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American Women: Resources from the Geography and Map Collections

Using the Map Collections

Using maps as sources requires time and effort on the part of the researcher. The staff of the Geography and Map Division provides skilled reference service that is facilitated by catalogs, bibliographies, inventories, and other finding aids. In addition, large portions of some of the most heavily used historical collections are now available online on the Library's website:

Cataloged Maps

The Cataloged Map Collection consists of the portion of the single map collections for which there are records in the Library of Congress Online Catalog. Most maps acquired since 1968 have been made available in the catalog which searchable by geographic area, title, author, and subject, as well as by call number. Cataloging records for current acquisitions continue to be added to the automated system.

Library of Congress Subject Headings are used in map cataloging records, but few if any records of interest to historians will be located by using “women” for a subject search. Historical sites related to women, a map showing women and minorities in the 100th Congress, local maps created by the League of Women Voters, and a very small number of miscellaneous maps are identified in this kind of search. More fruitful headings are broad subjects that locate thematic material such as “landownership,” “population,” “health care,” “birth and death rates,” and “cancer mortality.” Although recent material makes up the bulk of the Catalgoed Map Collection, selected county landownership maps, panoramic maps, historic urban plans, many of the printed maps pertaining to the United States dated prior to 1800, and manuscript maps are also frequently fully cataloged and are in this category.

The Cataloged Map Collection is arranged by call number, which is determined first by format, followed by geographic area, date, and subject. This collection is a good place to begin a research project because you can do your initial searching in the Library's online catalog before visiting the Geography and Map Division. Though representing only a small portion of the total cartographic resources of the Library, maps searchable online represent a good cross-section of the Geography and Map Division's complete holdings, particularly Americana. Online cataloging records may lead you to other cartographic material for a given place and time period. The full cataloging record for a particular map may also include contents notes that describe some of the information shown on the item.

Single Map Collection

Many of the maps received in the Geography and Map Division before the advent of machine-readable cataloging in 1968 are not cataloged. Unless they are unusually rare, these maps are found in either the Single Map Collection or the Set Map Collection. Both groups of materials are arranged by geographic area and are most efficiently used when the research area and inclusive dates have been carefully defined. Research projects that focus on a particular geographic or political unit such as a state, county, or city are most easily supported by cartographic material.

Many items of great interest to historians are among the approximately 1.5 million maps in the Single Map Collection, which includes both cataloged and uncatalogued material. Historians will find cartographic sources filed under “North America,” “United States,” and the names of regions, individual states, and administrative units such as counties and cities. The holdings are frequently further subdivided by subject, but few, if any, maps are filed under the subject of “women” or “women's history.” In addition, there may be several possible filing locations for identical copies of the same item or very similar items, and a variety of additional filing locations for closely related items.

It is important to remember that the quality and quantity of cartographic information that is available vary considerably over place and time. Although rich resources may exist for some locations, other areas—particularly less affluent rural communities—may not be as well represented in the collections simply because fewer maps were made of these places or fewer maps were collected and preserved.

The Single Map Collection includes a wide range of geographic and cartographic products. Some of the maps are atlas plates or maps that originally were included in monographs or serials but have been removed from their bindings. A significant and often overlooked category of material found in this collection are photo reproduced copies or facsimiles of material held by other repositories either in the United States or abroad.

Access to this collection, which includes some of the division's most heavily used material, is facilitated by many published finding aids and bibliographies. Materials related to the American Revolutionary War era, the Civil War, county landownership, railroads, panoramic maps, literary maps, and maps showing Spanish exploration and settlement in North America, are listed and described in excellent bibliographies that are widely available in university and large public libraries.

A vast amount of cartographic information awaits discovery and analysis by diligent researchers. For the most part, however, using the portions of the single map collection not covered by published bibliographies requires the assistance of highly trained reference and specialist staff members who are experienced in locating specific kinds of resource material for researchers. Frequently, the staff can suggest items that are particularly useful for specific studies. Reference questions can be directed by patrons to the Division through the Ask A Librarian page or a visit to the reading room in order to determine what material best serves their needs.

Set Maps

Set Maps contain at least ten sheets published at a uniform size, usually drawn at the same scale, that are intended to be portions of a larger map. In general, these maps are medium to large scale and provide much more detailed information than is shown on single maps. Many of the set maps are controlled by index maps that indicate which sheets the Library holds for a given series.

Some of the most heavily used maps in this part of the collection are the large-scale topographic maps of the Austro-Hungarian Empire dated circa 1870 to 1914. These maps are frequently used to locate villages and towns that were the homelands of large numbers of Jewish immigrants who came to the United States around the turn of the twentieth century or towns that were “lost” in the Holocaust. Similar sets exist for other countries of origin for American immigrants.10

Detailed set maps for the United States as a whole, as well as for individual states, are also available.

Atlas Collection

Most of the Atlas Collection is cataloged, with its records available online. The catalog can be searched by geographic area, title, author, and subject. Unlike searching for maps, in searching for atlases, the term “women” is useful in identifying some of the newer thematic works about women. In addition, there are detailed finding aids available for much of the collection, including the nine-volume reference work A List of Geographical Atlases in the Library of Congress [catalog record] by Philip Lee Phillips and Clara Egli LeGear, which contains a partial index to individual plates bound into atlases published before 1968. Most of the atlases that contain useful information for studying women's history are fully cataloged.

Special Collections

The division holds a variety of Special Collections consisting of groups of material that are related to each other and are housed together in the division. Some but not all of these collections are considered to be rare and are kept in the division's vault. Special requirements map apply to use and reproduce. A considerable portion of this material has been cataloged and can be searched online. There are also many alternative and supplementary finding aids for special collections such as the preliminary, unpublished vault shelf list and unpublished inventories and indexes that are available for use in the division reading room.

Reference Collection

The division maintains a collection of approximately eight thousand books in its Reference Collection related to geography and cartography. In addition to full-length monographs on maps and mapmakers, there is a pamphlet file of articles about specific items in the collections written by division staff members or scholars studying the Library's maps and atlases. An extensive collection of unpublished inventories and indexes is also available.

The reference collection contains basic works on the subjects of history, geography, and cartography; catalogs related to other major map collections and exhibitions; and two major bibliographies that are particularly helpful for historical researchers. The Index to Maps in Books and Periodicals by the American Geographical Society, Map Department [catalog record] provides access to materials that may be found in other special format divisions of the Library of Congress and in the General Collections. It also gives publication information about individual items housed in the division that may have been removed from other works. The U.S. Serial Set Index and Cartobibliography of Maps, part 14, by Donna P. Koepp (catalog record) lists the maps that are found in the Congressional Serial Set that were originally published by the U.S. Senate and House of Representatives as part of official reports. Subject headings that are useful in searching these works for information about American women are “population,” with the subheadings of “sex distribution, U.S.,” followed by “foreign born,” or “race proportions by gender” and similar demographic terminology.

Another resource is The Bibliography of Cartography published by the Library of Congress, Geography and Map Division, in five volumes [catalog record] and its First Supplement, [catalog record] in two volumes published in 1980. This finding aid includes articles about cartography published in a variety of periodicals, listed by author and title. It includes subject headings. More recent articles have been indexed and are in card form, available for use in the division. Its usefulness in finding material about women mapmakers and geographers is considerable if the name of the author writing articles about women is known.

A small collection of place-name literature describing how specific locations have come to be named is also included in the division's reference collection. Most of the place-names in the United States have been designated by explorers, early settlers, surveyors, mapmakers, and government officials. Some of these names honor wives, sisters, daughters, or sweethearts who can be identified by using this material. Such works are generally devoted to a single state, although occasionally a volume pertains to a larger geographic area or to certain kinds of names, such as those related to Native Americans. Except for a few items in the pamphlet file, place-name literature is fully cataloged and can be found under the name of the state.

Place-names reflect the history of the area. For example, California, with its Spanish, Mexican, Russian, Native American, and American heritages, reflects the rich variety of sources from which the names of physical and cultural features are named. The town “Benicia,” which served as the capital of the state in 1853-54, was named for the wife of General Mariano G. Vallejo, Francisca Benicia. Another California town, called “Marysville,” went through several name changes before a group of residents at a town meeting in 1850 finally named it to honor Mary Murphy Covillaud, a survivor of the Donner party; she was also the wife of the principal owner of the townsite. 11


  1. For Jewish immigrants, see Austria-Hungary, ca. 1870-1914 (G6480 s75.A8). For Italian immigrants, see ca. 1880-1914 (G6710 s100.I8). Back to text
  2. Erwin G. Gudde, California Place Names (Berkeley: University of California Press, 1998; F859.G79), 26, 194. See also George R. Stewart, American Place-names: A Concise and Selective Dictionary for the Continental United States (New York: Oxford University Press, 1970; E155 .S79). Back to text