Preserving maps for the future

USGS faces a challenge in protecting cartographic data

Decades from now, home buyers and developers might have difficulty assessing how a property was used because of new federal mapping practices, according to government librarians.

The U.S. Geological Survey, which issues most official maps, is transforming its role from mapmaker to map gatekeeper. Like most agencies, USGS is transitioning from print to digital media. The transitions have left USGS officials and government librarians struggling to preserve cartographic information.

When most people think of the nation's historical records, they think of written documents. But maps, which are increasingly created in digital formats, are also federal documents that USGS must retain for future reference. The growing amount of geospatial data generated by federal agencies, states, industry and nongovernmental organizations must be filed somewhere. The question is where.

Increasingly, storing geographic information is a team effort. For instance, last month USGS launched an improved, comprehensive Geospatial One-Stop Web portal. The online tool combines thousands of resources from federal, state, local and private sources. And the National Map project — a constantly updated topographic map on the Internet — is a collaboration among government agencies, industry and nongovernmental organizations.

The producers of such interagency datasets must agree on which historical information is worth saving and then make a commitment to manage that data, USGS officials say. They add that geospatial archiving requires a more sophisticated approach than many organizations can fund.

"The practical reality is that the entire federal government does not have the resources to map" the nation, said Hank Garie, chief of geospatial information integration and analysis in USGS' National Geospatial Programs Office. The office was created in August 2004 to collect and make available data from state and local governments, private organizations and other federal agencies for the National Map and Geospatial One-Stop initiatives.

Librarians say preservation practices must improve soon or future generations will not know the difference between a property used as a landfill and one used as a burial ground. Computer screens are not always user-friendly, printouts are cumbersome, and ink fades, they say.

"When the public comes in, they want to be able to look at a whole county," said Donna Koepp, director of government documents and microforms and head of reference and instruction for the Harvard College Library's Social Sciences Program. "It's pretty difficult to do that, even on a 20-inch monitor. It's hard to paste things together because the edges don't match perfectly."

She had to consult old-fashioned printed maps to check if power lines encroached on a particular area of land. "I was trying to buy a house, but I didn't want to live under one of these high power lines," Koepp said. "I wanted to be at least two miles away from one of these things."

In the future, people will only be able to see a tiny parcel of land on a computer screen or have to print several pages to get the entire view they want, she said.

The implications for map preservation don't just affect librarians and real estate investors. "It's a record of the development of our country," Koepp said.

Librarians are particularly concerned about the National Map project. Government officials aren't guaranteeing that libraries will have free access to the map, that previous versions of the map will be saved, and that librarians will be able to download and print at full size, Koepp said.

USGS officials acknowledge that they don't have solutions for full-size printing. "USGS recognizes the need to deliver and distribute large-format paper maps," said Denver Makle, a USGS spokeswoman. The agency "also recognizes that it cannot afford the traditional map printing and stocking in a warehouse."

Linda Zellmer, head of the Geology Library at Indiana University, said buying digital maps was a problem when she was a librarian at Arizona State University.

"Libraries in small states like Delaware could afford data for their states, but data for large states like Arizona and California was prohibitively expensive," she said.

Another complication is that many people don't understand geographic information system jargon, which features monstrosities such as digital orthophoto quadrangles and digital raster graphics.

"The system should be intuitive enough so that anyone can use it," Zellmer said. "Obtaining a map in a library should not become a service mediated by a librarian."

How did Columbus do it?

Records maintenance plagues almost all federal agencies. And map preservation efforts face the same obstacles as the safekeeping of other government documents.

To address the challenge, National Archives and Records Administration officials will choose a design for the $500 million Electronic Records Archives project, which they hope to have in place by 2011.

ERA is an ambitious federal effort to save the government's records, regardless of format, and make them accessible with future hardware and software.

However, Donna Koepp, director of government documents and microforms for the Harvard College Library's Social Sciences Program and a longtime member of the Cartographic Users Advisory Council, said the National Map plans she has seen do not state that archiving should be part of the map-updating process.

NARA officials said they will collaborate with the U.S. Geological Survey and other data producers to schedule the final disposition of the National Map records and other historically important geospatial data records.

"We have also issued guidelines on the transfer of historically important geospatial data," said Michael Carlson, director of NARA's Electronic and Special Media Records Services Division.

"We realize that some of these topics are breaking new ground, and we're going to have to figure out the most logical ways of working together," said Hank Garie, chief of geospatial information integration and analysis in USGS' National Geospatial Programs Office.

— Aliya Sternstein

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