USGS puts historical maps online

The U.S. Geological Survey (USGS) is nearly halfway through its release of more than 250,000 historical topographic maps in high-resolution electronic format, some of which are more than 100 years old.

“Older maps are a historical treasure,” Mark DeMulder, director of the National Geospatial Program at the USGS, said at the 2011 Geospatial Summit held in Herndon, Va. on Sept. 13. “This collection is an incredible resource,” he added.

To date, about 90,000 maps of the Historical Topographic Map Collection are available at online on the USGS website. The remaining 160,000 will be published by year’s end, DeMulder said.


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The project is proving to be popular, with more than 25,000 maps downloaded in August, he added.

The 3-year project cost about $1.2 million. Initial costs involved scanning maps into geographic PDFs.

Some of the older maps can be overlaid on current USGS e-maps. For example, a user can download a 2011 map of Tyson’s Corner, Va., along with maps of the area dating from 1951 and 1819, before the busy shopping center opened its doors in 1968.

The historical map project spans the entire geographic area of the United States; some areas may have one or two historic maps, while others may have 10 or more.

DeMulder also gave an update on related activities in the National Geospatial Program, including the continued development of the National Map, National Atlas, National Hydrography Dataset and improved data visualization and service.

Although Google Earth and Bing offer online maps, DeMulder noted that the USGS also offers downloadable maps and data. “Have you ever tried to download from Google Earth and Bing? You cannot. All our data is downloadable,” DeMulder said. About 400 terabytes of data were downloaded during the last year, he added.

On DeMulder’s wish list is the opportunity to update maps with more precise elevations. In states such as Alaska, elevation data for the location of mountains and hills may be 50 years old and inaccurate, he said, and improving the elevation knowledge would help aviation and public safety.

Another activity being fostered by USGS is signing up volunteer geographic information specialists who can collect data from the field and deliver it to USGS at a low cost, he added.

The 2011 Geospatial Summit was sponsored by 1105 Media, Inc., owner of Federal Computer Week.

About the Author

Alice Lipowicz is a staff writer covering government 2.0, homeland security and other IT policies for Federal Computer Week.

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Reader comments

Fri, Sep 16, 2011

As a map geek since childhood, all I can say is YAY! THIS is the type of thing I like seeing my tax money spent on, doing things to preserve old paper data before it turns to dust, and making it accessible to us, the owners.

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