Dabbling with GIS-driven web interfaces a couple of years ago taught me that it might be something one could master, given time. That’s still true. But the things we could do with it! We had an summer position working on this, and I hope to roll it out after some more summer work this year.

The idea is to link bibliographic searching to a GIS system, built with the open-source MapServer package. We extracted all our geographic subject terms and mapped them (which took a bit of research in some cases – we’ve got dioceses from the nineteenth-century missionary period, for example). We then included them as a data layer in a MapServer interface. This will let us do two things:

  • Search by clicking–navigate the map until you find the area you want, then click to run a search. The system gathers all the subject terms that are anchored within a given radius of your click and composes a bibliographic search for those terms. Thus, to give you all the results for a certain region, we don’t have to have created a subject term for that region; we just have to have catalogued a bunch of places in that region. As a further refinement, you’ll be able to enter extra search terms to limit your search, e.g. to search for items concerning schools within the selected geographical region.
  • Map your search results–run a regular bibliographic search, then click on a map icon and see your results as dots on a map. We’ll extract the geographic subject terms from the result records, pull out their GIS data, and map them. Maybe have different-sized dots to indicate number of hits, etc. Click on a dot to see the records associated with that place (this can be a follow-on search of the type described above).

None of this is at all difficult to implement, once you’ve got the GIS underpinnings built.

The power of a GIS-based presentation is striking. My favorite example is one built by the city of Vienna, as the basis of an archival digitization project: the records of the eviction of Jews from public housing after the Anschluß. Click to the English-language interface, then “Project Reason for Eviction - non Ayrian”, then “Map”. You can zoom in on a map of Vienna and ultimately view records of individuals and families, often with information about their fate: e.g. Gisela Goldmann, Diefenbachgasse 49, evicted Aug. 1 1938, deported with her husband Ignaz to Theresienstadt in 1942 and to Auschwitz in 1944. You can see her neighbours and her neighbourhood. Giving the user the ability to navigate from the general to the particular in this way has a tremendous impact.

Nothing in our digital library will be as gut-wrenching as this, but I think our GIS interface will give our users a sense of control over their search results that is lacking in the familar “page 1 of 36” at the top of the first screenful. I hope that GIS will ultimately become part of our basic toolkit in web development.