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Web-based Mapping Tools for Your Reference Utility Belt
By Devin Rogers

With the rising popularity and availability of geospatial data, librarians will likely face an increase in reference questions regarding Geographic Information Systems (GIS) and mapping tools. In the academic community, geospatial data and GIS are no longer just for geography students and faculty. Geospatial analysis has become an interdisciplinary research technique with increasing popularity in the humanities, social sciences, and marketing fields. There are commercial GIS products such as Esri’s ArcGIS which are used by most academic geography departments and government agencies for geospatial analysis and map making. These tools have advanced functionality, but are also expensive and large to store. Fortunately there is a variety of free online mapping tools for using, creating, and manipulating geospatial data. An added benefit of these tools is that they do not require a user to download and store large datasets on library computers. Below are four tools to get your library on the geospatial bandwagon!

Google Earth (
Potential users: “geospatial explorers,” imagery analysts, data creators, presenters, direction seekers

Google Earth, not to be confused with Google Maps, is an online virtual globe program which is available free to download to a desktop or mobile device or as a plug-in to view through an internet browser. Much of its popularity is due to its bevy of existing data sets, which include: high-resolution satellite imagery, historical orthoimagery, 3D buildings, ocean data (shipwrecks, expeditions, marine animal tracking, etc.), natural disasters, and Google street view. At its most basic, Google Earth “flies” users to any street address or location on the globe and allows them to select various geospatial data layers to view in the main screen. Users can also determine driving routes, view changing imagery over time, and add personalized features and images. Advanced users can contribute 3D models to the existing database, save files in kml (key-hole markup language), format to share with other users, and import external data. The kml files can also be uploaded and used in Esri’s ArcGIS software.

BatchGeo (
Potential users: rough-and-ready map creators, direction seekers

BatchGeo is a free online product that provides a very simple way for users to geocode (assign geographic coordinates to locations) a spreadsheet of addresses, get driving directions, and/or create a map file. The most impressive function of BatchGeo is its three-step batch-processing technique for geocoding addresses. Users simply copy and paste a spreadsheet of addresses into the box on the main screen, and BatchGeo generates a map displaying the geocoded features. Users can then validate the results and save a hyperlink to the map which can be incorporated into a website as a Google Map or imported into another mapping program.

OpenStreetMap (
Potential users: “geospatial explorers”, data creators, map creators, presenters

OpenStreetMap is a collaborative mapping project that functions under a Creative Commons license – the mapping world’s answer to Wikipedia. Users can add content by uploading GPS data, aerial photography, vector features (point, line, polygon), pictures, or landmarks. The interface is familiar, clean, and user-friendly. The navigation tabs at the top are very similar to most wikis with a view, edit, history, and export tab, among others. Users need to register before adding or editing content, but any user can view, explore, or export/print a map. Exporting maps is simply a matter of locating the desired geographic area, and clicking the export tab. Users can then export in multiple file formats (html, xml, image). While these maps do not include all of the common cartographic elements such as a legend and scale bar, it is quick and might be just what a user needs to incorporate into a website or presentation.

ArcGIS Explorer (
Potential users: map creators, scholars, presenters

ArcGIS Explorer online is a free online mapping tool made available by Esri. The intuitive interface resembles Windows software and serves as a gateway into GIS and more complicated tools. ArcGIS Explorer has many existing data sets available to use, such as satellite imagery and existing thematic maps. It also has the functionality necessary to incorporate a user’s own geospatial data in various file formats, as well as images, photos, and documents. ArcGIS Explorer can be used to create sophisticated, cartographically correct maps that can be incorporated into presentations, websites, and projects. For advanced functionality such as saving, sharing, and displaying maps, users can sign up for a free account.

Users who wish to explore, view, and/or manipulate existing geospatial data can be directed towards Google Earth or OpenStreetMap. Presenters, website administrators, and other users interested in creating maps may find value in the mapping capabilities of OpenStreetMap, BatchGeo, and ArcGIS Explorer. Since these two classes of users will likely account for many of the geospatial reference questions that librarians might face, familiarity with free web-based products like these can help librarians quickly get users pointed in the right direction.

Devin Rogers is currently earning her Master’s degree in Library and Information Studies from the School of Library and Information Studies at the University of Wisconsin-Madison. She has a BA in Anthropology with a minor in Geography from the State University of New York at Geneseo. She currently works as a full-time library assistant at the Wisconsin State Law Library in Madison, Wisconsin.