In St. Charles County, Mo., a couple visited the local library for reference assistance. Planning to move into the county, the couple were concerned about finding a home within a subdivision and school district that would allow their children to mingle with others of Asian background. Using a geographic information system (GIS), the librarian showed them which areas were most populated by people of Asian descent, and then layered the data with the school district map, allowing the couple to determine which neighborhoods and schools would be the best location.

In a growing number of libraries, patrons use GIS to determine the best places to open small businesses, launch community projects or apply for grant applications. GIS software has been used for some time by local government, natural resource agencies and utilities, but lately librarians are discovering and implementing this technology and integrating it into their patron services.

Geographic data in digital form is becoming more common in libraries. Many librarians were first exposed to GIS by the TIGER files distributed with the U.S. Census Bureau's 1990 census data. More than 1,300 government-depository libraries receive information from the federal government, including the TIGER files, which can be used to produce street maps of the entire United States.

In 1992, the Association of Research Libraries initiated the GIS Literacy Project, convinced that libraries could harness the power and capabilities of GIS. By teaching librarians the skills needed to provide access to spatial data, the association enabled participating libraries to design GIS programs suited for their particular needs.

As desktop GIS software become less costly and easier to use, and as increasing amounts of data become available, more librarians are bringing the technology into their operations. According to GIS vendor ESRI, its software is used in 300 libraries of various types, 100 of which are public libraries.

Public libraries are facing globalization of information, increased competition for public funding, the rapid pace of technological improvements in computing and telecommunications, demographic changes and increasing alternatives to library services. To remain competitive, libraries have responded by developing initiatives to provide quality services that meet and anticipate the needs of their user communities.

"The time of passive sitting and waiting for a patron is gone. We compete with other information providers, and we'd better be very proactive," says Anna Sylvan, GIS/government information resources coordinator of the St. Charles City-County Library District.

Libraries are appropriate facilities for the management and distribution of GIS maps and data. They are neutral, unbiased institutions, and are an established nationwide infrastructure. People who need access to information automatically think of libraries. It is libraries that users depend on for their data needs, and for resources that can interpret data. In addition, librarians are proficient in collection development, cataloging, access and preservation issues. All this makes for a strong case to provide GIS services in libraries.

Patterns of Use

The St. Louis Public Library, in partnership with the Southern Illinois University at Edwardsville, began providing patrons with GIS services in 1992 with the development of the St. Louis Public Library's Electronic Atlas. The library's GIS atlas replaced the federally developed Urban Atlas, an electronic atlas of St. Louis city and county that had not been updated since 1970.

The atlas is accessible on a Pentium workstation in the library's public service area and provides 35 thematic city and county maps containing selected data elements from the 1990 census. These maps were created and saved as files using ESRI's ArcView software and are estimated to meet 80 percent of patron needs. The atlas also allows patrons to match addresses and map their own data. Use of a color printer is available at no charge.

The system offers a simplified, customized user interface so that users of varying expertise can try GIS. Many patrons use the system quite easily.