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TL v65n2: Digital Maps
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Everything in its Place: Digital Maps for Libraries


Anna Neal and Rachel Scott

This article is based on a presentation at the College and University Libraries Section pre-conference at the Tennessee Library Association Annual Conference (Memphis, TN) in April 2015.

TLA 2015 Pre-Conference Description

The College and University Libraries Section (CULS) will host panel discussions on providing a place for everyone at the table regarding library spaces, collections, and interactions. How have advances in STEM, social sciences or humanities allowed for the creation of new opportunities to meet our collective needs?


Digital maps are ubiquitous. Libraries and other institutions increasingly use a variety of mapping software and platforms to generate interesting collections and engage users. This article illustrates how digital maps can enrich library services, describes a variety of implementations, and discusses the process of creating the Memphis Music Venues map at the University of Memphis.


Advances in geographic information systems (GIS) technologies have made customizable, detail-rich, and highly interactive digital maps ubiquitous in a variety of online contexts. Libraries and other organizations are increasingly embedding various kinds of maps in online platforms, with the goal of engaging users, contextualizing services and collections, and providing some visual and spatial information and content to help balance text-heavy webpages. This article illustrates how digital maps can enrich library services, describes a variety of implementations, and discusses the process of creating the Memphis Music Venues map.

Floor Plans

Most libraries provide facilities maps on their web pages, and many have embedded the floor plans in their online library catalogs. These maps are typically static and do not present the user with opportunities to interact with the content. The example shown in Figure 1, from McWherter Library at the University of Memphis, is embedded in the library catalog and helps to contextualize locations for users unfamiliar with the building layout.

Museums often offer floor plans that not only depict relative location, but also provide contextualizing and enriching information. The Art Institute of Chicago's Pathfinder is an interactive floor plan that allows users to click on the map and see what works are included in the specified gallery or to click on a desired art work and see exactly where it can be found. As illustrated in Figure 2, users can learn more about the image of interest, add it to their personal collection, and see interpretative resources and more from the Pathfinder platform.


Our ability to make library floor plans dynamic is constrained by the limitations of the given integrated library system (ILS). Encore Duet, an Innovative discovery layer, offers a "nearby item browse" feature with both graphical and list options. Displaying the book covers of items with adjacent call numbers facilitates virtual browsing by putting the user in the stacks. In the example shown in Figure 3, titles in the music and branch libraries sit on the same virtual shelf as an eBook.

StackMap is an example of a third-party mapping program that integrates with different ILS. This application is embedded in catalog records and precisely locates an item’s position in the stacks. This type of service enhances the patron experience by saving time and increasing efficiency. The screenshot shown in Figure 4, from Appalachian State University's Belk Library, shows how StackMap indicates the exact shelf range in which a book may be found.

One way in which an ILS might increase the interactivity of its floor plan maps is to embed a map in the search results to show in which libraries (or even what collections) the resultant items are housed. This would be incredibly useful for libraries with geographically distributed collections and is common in commercial websites. To use a non-library example, when one searches for reviews of Memphis barbecue restaurants, the results screen has an embedded map showing where the restaurants are relative to each other. Location may contribute to desirability, as with library search results, so providing this information is important to the user (see Figure 5).


Tours, much like maps, bring users in closer contact with library collections and help users better understand our services and offerings. Tours may follow various formats and may be used prior to, during, after, or instead of an onsite visit. In a recent Forbes article, Steve Denning (2015) wrote that in a creative economy, “The central goal of the organization is to delight the user or customer. The values are enablement, self-organization and continuous improvement to add value to the user.” Digital tours offer libraries an opportunity to connect prospective users with our collections in visually appealing and engaging ways.

Figure 6.  Beam robots at the de Young MuseumFigure 6. Beam robots at the de Young Museum. Image courtesy of Rebecca Bradley.

Unfortunately, most libraries have not taken advantage of digital tours to delight their users. Museums and other cultural heritage organizations have used them more extensively and provide several excellent examples of successful implementations. Many museum visitors prepare for a trip by virtually touring the collections in advance, others are content to use the museum’s listening tour or app onsite, and some use tours to revisit what they learned during their visit. Providing library users with tours may likewise help them extend their relationship with the library.

One of the more intriguing innovations in museum tours is the use of robots. The National Museum of Australia has two robots, Chesster and Kasparov, who provide laser-guided virtual tours for remote visitors. Particularly exciting is the use of robots to provide tours for remote visitors who are immobile or who have disabilities. Suitable Technologies has partnered with eight museums to provide their Beam technology for virtual experiences. At San Francisco’s de Young Museum, for example, a visitor may log on and guide the robot and interact with staff. The Detroit Institute of Arts offers a similar service to patients in local hospitals.

Christa Cliver, Director of Education and Museum Business Development for Suitable Technologies, noted,

Museums are the perfect space for Beam experiences. The storytelling, history, and objects translate beautifully to a Beam visit. For museums, this technology expands their visitor reach, creates opportunities for collaboration, and removes travel and financial constraints from an individual’s ability to visit (Laskey, 2015).

For onsite visitors, museums are creating mobile apps, which allow visitors to use smartphones or tablets to follow prepared tours, create individual tours, access multimedia enhancements, and share their experiences via social media. The ArtLens app at the Cleveland Museum of Art also uses geographical information systems to identify the visitor’s location and suggest related objects nearby or in other collections.

Organizations and institutions have also created maps of and for their constituents and broader communities. The City of Asheville North Carolina offers the Asheville Urban Trail Walking Tour of public art and historical markers. Oregon State University (OSU) created an interactive mobile app and walking tour called Beaver Tracks. The app uses the device’s GPS to provide location-specific information for 22 campus locations, including a brief history and catalog of historic images from the OSU Special Collections and Archives.

Although many libraries cannot leverage augmented reality to enhance their services, librarians can make use of QR codes to provide enhanced content to users at the point of need. The University Libraries at the University of Memphis (UofM) uses QR codes to point users to additional information, including LibGuides, YouTube videos, and catalog records. We recently placed flyers with QR codes in the stacks to point users to catalog records for current eBooks in computer science, subject for which we own few current print titles.

Customized Maps

In an effort to move beyond the library walls and engage our larger community, the UofM University Libraries developed a Memphis Music Venues map, using a mapping app to create a tour of local venues for live music or historical interest. Music tourism is big business in Memphis and we wanted to engage in a project that would serve the community and create exposure for library resources.

Librarians have several options when creating customized maps. StoryMaps, Google Maps, ArcGIS, and MapBox are but a sample of the many platforms for digital map production. We chose the Google Maps platform for the initial development of the Memphis Music Venues map because of its familiarity and ease of use, though we quickly encountered some frustrating limits that hindered customization.

In Google Maps, users can select place marker icons from a finite list of styles and colors, or they can upload images. Markers can be organized by creating collocating layers. We opted to create layers according to the genre or purpose of the venue (blues, mixed popular, mixed use, historic, musician’s gravesite). By clicking "share" in Google Maps, one can share a map with others, assign editing or view-only privileges, or embed the map in other web sites (see Figure 7).

In addition to the virtual and physical address of a place, the Memphis Music Venues map also has embedded images, venue description, and links to relevant LibGuides or other library information. However, Google Map's text editing options are limited. No rich text editor is provided, so text cannot be formatted and links cannot be embedded within text. Google Fusion Tables can be used to add structured text and images to Google Maps, but complete customization is not possible. Despite these limitations, this platform has allowed us to realize the goal of providing a local and information-rich map of music venues and historic sites for the community. After having tested one digital mapping platform, we better understand the possibilities and are planning to produce a second version of the map in a more sophisticated platform.

Librarians have not long been in the habit of creating content beyond bibliographic records; however, strategically creating digital content can increase our visibility online and our opportunities for patron engagement. Digital maps provide dynamic, visually appealing, and information-rich content with which to enhance our online presence. By taking advantage of existing mapping software and platforms, we can better serve, inform, and delight our users.


Denning, S. (2015, April 28). Do we need libraries? Forbes. Retrieved from

Laskey, D. (2015, May 4). The marriage of art and technology. Nonprofit Quarterly. Retrieved from



Anna Neal, Head of Music & Branch Libraries at University of Memphis, can be reached at

Rachel Scott, ILS Librarian at University of Memphis, can be reached at


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