Maps, Maps, Maps

Newcastle Harbour to Toronto Map

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Since 1999 I have been the Geographic Information Systems (GIS) and Map Librarian at the University of Toronto’s Map and Data Library. I am responsible for the geospatial and map collections and GIS services for the university. Mostly I support researchers and students in their use of the geospatial technology in their academic work. This often means teaching how to retrieve, acquire, and use geospatial and cartographic information. My job also entails teaching GIS workshops to many classes every semester. Alot of my work is done one on one with researchers but much of my work also involves working with research teams or within specific classes. I have taught a course called The Evolution of Geographic Information in the Geography Department at the University of Toronto and in 2013 I will be teaching a GIS course at the Faculty of Information at the University of Toronto.

While my everyday work is technologically immersed, my research and special projects, seem to always be centred around history. As most map users would attest, working with maps always involves some historical aspect of sorts. After all, most maps, once published are immediately historical in nature. They are snapshots in time and showcase events and landscapes that no longer exist exactly as they are depicted on a paper map.

I have been a professional librarian for twenty years and the twists and turns of my career have always centered on computers and history. I initially started as an engineering student at the University of Ottawa where I was first bitten by the computer bug. History became my true passion when I encountered some of the most fantastic professors in the History department there. They opened my my mind to a historical view of the world. Working as a summer student in the Cartographic Division of the National Archives was also one of the biggest joys of being a student in Ottawa.

Librarianship has since always been the centre point between my two passions, history and computers. It allowed me to continue studying history by completing an MA in history while working as a librarian at UBC. It also allowed me to continue to learn more and more about computer applications such as GIS, and some programming. Working as a librarian alongside the likes of people like NiCHE’s Bill Turkel certainly helped develop a love and appreciation of computer programming.

The University of Toronto Libraries collections of maps is one of the biggest in Canada. Our holdings cover the globe and go as far back as the 15th Century. Interestingly, our biggest users of maps actually tend to be, not from the Geography Department, but from most other disciplines that examine the history of a place or phenomenon.

As a result of major changes in GIS technology over the past few years, my two passions of maps and computers have met again in radical ways through Historical GIS. More and more, my work now consists of scanning maps from our collection, and not only making them available online, but to actually use the maps to build new information. The NiCHE funded Don Valley Historical Mapping Project, with Jennifer Bonnell, allowed the U of T Map and Data Library to showcase how paper maps can be repurposed in a GIS and become useful in a different way. And furthering the mandate of libraries, we made these data available for free as open data.

My next project will consist of developing an open source framework for building web mapping tools for historical mapping and GIS projects. The first data I will apply the framework to will be the Don Valley project, as well as another NiCHE funded project data, the Ontario Historical County Map Project data. I plan on setting up a server on cloud services, install content management software, as well as a geospatial database and web mapping tools. I am hoping to combine all these tools, document their integration, evaluate different options, and to compile the instructions for setup. All documentation will then be made available in a form that a lay person can replicate the results. I am planning on conducting this work during a research leave planned to start in the spring of 2013.

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Marcel Fortin

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