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TL v67n2: Mapping the Difference
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Mapping the Difference, Part 1: Library Workshops for Mapping Education and a Guide to Preparing Location Coordinates


Part 1 of this article series discusses web mapping education in libraries and provides best practices for mapping workshops. Part 2 of the series (in a future issue of Tennessee Libraries) will provide tutorials for preparing location coordinates for mapping projects.


Web mapping and mapping education have recently flourished as technology has become more available and accessible. Libraries are not only places where users can access mapping technology resources, but they also provide educational learning opportunities for those resources. No matter the mapping software selected, data preparation can easily be done in a spreadsheet with a data quality checklist. If users successfully overcome the early challenge of data preparation, they are more likely to produce a finished map product that provides effective data visualization. The importance of spreadsheets and data preparation, however, along with example data preparation tutorials, is discussed in Part 2 of the Mapping the Difference article series. Part 1 of the series defines web mapping, presents library workshops as an approach to providing mapping education, highlights library workshops in practice at public and academic libraries, provides an overview of mapping applications suitable for use in workshops, and concludes with a list of best practices for planning and presenting library workshops.

Web Mapping

It is important to note that the study of cartography requires specialized skills in map production. Because of the complex hardware and software involved, the creation of even a simple map was the role of a specialist, including companies and mapping agencies, until just a few years ago (Weessies, 2013). Although high-level mapping skills remain with these experts today, technological advances and increased access to technology have changed the mapping landscape through the influx of web mapping. Web mapping is the use of data from geographic information systems (GIS) and interactive software to create maps in a web browser. These maps illustrate geographical relationships between points in a dataset (Todd, 2008). In addition to proprietary and subscription-based mapping tools that are now available to the average consumer, users also have access to a range of free software for map generation.

GIS and web mapping applications use Global Positioning System (GPS) technology in the same manner as commercial and consumer navigation products and applications. GPS receivers obtain time and position coordinates from GPS satellites orbiting the earth (MiTAC International, 2011). This foundation provides web mapping application points to map and allows for calculation of patterns, distances, and changes in the landscape. To help put this geographic value into perspective, Todd (2008) explains the use of GIS and mapping with county health insurance data from the U.S. Census and how “rather than scanning spreadsheet data for areas without health insurance, GIS enables you to glance at a visual representation of the entire state and quickly point to areas in need” (p. 15).

Mapping skills are useful not only for earth scientists and global studies experts, but for researchers in a variety of disciplines. As in Todd’s illustration of a map that represents health insurance estimates, mapping is an appropriate extension of any research where “information--words, numbers, or images--can be linked to locations on the map” (Sinton & Lund, 2007, p. xiii). Examples of linking historical data can be seen in the digital humanities collection, Trials, Triumphs, and Transformations. “Jim Crow and the American Road Trip: Tennessee Green Book Sites,” an interactive map, was built in a StoryMap web application to depict local businesses marketed in a travel guide for African Americans published from 1937 to 1960. This map allows users to learn more about designated sites and includes automatic zoom features as a user progresses through the map. The “Select Agriculture Production (1889)” data visualization was curated from U.S. Census data and built in Tableau. The map shows the number of acres/pounds/gallons for the production of cotton, tobacco, and sorghum in the United States. Each state is color coded to reflect the amounts of agricultural production, and hovering over a specific state reveals the actual numbers produced.

Library Workshops as a Solution

In the examples of the health insurance estimates and agriculture production maps, a researcher would need to know how to access Census data before even getting to the map generation used in the analysis. Information access and retrieval are longstanding topics of library educational offerings. Teaching users how to access datasets and information is only part of the solution; ultimately, mapping education should also help users learn how to prepare the data and present it using a mapping application. In addition to facilitating data collection, workshops can demonstrate the use of mapping applications and can motivate students and researchers to critically think about their use. Researchers should consider, for example, how historical and current maps can be used to investigate findings, bias, or monitor changes. These visualizations can also demonstrate economic or social implications surrounding geographic influences such as cultural, physical and technological relationships among places and people. The library can be an essential hub for workshops that give students and researchers an opportunity to learn and apply new skills as they use databases and technology tools such as those mentioned in this article, and as they practice critical thinking.

Academic libraries across the country serve as leaders of mapping related workshops. A simple internet search for library mapping workshop yields over two million results. Figure 1 displays the top results of this search, with academic libraries at the top of the list. Some university libraries have devoted even more resources by hiring geographic information systems (GIS) and data librarians, creating GIS and map departments, and developing data or digital scholarship labs and services to support related research and teaching (Houser, 2006). Although many libraries offer mapping services or resources, their specific offerings may vary. Some libraries have workstations loaded with various software, including a selection from ArcGIS, ArcView, SAS, SPSS, Excel, Photoshop, and other web-based applications that are used in mapping application and research. Access to datasets, hands-on training, online tutorials and research assistance are important for future directions of this steadily spreading need across many campuses (Houser, 2006; Todd, 2008).

Figure 1. Web search results for Figure 1. Web search results for "library mapping workshop"

Although public libraries do not provide mapping services and resources for patrons as often as academic libraries (Sharma, 2016), some have ventured into offering mapping education. For example, the New York Public Library (NYPL), through the NYPL LABS, offers the workshop “Introduction to the Map Warper” (Map Warper is a free tool available at that allows users to transform digital images of historical maps (NYPL, 2017). NYPL also offers an online tutorial for a do-it-yourself digital maps primer that guides users through a post-scanning process that includes adding geographical data to a map image by way of Map Warper, MapBoxJS, and The latter includes converting spreadsheet data to a CSV file with latitude and longitude values that are generated into points on a map via GeoJSON scripts. A list of GIS related online resources at NYPL is available at

Databases that are particularly helpful for mapping-related use include GeoRef and ScienceDirect. Additional workshops on the use of these and other databases will also help students and researchers with information and data literacy skills, encourage new resource exploration, and connect users with the library (Sommer, 2007). Library workshops also enhance geohumanities projects by providing hands-on support with mapping tools and help in digitizing documents, and by creating a collaborative community (Huet, 2015). By virtue of its nature as an interdisciplinary resource, the library is ideally suited to house a GIS center. A study published in Cartographica details results of a survey on GIS center locations on a university campus, where locations outside an academic department (such as the library) are “especially welcoming to faculty without previous exposure to GIS. These faculty, in turn, may introduce GIS technologies to students who would not have sought training or assistance directly from the GIS centre” (Cady, Walters, Olsen, Williams-Bergen, & Harlow, 2008, p. 252) in the academic department.

On its own, each type of educational offering mentioned above offers value and the opportunity for skill set instruction to users. When combined—data literacy workshops, database workshops, online tutorials, hands-on mapping workshops, and access to technology through libraries—these resources form a series of learning opportunities that build off each other and can create a powerful impact on the research methods and capabilities of library users.

Overview of Mapping Applications

Numerous mapping applications are available to users. These include a variety of free and fee-based applications designed for developers, experts, humanists, scientists, and even beginners. This article describes four applications suitable for use in mapping workshops: Google Earth, ArcGIS Online, BatchGeo, and Google Fusion Tables. While representing only a fraction of the applications available, these four were selected for their accessibility (free access), lower learning curve, and availability of resources for further training and demonstrations. Part 2 of this series discusses these four resources in further detail. 

Google Earth

Google Earth is great for real time imagery of the moon, Mars, sky, or ocean. This is a free resource for use on mobile Android and iOS devices. Google Earth and Google Earth Pro (both for desktop) are also free, with the latter offering more advanced features. To download the desktop version (which is discussed in Part 2 of this series), visit and confirm your system meets the requirements before downloading. A variety of tutorials for beginner, advanced, and 3D users are available at

Google Earth Pro is a powerful tool for viewing information geographically. Its capabilities include, but are not limited to, climate and elevation information, analysis of geographic changes over time, depiction of different vantage points, and the ability to create and save specific routes. Google Earth Pro also enables users to customize maps by adding place marks, importing new images and shape files, and adding directions or audio narrations, in addition to geocoding addresses.

ArcGIS Online

ArcGIS is a product by ESRI that allows users to make web maps with a free online account, and is intended to be a more user-friendly version of the traditional ArcGIS Desktop by offering a cloud-based geographic information system. With this mapping application, users can make maps, work with 3D GIS, perform analysis, manage data, share their work, and use other ArcGIS apps such as StoryMaps. Free trials are available. There are various options for use, including free limited-access accounts and fee-based individual, organization, or enterprise accounts. The ArcGIS Online website also has a variety of examples in its gallery and blogs, as well as lessons and training courses.


BatchGeo is primarily based on Google Maps products and is used by individuals and businesses to make maps that can be private or shared. Because no coding is required, BatchGeo is user-friendly; users can geocode locations and embed maps into websites with the limited free features. Advanced features are also available for a monthly fee. A free trial of BatchGeo Pro is available. BatchGeo is compatible with most web browsers and has mobile capabilities with iPhone and iPad through an app download.

Fusion Tables

Fusion Tables is an experimental data visualization application from Google Research. It is a free resource in the suite of Google Products accessed in Google Drive that allows users to gather, visualize, and share data via tables. These tables can then become charts, maps, and graphs that are saved to Google Drive. Fusion Tables is compatible with most web browsers; a Google Drive account is required for use.

Best Practices for Library Workshops

As Digital Scholarship Librarian at Middle Tennessee State University, I have organized, planned, taught, or consulted on over a dozen mapping workshops. Here are some best practices I have developed based on my experience. These suggestions apply to workshops in general, and are not exclusive to mapping workshops.

Registration Survey

A survey is optimal for knowing the number of attendees in advance and is a way to gauge the level of experience (software or subject) of attendees for customization. Obtaining the latter information is only possible if the survey asks for more than the typical name and email for registration purposes. Examples of suggested registration survey elements include: Rate your level of confidence in using spreadsheets (Beginner, Intermediate, Advanced) or Have you used Google Earth [or other applicable applications or databases] before? (Yes, No). The survey can be created with software already in use by your library. Other options include creating the survey with freely available resources such as Google Forms, SurveyMonkey, or subscription based resources such as SurveyMonkey (paid accounts come with advanced features) or LibCal (a Springshare product).


Be sure to arrange room reservations at your library in advance. Ensure the room selection will accommodate the number of anticipated attendees and that all software needed for the workshop is in place. Test the technology in the room far enough in advance of the workshop so that any problems can be resolved.


Once the above two tasks are done, advertise the event with announcements on the library website; an entry on the campus or organization calendar; flyers placed in elevators, waiting rooms, and hallways; email announcements to subscriber lists (or to interested parties); social media posts (if applicable), bulletin board posts, etc. Suggestions for design tools to create eye-catching infographics include Piktochart,, and Adobe Illustrator or InDesign. If you use a reservation system that allows for event reminders to be emailed, that is also an easy way for others to keep abreast of upcoming events.

Workshop Format

Workshop format will depend on the size of your library, number of staff devoted to the workshop, budget, and policies. Example formats include mini-lecture, overview, hands-on class, or a combination of formats.

Feedback & Program Development

Be sure to allow time, during or at the end of the workshop, for questions and answers. An optional survey administered at the end of the workshop can help you critique and further develop workshop programs. Note: If this is for an academic library, you may want to obtain institutional review board approval prior to releasing such a survey.


Always thank your workshop contributors, including guest speakers, staff, technology specialists, and others who may have donated time, money, or skills. It is a good idea to thank the workshop attendees and encourage them to attend future events at the library. You may also wish to provide marketing giveaways (e.g., pens or buttons with the library’s logo) or refreshments at the workshop (depending on availability of funds).


As licensers of subscription-based products, providers of open access resources, technology gateways, and centers for information literacy education, libraries are well situated to provide mapping education. The ability to create high quality web maps that enhance research and scholarship in a variety of disciplines is within reach of even novice users, and is not restricted to expert cartographers or earth scientists.

While mapping education in libraries may take different forms, workshops using free, relatively easy to learn mapping applications is an approach to consider. Part 2 of this article series will explore four mapping applications in more depth and provide tutorials for these applications that focus on preparing location coordinates for mapping projects.


Cady, C., Walters, W., Olsen, W., Williams-Bergen, E., & Harloe, B. (2008). Geographic information services in the undergraduate college: Organizational models and alternatives. Cartographica, 43(4), 239-255.

Houser, R. (2006). Building a library GIS service from the ground up. Library Trends, 55(2), 315-326.

Huet, H. (2015). Mapping decadence: From a hunch to a web site. Journal of Map & Geography Libraries, 11(1), 80-90.

MiTAC, International. (2011). What is GPS? Retrieved July 1, 2017, from

New York Public Library (NYPL). (2017). Introduction to the Map Warper. Retrieved March 8, 2017, from

Sharma, D. M. (2016). Using GIS to assess public libraries. Public Libraries Online. Retrieved from

Sinton, D. S., & Lund, J. J. (Eds.). (2007). Understanding place: GIS and mapping across the curriculum. Redlands, CA: ESRI.

Sommer, S. (2007). Connecting library users with free geoscience databases. Proceedings of the Geoscience Information Society, 38. 45-48. Retrieved from

Todd, J. L. (2008). GIS and libraries: A cross-disciplinary approach. Online, 32(5), 14-18.

Weessies, K. W., & Dotson, D. D. (2013). Mapping for the masses: GIS Lite and online mapping tools in academic libraries. Information Technology & Libraries, 32(1), 23-35.


A. Miller, Digital Scholarship Librarian at Middle Tennessee State University, can be reached at


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