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Computing Space III: Papers of the “Father of GIS” Come to the Library of Congress

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Today’s post is the third of a series called,”Computing Space,” which will highlight the lives and work of many of the mostly unknown cartographers, geographers, mathematicians, computer scientists, designers and architects who had a hand in the birth of today’s computer cartography.

 ’Amateur’ field geographers can speak with authority about the clarifying effects on the mind of direct physical danger in the real world and there exists a terrible antagonism between field geographers and armchair academics. Not only do those in their armchairs think and write junk, obfuscation, obscurantism, and endlessly convoluted self-referral to their literature in windowless libraries, they do not care about the human condition.”
–William Bunge, “Geography is a Field Subject,” Area, 1983

For many years, I have kept three books on the desk in my office in the Geography and Map Division of the Library of Congress. The three titles, considered by some to be classics in the field of analytical geography and early Geographic Information Science (GIS), sit there more for inspiration than for reference, but rarely a week goes by that I don’t find myself paging through them. Two of the titles, Peter Haggett and Richard Chorley’s Network Analysis in Geography (1969), and William Bunge’s, Theoretical Geography (1962), are probably known to many of the readers, as they are classics in the field of modern cartography. The third, however, might be more of a surprise. This book, now more of a collection of loose papers, having been continually thumbed over the years, is Roger Tomlinson’s thesis from the University of London, called, The Application of Electronic Computing Methods and Techniques to the Storage, Compilation and Assessment of Mapped Data (1974).

Title Page from Roger Tomlinson's Dissertation. Geography and Map Division, Library of Congress.
Title Page from Roger Tomlinson’s Dissertation. Geography and Map Division, Library of Congress.


Roger Tomlinson. Archival photo from the Tomlinson Collection,Geography and Map Division, Library of Congress
Roger Tomlinson. Archival Photograph from the Tomlinson Collection, Geography and Map Division, Library of Congress.

Roger Tomlinson passed away on February 9, 2014, at the  age of 80. He was one of the great pioneers in Geographic Information Systems research, a term that he coined in 1962, and a field that he helped to invent. Most of his developmental work in the earliest years of the experimentation with computer mapmaking and geographic analysis was for the Canadian Land Inventory where he created the first geographic databases and techniques for studying land use, many that are still used today by GIS analysts across Canada.

Tomlinson was a visionary and in his early published papers recognized, along with a few others in geography at the time, that computers could be used to improve geographic analysis, and thereby the lives of regular people through smarter land development, urban planning, and geographic design. In his thesis, he set out a program for the use of GIS that showed him as a geographer who deeply cared about the human condition, as he writes about how GIS might inform policy decisions in areas well beyond academic research,

Within the discipline…it is suggested that the mutual development of formal spatial models and geographic information systems will lead to future beneficial shifts of emphasis in both fields of endeavor. Within government, there are expected changes in operational procedure and the possibility of changes in decision making processes that deeply affect the lives of citizens…it is apparent that the development of GIS cannot sensibly proceed in isolation, but must be undertaken as an integral part of the very large structure of data gathering, data analysis and decision making.

As part of the Library of Congress’ History of GIS and Computer Cartography Project, the technical and personal papers of this great computer and cartographic pioneer were donated by his widow, Lila, to the Geography and Map Division. This important gift to the history of our field has been made possible by the help and dedication to the history of GIS by Duane Marble, a GIS pioneer in his own right, who first contacted me several years ago about our program and who has been instrumental in bringing this archive to the Library.

A Portion of the Roger Tomlinson Archive in the collection processing room of the History of Computer Cartography Project. Geography and Map Division, Library of Congress.
A Portion of the Roger Tomlinson Archive in the collection processing room of the History of Computer Cartography Project. Geography and Map Division, Library of Congress.

Tomlinson’s papers will, in the near future, be made available to researchers alongside those of other archival collections of modern and pioneering cartographers like Richard E.Harrison, John Snyder, Nicolas Chrisman, Alden Colvocoresses, Fredrick Doyle, Marie Tharpe, and many others, as we seek to make the Geography and Map Division a center for research in the history of modern and computer cartography.

You will certainly hear more about Tomlinson’s work and writings in posts to come…..

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