Image of the top of a notebook

Mapping the Future

Penn State librarian strikes the perfect balance between the old and the new
Image of Marcy Bidney, Circle with Her name, and an image of a globe
Marcy Bidney has been the Geospatial Information librarian and head of the Donald W. Hamer Maps Library at Penn State since 2008. She is passionate about maps and geography and can be found serving as a judge for the Pennsylvania Geographic Bee each year.

Over the past nine years working as a librarian, I’ve come to believe that having access to geospatial information and the tools to create, collect, and analyze this data (through maps, data, atlases, GPS units, and geographic information systems) is an empowering experience for everyone.

Generally, geospatial information refers to any data that can be mapped to a place, represented by anything from standard topographic maps to complex sociological data sets.

By analyzing geospatial information, an individual gains the ability to understand the past and present in great detail. A scholar can use this information keep track of the finds in an archaeological dig, research how land use has changed throughout history, and create visual representations of the migration of people from one country to another. It can even help a community fight for better public services, or help a business owner find most profitable routes for an ice cream truck to take.

As this information has become ubiquitous in academia, the role that libraries play in providing a variety of services to assist patrons in the search, discovery, and use of geospatial data has become extremely vital.

I became head of the Donald W. Hamer Maps Library in a climate of radical change in the field—not only for libraries, but for the subject of geography as well. At the time, the use of technology was beginning to transform both of these disciplines in ways we are still trying to understand, and it became my job to guide the relocation and revitalization of geographic information services and the Maps Library at the Penn State University Libraries.

Amidst all the change happening around me, I became responsible for a large collection of print maps and for managing a rapidly evolving environment for geospatial technologies. This was a challenging opportunity, but one full of promise.

Maps are cool in print and I’ve seen many people come into the library and become lost in map gazing. And while print maps are wonderful, they are often overlooked by people who prefer digitized versions. It’s easy to see why.

Digital maps and technologies are shiny, new, and have a flare that print maps don’t have, and the Maps Library is taking advantage of all they have to offer like never before. Nevertheless, it has become very important to me to make sure that the super-coolness of the new digital mapping technologies don’t overshadow the older print technologies—and perhaps even find a way to make traditional print maps as popular as their digital counterparts.

A few of the initiatives we have undertaken to strike this balance are:

  • Relocating the Maps Library from the basement of the Paterno Library to the basement of Central Pattee. The move to this central location was key to making our map collections and services more visible and easy to access. In addition, the library now provides even more student study space and computer labs with 15 collaborative workstations, as part of this change.
  • Scanning one of our most popular collections (the Sanborn Fire Insurance Maps) and making them available in our digital collections. The availability of these maps in digital form helps us preserve the originals and allows anyone who visits our website access to these important historical resources. We have also scanned and made available the entire set of Pennsylvania 1:250,000 scale topographic maps.
  • Using handheld GPS units to provide faculty and students with access to innovative technologies and new ways to collect, extract, and use data points gathered on a hike, for a class assignment, or while geocaching (a type of hi-tech treasure hunting).
  • Subscribing to a user-friendly GIS software database called “Simply Map” that lets students and faculty easily create maps for their research that include a wide variety of geographical features. A range of Census data is provided along with some business related information like the Nielsen Claritas PRIZM data.
  • Acquiring a new 42-inch sheet feed scanner and large format plotter to support our on-demand map scanning and printing service.
  • Making our digital collections even more useful by overlaying them in Google Earth. This involves taking a digital image of a map or aerial photo and laying it over the existing background in Google Earth. Doing this, enables researchers to see through the digital image into the existing background and analyze changes that have happened over time.

As a librarian, my primary goals involve providing increased, open, and alternative access to each of the print collections in the Maps Library for anyone who would like to use them while simultaneously seeking ways for our department to be innovative about the use of technology specifically for services and collection access. One of the greatest challenges we face in pursuit of these goals is learning to look toward the future without losing sight of the past—by striking the best possible balance between the influx of groundbreaking technological resources on one hand, and print maps of esteemed historical importance on the other.

Let’s just say that it seemed like an almost impossible and overwhelming task just a few years ago, but today as I sit and write this, I couldn’t be happier with the results and more excited about what’s to come. The future for the Donald W. Hamer Maps Library is a bright one.

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