Summary of a Facilitated Discussion of GIS Reference Services

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moderated by Susan Powell and Marcel Fortin, WAML annual meeting, November 3, 2017

Knowing that the profession of map librarianship increasingly includes GIS services — either as part of a more traditional map librarian role or in newer positions that are entirely focused on GIS — but unsure of how people are approaching these issues, we wanted to help the WAML community examine these changing roles. Specifically, we were interested in how our community is approaching GIS reference services. Thus, at the 2017 WAML annual meeting we led a facilitated discussion of GIS reference services for the WAML attendees. The resulting discussions were lively and amply filled the allocated time.

After giving a brief introduction to the topic, we had the meeting break into smaller groups of approximately 4-6 people and asked them to use the following questions as a prompt for examining recent changes in GIS services and currently encountered obstacles (“looking back and now”):

  1. What shifts have you noticed over the past few years in map and GIS reference questions?
  2. What obstacles do you face in providing high-quality GIS reference services?
  3. How does GIS/spatial reference fit or not fit within your overall library’s service model?

Rather than having each group report back directly, we segued directly into a larger group discussion. Participants drew from their earlier small group conversations to connect the obstacles faced with a discussion of the adaptations and innovations that some have tried, as well as brainstorming about what changes to GIS reference services libraries are planning for over the next few years.

Obstacles raised during our conversation included both technical and staffing challenges, such as:

  1. A lack of technical support;
  2. Inability to load software onto staff computers due to constraints in GIS site licenses;
  3. Difficulty in filling open GIS positions;
  4. Defining limits for reference interviews in order to set realistic expectations of service, i.e. not doing patrons’ work for them;
  5. Creating metrics that accurately differentiate reference interviews from other, shorter reference interactions.

Strategies for improving GIS reference services that were mentioned included:

  1. Conducting a survey to look for the current gaps in service, then using the output to advocate for more staff and support;
  2. Keeping accurate statistics in order to document value and track groups of users of the services;
  3. Developing/encouraging student peer tutoring for undergraduates;
  4. Rewriting workshops for open source GIS software;
  5. Forming or participating in a campus GIS users/interest group to discuss licensing, payments, etc.;
  6. Planning a GIS Day together with campus partners.

Asked to think forward on a two to five-year time scale, participants noted several changes they are contemplating making to their GIS reference services in response to shifting budget realities and new research areas:

  1. In response to limits on new hires and/or positions, several participants mentioned plans to re-train staff to be GIS literate and enhance existing skills in order to build competency within the library for supporting GIS reference services;
  2. Due to increased interest in new GIS-related areas, participants indicated expanding GIS reference services to support topics and technologies such as mapping related visualization and drones for data collection.

The session ended with a brief conversation of how to keep discussions of GIS reference services in libraries active and alive. Several participants recommended using articles published in the Journal of Map and Geography Libraries (JMGL) as a reference for topics ranging from everything from approaches to overcoming obstacles in GIS reference services to thinking about appropriate service levels. New articles are encouraged, too, both for the JMGL as well as the WAML Information Bulletin. It is also our hope that this discussion continues at future meetings, in both formal and informal ways.

Thank you to Julie Sweetkind-Singer for taking notes during the discussion.

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