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Geographic Information Systems (GIS) & Geospatial Resources

History of Geographic Information Systems

black and white image of man sitting in front of a 1980s-era computer, with a 3D city rendering visible on the screen

Marion S. Trikosko. Man seated at computer using 3-D architectural design system. 1982. Prints and Photographs Division.

Geographic Information Systems (GIS) emerged in the mid-20th century as an outgrowth of quantitative methods in the discipline of Geography. Though spatial analysis and decision-making has a long history with the use of analog maps, geographers began to think about the intersection of computing and automation with cartography, such as in Waldo Tobler's 1959 "Automation and Cartography" article in the Geographical Review, where Tobler posited a parallel between data processing and cartographic processing. Many credit the 1963 Canada Geographic Information System, developed by Roger Tomlinson, as the first modern-day GIS. A few years later in 1965, Harvard University founded the Harvard Laboratory for Computer Graphics, which brought together researchers working on spatial visualizations and computer cartography, many of whom would go on to shape the evolution of GIS as we know it today. The Geography & Map Division's History of Computer Cartography and Geographic Information Sciences Archive collects materials (including maps, algorithms, correspondence, technical papers, data, software and more) related to the founding and evolution of GIS and computer cartography.

Nicholas R. Chrisman Collection

Nicholas R. Chrisman is a pioneer in the field of geographic information systems, known commonly as GIS. From 1972 to 1983, he worked at the Harvard Lab for Computer Graphics and Spatial Analysis; he went to work in GIS research, instruction, and journal publications as an editor and writer. His forty-plus year career is represented in this collection of 41 archival boxes containing gray literature, manuscripts, letters and other printed material; it also contains GIS maps, computer files, software, and printouts.

Joel L. Morrison Collection

Materials and correspondence from Joel L. Morrison's time as Professor at The Ohio State University. Collection of gray literature and white papers from 1963 to 2001 by cartographic and geographic experts from around the world that speak to the development of computerized geographic information systems. Includes some early digital cartographic samples in the form of printouts.

Waldo Tobler Collection

This collection contains materials from Waldo R. Tobler's time as an Assistant Professor to Professor at the University of Michigan from 1961 to 1977 and portions of his thesis when a student at the University of Washington from 1957 to 1961. Items in the collection include manuscripts, lectures, published papers, manuscript maps, early cartographic computer programs, and instructional materials.

Roger F. Tomlinson Collection

This collection includes documents regarding Tomlinson's tenure with the aerial survey company Spartan Air Services, during which Tomlinson first conceptualized a geographic information system, the IBM proposals, and the eventual development of the Canada Geographic Information System -- the world's first computerized GIS. The collection also has a concentration of documents from his time spent with the International Geographical Union as the Chairman of the IGU Global Database Planning Project.