Where to Look for Historical Maps

Caitlin Dempsey

Updated:

The use of extracting data from old paper maps is growing in popularity as a method to understanding historical geography.  

David Ramsey popularized the method of georectifying historical maps and draping those maps over a DEM to create a 3D view.    

Pastmapper is a project that digitizes historical maps in order to recreate the state of cities over the course of one year intervals.  

Historical GIS is also used to compare changes in a geographic area over time by comparing data extracted from maps covering a range of years.  With free applications like Harvard’s WorldMap Warp, uploading and georeferencing maps is easier than ever.


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Finding historical maps

Finding scanned historical maps can be a bit cumbersome.  

Now, the site Old Maps Online, has made finding those maps a whole lot easier.  Old Maps Online is a portal that allows the user to search geographically for historical maps housed via some of the largest online map collections.  

Current collections include the David Ramsey Collection, the British Library, the Moravian Library, and the National Library of Scotland.  Collections from around the world will continue to be added throughout 2012. 

All collections added are from sites that offer high resolution historical scanned maps that have been already georeferenced and are viewable online without requiring logins or payments from the viewer. OldMapsOnline is a collaborative project between The Great Britain Historical GIS Project based at The University of Portsmouth, UK and Klokan Technologies GmbH, Switzerland.

How to search for historical maps

The map component of the search interfaced is stylized to evoke the feeling of looking at an old map with grainy features.  Searching for historical maps can be done either by typing in a place name or adjusting the zoom and pan levels on the map itself.  

The publication dates of the maps can be limited by adjusting the slider scale underneath the text box to set the upper and lower limits of the years to search within.  Any returned results for the geography and time interval are displayed on the right hand side of the map. 

Clicking on a map result opens up a window with preliminary information about the map subject, date, and what online collection it is housed in.  Click on that window to access the direct URL of the scanned map at the online map collection.

Screenshot of a mapping application.

The challenge can come in finding maps specific to your area of research. Cities by nature are constantly evolving, and buildings and roads have changed tremendously over time.

If your research requires mapping Baltimore from the 1860s, Denver from the 1890s, or even Houston from the1960s, you’re going to need a very specific type of map.

Other places to find historical maps

Listed below are some pointers to some of the more popular places to finding historical maps.

City Libraries

The first place to look for a city map is the obvious low-tech destination: the library. Municipal libraries usually have a wide collection of civic maps, many modeled after the “Plan of City X” style used by cartographers a century ago.

These maps are a great place to start and can be incredibly informative. However, many of them are not digitally available, making them difficult to use for more advanced mapping applications.

USGS Maps

Maps from the United States Geological Survey are incredibly helpful to researchers. Taken over the course of many decades and including aerial views and well as traditional street maps, the USGS are often your best option when covering a metropolitan area outside of its downtown core.

The USGS recently started making available over 120 years of mapping history, with its Historical Topo Map program along with a whole range of mapping products.

David Ramsey Map Collection

The David Rumsey Map Collection contains over 150,000 maps with over 27,000 maps available online.  The maps range in age dating back to the 1700s up to the 1950s.  

Maps can be viewed online and downloaded via the LUNA browser.  The site offers a range of other search and viewing options including Google Earth, Second Life, and 2D and 3D mapping applications.

Historic Aerials

Accessible at the website historicaerials.com, this program takes data from a range of government sources – USGS included. Consequently, it is one of the most comprehensive out there.

Since it functions like Google Maps it is also one of the easiest to search, and the ability to toggle between past and present-day views allows the researcher to zoom in on a very focused area.

Sanborn Maps

These maps were made by the Sanborn Fire Insurance companyaround the turn of the past century, and they cover large portions of America’s major cities from the time.

These maps are incredibly unique in that they show a drawn “bird’s eye” view of every neighborhood, replete with streets and extensive building details. Finding access to these maps online can be challenging, if your local library has a subscription, the ProQuest Digital Sanborn Collection would be the best place to find these maps.

Library of Congress

The Library of Congress has over 4.5 million items in their Geography and Map Division.  A small portion of their maps have been digitized and are available online for viewing. 

The landing page is pretty simplistic (no frills on this site) but you can either search by keyword or browse by location, subject, creator, or map title.  There’s an online viewer available to be able to browse, zoom, and pan the maps. 

Field of Gettysburg, July 1st, 2nd & 3rd, 1863 Prepared by T. Ditterline.
Field of Gettysburg, July 1st, 2nd & 3rd, 1863 Prepared by T. Ditterline. Click on map for the LOC page.

The collection is full of amazing historic maps of American cities, National Parks, and more.  Many of the subcategories have launch pages with background information.  You can also download high resolution copies of maps in JPEG2000 format.

The Library of Congress (LOC) has a page called Map Collections which provides access to those maps from the LOC Geography and Maps collection that are available online.  The LOC also offers a guide to its Geography and Maps collection.

Wisconsin Historical Society Reference Maps

The state of Wisconsin has a strong commitment to preserving its history, and the Wisconsin Historical Society has been effectively sharing artifacts from Wisconsin’s past with the public since 1846.

Recently, the Society has expanded its online offerings by curating a collection of thematic maps that visually illustrate various events and phenomena throughout the state’s history.

The maps are conveniently organized chronologically, under headings such as ‘Early Native Peoples’, ‘Wisconsin in the Civil War Era’, and ‘The Progressive Era’, and have been sourced from a variety of publications, including the renowned multivolume publication ‘The History of Wisconsin’, which was released between 1973 and 1998.

Read next: GIS and Modern Research from Historical Maps

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About the author
Caitlin Dempsey
Caitlin Dempsey is the editor of Geography Realm and holds a master's degree in Geography from UCLA as well as a Master of Library and Information Science (MLIS) from SJSU.