Samantha Ginsburg, Law Library Fellow at the University of Arizona's Cracchiolo Law Library, has been participating in a large project to gather data about the University's land-grant status and its impacts on Indigenous communities. She has authored this guest post to share her experience using GIS systems to present this data in a clear, visual way. Applying GIS in this innovative way is a first for the library and can serve as a model for others.
In the last year, the Daniel F. Cracchiolo Law Library undertook a significant task: researching and realizing the University of Arizona’s land-grant history and its impact on the state’s Indigenous peoples. The goal was to convey this information in an informative, transparent, and interactive manner. Recognizing that the essence of the land-grant concept revolves around land itself, our team made a deliberate decision to harness the power of maps and Geographic Information Systems (GIS) as the most effective means of presenting our research. Previously, I had limited experience using GIS from undergraduate coursework and infrequently encountered geospatial applications in my professional role as a criminal paralegal. This endeavor demanded a level of skill beyond what I was capable of. Fortunately, my supervisor, Cas Laskowski, is a mapping expert in addition to serving as our Technology & Empirical Librarian. We were able to navigate this ambitious project together, and as a result, I was able to continue learning and gain a deeper understanding of GIS technology. Ultimately, it became the perfect opportunity to see the practical application of how geospatial data could be used in an academic law library environment.
To provide some additional context, this project was in response to the compelling article by High Country News (HCN) titled “Land-Grab Universities” and their subsequent investigation into land-grant universities across the United States. Using the HCN data as a starting point, we realized the uniqueness of Arizona’s land-grant history and that the quantity of land transferred to the state for purposes of higher education surpassed our original assumptions. While some tracts have been sold or swapped over time, most of the land remains managed in trust by the AZ State Land Department. I used the Bureau of Land Management’s General Land Office Records (BLM GLO) Automation web site to locate and verify the parcels that were periodically selected in the years following Arizona’s statehood. I was able to identify most of the land parcels throughout the state and the authority under which they were granted. Next, I created a data set from the BLM Control Document Index records drawn from the state selection list. Once I completed “data scraping,” reformatting, and cleaning the BLM land data into our dataset, Cas turned the data into a shapefile (a geospatial vector data file format).
We used ArcGIS, a powerful GIS software developed by Esri, to capture and manage our geospatial data. Additionally, creating the maps based on the BLM data required advanced skills and techniques that went beyond the functionalities of the software. For instance, converting raw tabular data into a shapefile that would display geospatial information demanded the use of a computer programming language. To achieve this, Cas crafted a Python script enabling ArcGIS to read and interpret the data accurately and present a geospatial representation on-screen. Throughout the process, we collaborated closely addressing any errors or challenges that arose. Cas generously shared her expertise, teaching me invaluable troubleshooting techniques applicable to both coding and data engineering. Once the maps were created, we seamlessly integrated them into ArcGIS StoryMaps, another product offered by Esri. StoryMaps is a web-based program that allows its users to create and feature maps alongside engaging narratives and other multimedia content. Our StoryMap, titled University of Arizona Land-Grant Project: Tracking the History of Land-Grant Enrichment at the University of Arizona, is now available to view through the Daniel F. Cracchiolo Law Library’s Special Projects’ page.
The impact of leveraging geospatial data goes far beyond historical projects like this one. Such technology within an academic law library setting can have profound benefits for law students and faculty. In subject areas such as real and property law, water and environmental issues, and particularly indigenous law, where border matters and sovereignty are pressing topics, geospatial data can play a pivotal role. The use of geospatial technologies revolutionizes a traditionally paper-heavy profession, ushering in a new era of interdisciplinary work. As a Law Library Fellow, essentially a novice librarian in training, I had the incredible opportunity to use our library resources and now understand the implications of what data-driven librarianship can do. Law libraries, by teaching and supporting law students in technologies like GIS, can foster significant advancements within the legal profession and shape a more dynamic and progressive future.