar online companion from the early days.