Mellon Teaching with Technology Fellowship Proposal:
Geographical Information Systems and Maps on the Web

Hugh Blackmer
Science Librarian
Washington & Lee University
Lexington, VA 24450
phone: 540-463-8647

Geographical Information Systems (GIS) software facilitates the collection, management, analysis, and display of spatial data. Vast quantities of spatial data are available electronically, and the WWW provides an efficient means to distribute maps and data. Familiarity with GIS is a valuable skill in a wide range of fields and enterprises, and seems an obvious candidate for inclusion in undergraduate curricula.

Many disciplines make active use of maps, and their use would be still more common if the requisite software and expertise were more readily available. In spite of the importance of spatial data and obvious utility of maps, cartographic expertise is not widespread. At Washington & Lee, GIS has been confined to the research and teaching of one professor in the Geology department. An impending upgrade of the Geology department's equipment (and a shift from freeware GRASS software to a commercial GIS package, probably ArcInfo) offers an opportunity to explore extension of GIS capability to other campus constituencies. Central coordination of access, training and support makes sense in the early stages of exploration of the practicalities of GIS for various other disciplines, and the library seems an appropriate locale, both because of the interdisciplinary relevance of electronic data and GIS technology, and because of my own background as an anthropologist and human geographer. A nearby large-scale service model is the University of Virginia library's Geographic Information Center (, recently merged with the library's Social Sciences Data Center to extend digital cartography to the social sciences.

The WWW provides a medium for distribution of locally-created content, and experiments in the pedagogical possibilities of the web, exploring many media, can be found on most university web sites. Map servers are beginning to turn up, offering users the opportunity to view computer-generated maps and often to create maps on the fly, drawing upon stored data (examples of such sites can be found at and ESRI's "Powerful Library Programs" at --see also Brandon Plewe's GIS Online at

I propose to develop a map server site which emphasizes work being done in the region surrounding Washington & Lee (western central Virginia), to serve as

As Science Librarian I am involved in courses in most science departments, and often consult with faculty and students about strategies for access to information in many forms. During the 1998-99 academic year I will be participating in an augmentation of the Biology department's General Ecology course (details at, and I also expect to be involved in the continuing development of an interdisciplinary program in Environmental Studies. Both of these areas are obvious candidates for use of GIS technology; materials and expertise developed for them would be transferrable to other disciplines and other institutions. I also anticipate interest in GIS and digital mapping in the History, Sociology, Journalism, Economics, Political Science, and Management departments. I would expect to give classroom demonstrations of GIS capabilities and provide support for the mapping experiments of faculty and students from these departments.

Among current Washington & Lee projects which GIS capability would enhance are:

Software and hardware

GIS software is available from a number of vendors, but ESRI (producer of ArcInfo and ArcView, at offers a "Schools and Libraries Package" for $495:

"The ArcView for Schools and Libraries Bundle includes a 'site license' to the physical setting of the K-12 school, library, or museum. Materials may be installed on as many stand-alone machines or local area networks (LANs) as desired, within the physical confines of the licensed site. Teachers and librarians are permitted to load the materials on their home machines for the purposes of developing expertise and materials for use in the school or library. (Some restrictions apply; see the actual license for complete information.)"
Extensions including the Spatial Analyst which handles raster data and import and creation of gridded data sets (see for technical specifications),
3D Analyst (see, and
Internet Map Server (see
are also available (at $495, $495 and $1000, respectively), and necessary for full functionality.

Existing library workstations and network facilities (including network storage capacity for maps) are adequate for the mounting and distribution of the software, and for classroom use of maps via the web. The library will provide manuals and other support material, and several librarians have expressed interest in learning the software in order to support their liaison activities with academic departments. My years of experience with web management should suffice to run the map server, but technical help is also available from University Computing (networking issues) and the Geology department (finer points of GIS).

Summary and significance

The broad significance of GIS technology for teaching and learning lies in access to a new perspective on distributions in space and time. Computer mapping offers the prospect of combining data sources; the possibility of simultaneous cartographic display of land use, topography, hydrological and vegetation data, or of demographic and economic data, changes the ways a student can think about the surrounding world. The ability to create maps and manipulate spatial data adds a tool analogous in its significance to the advent of the graphing calculator in mathematics teaching: visualization facilitates development of an intuitive feel for spatial and temporal processes.

As more and more data become available electronically, librarians and scholars must explore ways to manage, visualize and distribute the wealth of information. Improving access to maps and mapping is an important step; GIS offers an extraordinarily powerful tool, applicable to many disciplines in the humanities and social sciences as well as to the sciences, and to interdisciplinary collaborations as well. In local pedagogy, the possibility of active contribution to the web-based digital map repository should add another inducement to broaden participation in the creation and use of web materials in teaching and research.