Month: October 2022

Topo Claymont

Digital USGS Historic Topographic and Scientific Investigation Maps

This semester we launched a project to inventory our USGS topographic map collection. Our holdings include tens of thousands (probably over a 100,000) of these maps that depict the nation’s physical terrain and built environment in great detail. One of my former students wrote a Python program using the tkinter module to create a GUI, which we’re using to filter a list of published maps in a SQLite database to match ones that we have in hand. Here’s a short guide that documents our process.

The list we’re using as our base table is what powers USGS topoView, which allows you to browse and download over 200,000 historic topos (1880 to 2006) that have been digitized and georferenced. The application also includes maps produced from 2009 forward that are part of the newer US Topo project; these maps are created on an on-going basis by pulling together a number of existing government data sources (unlike the historic maps, which were created by manual field surveys and updated over time using aerial photographs and satellite imagery).

You can search topoView using the name of a location or quadrangle (the grid cell that represents the area of each map, named after the most prominent feature in that area) to find all available maps for that location. There’s a set of filters that allows you to focus on the Historic Topographic Map Collection (HTMC) versus the US Topo Collection (2009 to present), or a specific scale. Choose a scale and zoom in, and you’ll see the grid cells for that series so you can identify map coverage. The 24k scale is the most familiar series; as the largest scale / smallest area maps that the USGS produced, it provides the most detail and covers every state and US territory. Each map covers an area of 7.5 x 7.5 minutes (think of a degree as 60 mins) and an inch on these maps represents 2,000 feet. This scale was introduced in the late 1940s, and replaced both the 63k scale map (a 15 x 15 minute map where 1 inch = 1 mile) that was the previous standard, and the less common 48k scale.

USGS topoView application

There are also smaller scale maps, which cover larger areas. The 100k series was introduced in the mid 1970s and covers the lower 48 states and Hawaii. Each map covers an area of 30 x 60 minutes and uses metric units (1 inch = 1.6 miles). The 250k series was introduced in the 1940s by the US Army Map Service and was eventually taken over by the USGS. These maps include all 50 states, cover an area of 1 x 2 degrees, and use imperial units (1 inch = 4 miles). There are about 1,800 quads for the 100k series and only 900 or so for the 250k, versus over 60,000 for the 24k series.

Once you search for an area or click on a quad, you’ll see all the maps available in that area over time. Applying the scale filter shows you just maps at that scale, plus some similar but odd scale maps that are not numerous enough to get their own filter. The predominate year listed for each record is the “map year”, which is when field work was done to either create the map or substantively update it. There’s also an edition or “print year” that indicates when the map was printed. If you look at the metadata (use the info button) or preview the map, there may be an edit or photo revision year, indicating if the map was updated back at headquarters using air photos or imagery. The image below illustrates where you can find this information on a standard 24k scale map.

Collar of USGS 24k Topo Map
1: Map Scale 2: Quad Name 3: Map Year and Revision Year 4: Print Year

Clicking on the thumbnail of the map in the results gives you a quick full screen preview. There are several download options, including a JPEG if you want a small compressed image, or a GeoTiff if you want a lossless format with the best resolution, and if you want to use it in GIS software as a raster layer.

The changes you can see over time on these maps can be striking, illustrating the suburban sprawl of the 20th century. Consider the snippets from a 24k map of the Orlando West, Florida quadrangle below.

Orland West 1957
Orlando West 1956
Orlando West 1980
Orlando West 1980

While many people are familiar with the topographic series, the USGS also publishes a number of other map and report series that cover topics like hydrography, oil and gas exploration, mining, land use and land cover, and special scientific investigations. They have digitized (but not georeferenced) many of these maps, from the 1950s to present. You can browse through a list of all these publications, or you can search across them in the Publications Warehouse. If you search, try the Advanced Search and specify publication type and subtype as filters. Most of the maps are classified as publication type: Report, and subtype: USGS Numbered Series.

For example, the IMAP series includes special investigation maps that cover tectonic, geologic, mineral, topographic, and bathymetric maps of specific small or regional areas in the US. They also include maps of Antarctica, special investigations in other countries, the moon, and other planets and moons. Every report / map has a landing page with a permanent URL and doi that uses the series number of the map, with links to a PDF of the map as well as a Dublin Core metadata record. For example, here’s a Geologic Map of Io from 1992, part of the IMAP series.

Portion of a Geologic Map of the Jovian Moon Io

This is great, as you can use these records and metadata for building other interactive finding aids, and can link directly to individual maps. The USGS has created different portals for accessing subsets of these materials, such as this special topics page for identifying different planetary maps in the SIM and IMAP series.

Some other gems I’ve discovered stashed away in the publications warehouse: a poster of map projections (with a flip side portrait of Gerardus Merctor) which should be familiar to most 1990s university geography students; it was often hung in classrooms and provided as an insert in cartography textbooks. Also, a digitized copy of the book Maps for America. Originally published for the USGS centenary in 1979, this book provides a comprehensive history and overview of the topographic map series. The scanned copy is the 3rd edition, printed in 1987. If you suddenly find yourself in the position of having to curate a hundred thousand 20th century topo maps, there is no better guide than this book.