Some graphic maps

A friend recently (well, a couple months ago) asked me where to look for maps online.  He said he as looking for primarily for historical maps, so of course I sent him to  For more than ten years now, David has been sharing his private collection with the world, and helping institutions get their acts together.

A closeup of downtown Albany termini from 1895. Click on the image to see a screen-sized version

A closeup of downtown Albany termini from 1895. Click on the image to see a screen-sized version

He was a very nice advocate of my recent airphoto acquisition and he has pushed forward how people think about putting their objects online.  While some still say ‘your maps are too big to scan and deliver effectively,’ David’s extensive online library (which is included in the DPLA) says otherwise.

But I’m sure my friend was asking me to dig a little deeper.  To give him a little professional reference.  When visiting in December, his paintings showed a geometric view of the very few interruptions to Chicago’s strong grid.  I almost can’t help but go out and find other grids to share.  Not graticules or coordinate systems, but grids in the landscape.  The Midwesterner in me can’t help but thank Thomas Jefferson for my strong sense of cardinality.  Sure, it was jarring when I first moved to Seattle and encountered hills for the first time, but it also lets me see through a fairly plain-jane railroad map, and instead see a vivid example of why you can’t draw a cartesian plane on a sphere.

American Memory:

American Memory:

Take a look at the full version of that map from the Library of Congress.  Ignore the awful viewer and download the jpeg2000 (preview on a Mac will read them by default.  I’m not sure if support is native to Windows)  You will see the long, gentle curve of a Dakota that you always thought was square.

There are entire genres of maps that offer other sorts of interruptions.  You can see examples of all of them at the American Memory Project, really the grand-daddy of all the scanning projects.  (And yes–that image viewer is your grandfather’s interface.  But the access to the high resolution files and the depth of the collection make up for it.)

One type of map you’ll find there is geologic.  Unfortunately, after more than ten years as a map librarian, I’m still illiterate when it comes to bedrock geology and fault maps.  The visual conventions of these maps are a vocabulary all their own.  There’s also been a variety of styles and conventions through time.  I couldn’t recall ever seeing cross sections laid across a sheetmap when I uncovered this during a Saturday afternoon weeding session:

The USGS’s The Geologic Atlas of the United States, all your local map collections should still have a real paper one, is full of surprises.  I don’t open this classic set, often called simply The USGS Folio Atlas, nearly enough.   I need to remember and go back after packing up the library and make sure that I’ve got all the pieces.  Another copy came with the Fairchild Collection–it will give me a great chance to fill in any gaps.

If you browse through it (and I’m sorry, I don’t know of any killer interface to it–although the USGS really raised the bar with their recent release of the new version of the National Geologic Map Database) make sure to pop over to the historic topos too–USGS really redeemed itself with this release.  I actually had students come into the library this quarter looking for 7.5′ topo maps because they found the previous version of the historic topos so objectionable.  I believe the exact quote was: “We were so frustrated we figured we may as well use paper.”  They nearly fell over in delight at the new interface.

Here’s another interesting geology map with a cross section embedded into the map:


I really wanted to show a National Atlas sheet that uses proportional symbols to show movement of goods.  There’s a great example from 1974 showing natural gas movements by ship and by pipe.  But it’s time to wrap this up, and my friend (who likely forgot he ever asked this question) was more interested in older maps.  So just a couple last recommendations.

Because we are talking about Chicago, I would be remiss if I didn’t point out Chris Winter’s efforts at the University of Chicago to digitize and put into context the choropleth mapping done during the Chicago School days.  This site was the first I saw to use Zoomify many years ago.

University of Chicago. Social Science Research Committee. Title:  [Thematic maps of Chicago] c.1930 [electronic resource].

University of Chicago. Social Science Research Committee. Title: [Thematic maps of Chicago] c.1930 [electronic resource].

 As for the maps themselves: no computers. It think these were made by printing patterns on acetate film and then collaging them together on top of a basemap.  Not sure if that would be hand lettering or letterpress–I’m voting for hand lettering.  I always thought these are direct descendents of the Hull House maps:  an 1895 crowdsourced data gathering effort that produced a set of maps around Jane Adams’s Settlement House.

Hull House Maps and Papers (1895).  Part of Northwestern University's "Homicide in Chicago: 1870-1930"

Hull House Maps and Papers (1895). Part of Northwestern University’s “Homicide in Chicago: 1870-1930”

I get the impression that for a certain breed of social scientist and Chicago history buff, these maps are as famous as Dr. Snow’s cholera maps.  The residents of Hull House were sent out to figure out who lived where in the neighborhood surrounding the settlement.  There’s pretty much a direct line from the settlement house movement, through the Chicago School, to the advocacy and Marxist geographies of the 60s and 70s.

Meddlers.  😉

Or course, not every map has noble goals.  Growing up we heard about redlining, but had no idea what the origin of the term was.  Redline maps were used to designate risk for mortgages, and indeed the riskiest neighborhoods were “outlined in red.”

In reality, the neighborhoods are outlines in gray and shaded in red which, judging by the ones I’ve seen, has either faded over time or was a light wash of red watercolor.  What I didn’t know until now is that the maps were actually made by a state-owned-enterprise in the 1930s–much earlier than I ever imagined.

Akron Redlining Map

All the sites linked to in this post have extensive collections of scanned maps.  While I’ve emphasized 20th century mapping here, most big university archives will reach back to the Age of Exploration.  Dig in.  Poke around.