Technology

What is a GIS Lab and Why is it in My Library?

By Guest Blogger Danielle Trierweiler

Sometime between the Spring Semester and Fall, a new space worked its way into the Hilltop’s beloved Schewe Library: enter the Geospatial Information Systems or GIS Lab.

The GIS Lab arrives at the library in pursuit of the same mission that the Digital Learning Center or DLC initiated roughly a year ago: get students and faculty access to the digital tools and software they need to explore, interrogate, and produce digital projects. As the Digital Services Librarian, I am biased, but these 4 seats to Esri ArcGIS Desktop 10.3 , an industrial-strength mapping tool, are pretty exciting. Here’s why:

Newly finished GIS Lab April 2015

Newly finished GIS Lab @ Illinois College Schewe Library April,  2015

  • Visualizing and sharing data such as population distribution or regional income
  • Mapping definitive routes (such as a river or highway) or more rapidly changing phenomena (like cloud cover or water toxicity)
  • Collaborating with other GIS data producers, analysts, and curators to reveal findings otherwise impossible to view
  • Data management is a large part of GIS, since the attractive map visualizations are comprised of an aggregation of one or more data sources.
  • Using GIS will boost your vocabulary (raster data anyone?) and technical awareness (I get .PDF, but what exactly is a .shp- shapefile?!)

Understanding what GIS is broadly and being able using it the way you want to use it does take some time. Like any skill or sport, it is what you put into it- practice (and time) makes perfect. I can verify that in only a few months of viewing online videos and using textbooks and courses that provide dummy-data to complete basic exercises, I am fascinated by GIS and enjoy looking for new open data sources to map.

About a year ago, Outreach Librarian, Luke Beatty mused on the then-prospect GIS in Schewe back when it was only a sparkle in the Library Director’s eye: “Personally, I’d like to see a GIS-lite tool with a focus on demographic, business, or social data.” he wrote. Sorry Luke! ArcGIS can handle spatial analysis for all of these, but it is strictly BYOD (Bring [downloand] Your Own Data!) Not necessarily a bad thing, but ArcGIS users, especially ArcGIS desktop users should be up for the management challenges that comes with freedom to structure and customize your data.

To help get you started understanding and using the GIS Resources available to the IC campus, check out the *NEW* GIS page on the Schewe Library website or visit the lab next time you’re in the library to see for yourself.

I’d like to close this entry with one of my personal favorite video Overviews of GIS  *not* found on the library website: a rather long but solid overview published, created, and produced by Mr. Jere Folgert, owner and trainer of an online professional GIS training firm, http://www.KnowGIS.com: here is his Introduction to Cartography and Making Maps with ArcGIS Desktop 10X

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National Student Employment Week

April 13-17 marks National Student Employment Week.  The goal of this week is to recognize the importance of student workers on campus.  At Schewe Library, we would most definitely be lost without the help of our student employees.  They staff the Circulation Desk for each hour the library stays open from 8 in the morning until midnight.  Not only do they provide great service to their fellow students, they help the entire library by working on projects and shelving, among many other things.  You might see them helping someone find a resource or troubleshooting a problem with technology.  Most of the time, they are the first face you’ll see when you walk in the door.

Yesterday, Illinois College recognized student workers and their supervisors at a kick-off event in Bruner.  Both Luke Beatty and Sarah Snyder were nominated for the prestigious Supervisor of the Year award.  In addition, one of our student workers, Alessandra Capparelli, was nominated for Student Worker of the Year.  Clearly, all of the hard work and dedication that the library staff and student workers put in each day paid off, at least in some small way!

Alessandra Capparelli is a senior this year and will be graduating this May.  She has worked here since her Sophomore year and has put a lot of time into making the library a great place for all faculty and students.  She has been accepted into the Master’s program at Rush University where she will pursue a graduate degree in nursing.  We are all very proud of her and wish her great luck in her future career!

Student Employee Week

In addition to our slate of student library workers, Luke Beatty supervises 5 Digital Learning Center Student Assistants, each of whom are helping out a faculty member with a technologically forward-looking project.  For those not in the know, the Digital Learning Center is a recent addition to the Schewe family, and features space-age hardware, software, and a top-notch Library crew working to ensure that students, staff, and faculty get everything they can out of it.  As the academic year draws to a close, Schewe would again like to thank its Digitial Learning Center Student Assistants, who have learned fast and done some great work.  Congratulations!

Digital Learning Center (DLC) First Projects

Though we haven’t officially opened our still-being-built Digital Learning Center, the equipment we have in place has allowed Schewe to help out a couple of “earlybird” classes with their projects.  The first of these classes — Political Science 375 — completed a “get out to vote” commercial today, and the results were fantastic!  With four groups in the class, each group produced a video using shot footage, Audacity, Camtasia, and a variety of other tools.  Over the course of four, thirty-minute sessions, the group was trained on how to record audio, cut footage, and add effects to a video.  Once those initial sessions were complete, additional help was provided by Schewe’s Outreach Librarian, Luke Beatty (me!).  For the inaugural DLC project, it was a remarkably smooth ride.  There were, however, a few issues.

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Audio looks like it will be a persistent issue with the DLC.  Switching the audio between microphones, headphones, and multiple screens has proven a challenge already.  Though consistent documentation will help, the process is unintuitive.  We’ve got IT working on a simplifying solution, but in the meantime, the students are left to navigate the issue on their own.  The recording of audio has also proved problematic, as we’ve had a lot of background noise in the recordings thus far.  This poor recording quality is resultant from the fact that we haven’t yet carved out a quiet space for recordings, and may also have something to do with the microphones we’re currently using (not fantastic, not poor — just a mid-line product).

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We have also had some issues arising from our use of a double-screen setup.  We currently have two multimedia production machines, each of which is using a double screen setup.  While this setup has a certain visual appeal, the double screen configuration has led to a variety of mouse problems and general settings malaise.  We are considering doing away with the double screen setup and instead purchasing two production-quality Macs, which would then leave us with four great computers and one screen for each computer.  Thoughts?

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Banned Books Week 2014

For those unaware, Banned Books Week is an annual event spearheaded by the American Library Association.  Banned Books Weeks celebrates the right to read freely, and is often commemorated at colleges and universities with a public reading of banned and/or challenged books.  In talking with students about the event, many were surprised to discover that books are still being banned.  Of course, the usual suspects (dictatorships, Communist regimes, nations with a high religiosity) account for the majority of book bannings nowadays, but America is not without fault in this tableaux.  Parents groups, religious advocacy organizations, and “concerned” citizens have, quite successfully, had books banned at both the local and municipal levels.  State and Federal bans seem more-or-less impractical at this point, but books removed from schools and libraries are books that might never find their way into the hands of those who most need them, and so the issue is still one of concern.

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With regard to IC, we held a successful Banned Books Week reading on 25/09/2014.  The event featured IC students, staff, faculty, and administration reading from a variety of banned and/or challenged books.  The readings ranged from more modern selections (including the Da Vinci Code [banned in the Vatican] and Captain Underpants [banned in a whole variety of places]), to more classical works (including The Holy Bible [the most thoroughly banned book in the history of the world] and Candide [banned for scandalizing virtually every member of the French aristocracy during the 18th century]).  Though attendance was modest, we managed to get two hours worth of readers, and all enjoyed themselves on a beautiful autumn day.

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Having stewarded Banned Books Week events for 30-odd years, we librarians are (perhaps naively) hoping that the idea of banning books is becoming more unpalatable to the world.  Google, social media, and the Internet have certainly helped in this regard, but the fact that we’re still holding these events suggests more can be done.  What then is the next frontier?  Our Circulation Manager, Sarah Snyder, had a pretty sharp idea: Banned Ideas Week.  You’d think “banned” ideas wouldn’t exist in a higher education environment, but not so.  There are hot-button issues in higher education which, de facto, one simply does not take certain positions on (promotion of intelligent design theory, climate change denialism, the suggestion that genetic factors play a significant role in the formation of racial differences, etc.).  There are also topics which are generally avoided for reasons of job security/institutional politics (tenure reform, adminstrative expansion, hiring quotas, etc.).  Maybe it’s time we carved out a space for banned ideas as well.  Thoughts?

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Website Redesign

Recently, Schewe decided that we needed to redesign our website.  A look at our current website (as at 19/08/2014) reveals it to be a shambling mess — dead links, broken widgets, aesthetically stultifying, and a (dis)organization of content that would put Theodor Geisel to shame.  Now, in fairness, Schewe is a small library, and as a small library, we don’t really have the programming expertise, web skills, or design knowledge to make a slam-bang website.  And even if we did, we’re locked into a wider campus design template, which, while functional, would have looked right at home in 2005.  So, we’re in a bit of a tight spot, but we realize our current website isn’t measuring up, and so something must be done.

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In planning our revised website, one of the first things we set out to do was re-facet our content.  Now, faceting is most often associated with thesaurus and encyclopedia construction, but the principles which underlie good faceting — logical, discrete, and mutually exclusive categorization — are very much applicable in a web environment.  If you put things where they ought to belong, people pick up the scheme of things pretty quickly.  Another design philosophy which informed our soon-to-be revision was the principle that people spend most of their time on other people’s web pages.  As librarians, we’re sometimes prone to streaks of exceptionalism, but when it comes to web design, users appreciate a familiar, standardized functionality.  In this regard, we’re just trying to be part of the crowd.

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Ultimately, though, the success of a redesign can only be judged through user behaviour.  Will users download more content?  Will we get more hits?  Will people find what they’re looking for?  These are all questions which we’ve made informed guesses about, and we think we’re headed in the right direction, but, really, the stats will tell the story.  Here’s hoping…

GIS

If variety is the spice of life, it is no less the spice of working in a small, academic library.  Sure, you have your specialities, but by virtue of size, life in a small library obliges you to do a little of everything.  This is usually a good thing, but can occasionally cause problems.  Case in point: Schewe is looking to add geographic information systems (GIS) programming into our portfolio.  We’re hoping to tie a GIS software package into our new Digital Learning Center, and in addition to providing computers and software, we’d also like to offer some dedicated(ish) Librarian support for the venture.  Sounds good, right?

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Sure, save that GIS is a complicated business.  The learning curves are steep, the time commitment is sizeable, and the material under consideration can be a little esoteric.  This has lead to GIS getting a bit of a reputation in the library community — the whole enterprise is considered difficult, unwieldy, and usually requires its own dedicated position (GIS/Data/Map Librarian).  Furthermore, those dedicated positions are in high demand and low supply — even big salaries haven’t pushed new librarians down the GIS path.  So, even by the standards of specialized library services, GIS is a thorny business, and Schewe is by no means big enough to simply throw a new hire at the issue.

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How then will Schewe handle its GIS expansion.  Carefully, and most carefully when it comes to our initial software selection(s).  As an institution without a Geography program proper, we can hopefully avoid some of the more complex options on the market (i.e. those dealing with specialized geographic analysis or hardcore mapmaking).  Personally, I’d like to see a GIS-lite tool with a focus on demographic, business, or social data.  Those would seem to meet our needs most precisely, but we’ll see how things shake out.  Stay tuned…

Construction!

Though we’d sometimes have you think differently, libraries are very much the quiet and contemplative places you imagine them to be.  True, the past couple of decades have seen libraries getting louder, but for communal spaces, we’ve still got a remarkably quiet vibe around us.  Much in keeping with this, Schewe is typically quiet during the summer; our students are gone, the faculty are off on research forays, and the staff are busy maintaining campus.  This summer, however, Schewe is sporting two separate construction projects, both of which are adding some decibels to the otherwise somnolent air of the place.

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The first project involves a renovation and relocation of the Illinois College Archives and Iver F. Yeager Special Collections (soon to be re-named the Khalaf al Habtoor Archives at Illinois College, in honor of a generous donation from Emirati businessman Khalaf al Habtoor).  The Archives will soon live on Schewe’s first floor, and between the drilling, hammering, and sawing you can almost hear that beautiful, archival silence.  But not yet.  For those interested, you can follow the Archives’ reconstruction  at Assistant Professor of History Jenny Barker-Devine’s blog at IC Time Capsule.

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The second construction project underway at Schewe is our Digital Learning Center (DLC).  The DLC is a bold new venture for the Library, and straddles an interesting space between high-technology, production platform, and Library-supported instructional venture.  The DLC will, in the best of worlds, support forward-looking multimedia projects through a combination of state-of-the-art equipment, knowledgeable support workers, and faculty buy-in.  It touches on issues of pedagogy (allowing students to explore new technologies in an active, constructivist manner) and professional preparation (developing digital skills which will be marketable to employers, grad schools, etc.).

With a little luck, both projects should be complete by the Fall, 2014 term.  Fingers crossed!