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Michael Fortin. Photo by Daniel Ehrenworth

The power of librarians

Marcel Fortin’s mapping skills make him a U of T-wide resource
by Elaine Smith

Marcel Fortin is a man in demand.

Fortin, the geographic information systems (GIS) and map librarian at Robarts Map and Data Library, is a master at mapping spatial data, the geographic dimension of information. The popularity of this discipline has skyrocketed during the last 10 years, especially with the advent of Google Maps and Google Earth, he says.

“Spatial data means thinking about things in relation to geography. People often haven’t done that before,” says Fortin. “It’s applying spatial patterns to stories and research.”

If you want to see where the 10 best hamburger joints in Toronto are, for example, a map gives you a better understanding than a list. Ditto for the epicentres of the world’s 10 most recent earthquakes or the poorest neighbourhoods in Canada.

Fortin says 80 per cent of statistics have a geographic component. “Because of Google Earth, people want to map all sorts of things. It’s really fascinating.”

Fortin coordinates the GIS software on campus. He works mainly with faculty, post-doctoral fellows, PhD students and research assistants, teaching them to use the software for research and analysis and holding workshops or one-on-one consultations. He also teaches credit courses for the Department of Geography and the Faculty of Information.

Although the term “mapping” signals geography to many people, Fortin says the Department of Geography is only a small part of his client base, since “so many disciplines are now looking at using spatial data.” Religious studies researchers, for instance, may decide to map the Buddhist temples throughout the world, and epidemiologists may need to plot the movements of people who are carriers of a new infectious disease.

Fortin’s personal research passion is historical data, and he is co-editor of a book on mapping such data, Historical GIS Research in Canada (University of Calgary Press).  He is hoping that the Network in Canadian History and Environment (NICHE), which includes Robarts Library, will receive a grant that would allow him to further indulge this passion by mapping the industrial history of Toronto since the 19th century, using historical maps such as fire insurance plans as a resource.

The researchers who benefit from his expertise appreciate his aid, as demonstrated by a shelf in his office devoted solely to books written by scholars who have thanked him in print for invaluable assistance. His own projects are rewarding, says Fortin, but “I love teaching and helping people out.”