Mapping the ASU Library map collection

Everyone, no matter where they’re located, now has the power to visit Arizona State University's Map and Geospatial Hub, located on the third floor of Hayden Library, to explore and access its geographic information resources.

All thanks to a new tool: the 3D Explorer.

The 3D Explorer is an interactive 3D web scene that literally maps the ASU Library map collection, the Map and Geospatial Hub. With some powerful search and visualization features, the tool allows anyone, from anywhere in the world, to virtually visit and explore the thousands of maps and other materials housed in the Map and Geospatial Hub as if they were physically located in the space itself. 

“Especially during the pandemic, when it may be more difficult for some to visit the library in person, the 3D Explorer lets us bring library treasures directly to them,” said Matthew Toro, director of the Map and Geospatial Hub, who oversaw the project, which was led by the hub’s first fully remote intern. “The main driver for this project was really about expanding access to the ASU Library’s cartographic collections.”

The Map and Geospatial Hub is home to tens of thousands of maps, aerial photographs and other geographic information resources. These collections focus on the greater Phoenix metro region, the peoples and communities throughout the state of Arizona, the greater American Southwest and Mexico, but its collections cover the whole globe. 

Toro spoke with ASU News about the library’s new virtual research tool, the 3D Explorer, and how it allows people to get closer to library collections even if they can’t visit in person.

Matt Toro

Matt Toro is the director of the Map and Geospatial Hub at the ASU Library.

Question: Is the 3D Explorer a kind of virtual map librarian?

Answer: That’s a great way to think about it. At the Map and Geospatial Hub, we’re always happy to help library users find what they’re looking for, but we also recognize the efficiency of, and increased demand for, more of a self-service model of access to library assets, especially through direct online access. The 3D Explorer offers a new route for users to independently discover and access geospatial information — through a dynamic and engaging 3D web scene. Not only can users easily search for and find geographic information resources themselves, but they can also virtually tour and explore the Hub space itself.

The 3D Explorer models the entire Map and Geospatial Hub. Nearly every feature in this application is selectable by the user – from staff offices, to globes, to various hardware and office equipment. We also added some cool functionality to support this virtual experience, including a panoramic photo viewer allowing users to view the interior and exterior of the space in 360 degrees. 

Q: What would you say is one of the most valuable functions of the application?

A: The core value of the application is its search functionality. The 3D Explorer allows users to search for inventoried maps with both simple or advanced search. The tool will dynamically visualize the exact location of any particular map, aerial photo, atlas or other cartographic resource held at the Map and Geospatial Hub. When a user selects a specific map from the list of search results, she will be greeted with a pop-up box indicating not only the drawer location of the map in question, but, when available, she will also be greeted with a digital thumbnail image of the map in question. 

In the future, once we’ve got everything fully digitized, she will also be greeted with a link to directly download the high-resolution image. We want to bring as much of the in-person experience of visiting the hub and exploring its resources to online audiences. We want to bring the ASU Library Map and Geospatial Hub to anybody in the world, no matter where they’re located.

Q: How did the tool come about?

A: We’ve actually been experimenting and prototyping this for a few years. While the Map and Geospatial Hub is currently located in the newly renovated Hayden Library, we used to be located in a different ASU Library building. In anticipation of the move — completed in early 2020, just before the pandemic — we had to plan for how we would relocate the collection from one site to another. We needed a way to systematically manage the physical layout and organization of the collection and to analyze its contents so that we could make sound decisions about which maps would go and which would stay. The most reasonable solution was to literally “map” the collection itself. 

We began work to develop the two core components: the 3D space model and the database table of our map inventory. Taking it to the next level as a customized, feature-rich web application required real programming talent. Robert Cowling, our first fully remote intern, brought the skills to make it happen. Bob, who holds a master’s degree in (geographic imformation systems) and is currently finishing his second master’s in library information systems, was able to devise and implement a clever software architecture solution to bring the vision to life. Eric Friesenhahn, our map and GIS specialist here at ASU Library, created and refined the geometric features that comprise the latest, most sophisticated version of 3D indoor space model. Jill Sherwood, our geospatial data analyst here at ASU Library, contributed critical input to the design, function and maintenance of the application.

It was a true team effort. And I’m happy to report that the 3D Explorer is already revolutionizing the way we’re able to serve the ASU and broader community with geospatial resources. 

Britt Lewis
britt.lewis@asu.edu