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Library of Congress Geography & Maps: An Illustrated Guide

Single-Sheet Maps

Many of the items in the division's general map holdings are composed of single-sheet maps. These materials, arranged geographically within the collections, constitute what is commonly known as the Title Collection. Some of these items require mediated access, so it is recommended that researchers consult with the division's reference librarians when searching for material within the Title Collection.

The Title Collection is representative of the history of cartography, spanning the range from finely engraved atlas plates by Ortelius to blue-line plans issued by modern city engineers. Between these two ends of the spectrum lie a fascinating array of cartographic materials. Whether received by copyright deposit, purchase, or gift, the holdings include such items as country, state, city, or county maps; panoramic views and pictorial maps; transportation maps emphasizing roads and railroads; harbor and coastal charts; military maps representing the major battles and wars; newspaper and other journalistic maps; and a broad range of thematic maps. Coverage is worldwide.

Maps of the United States

Detail from Shell road map: Pennsylvania; showing woman driving a car with license plates in the background
[Detail from "Shell road map: Pennsylvania" showing woman driving a car with license plates in the background]. 1933. Library of Congress Geography and Map Division.

Maps of the United States--from small towns to large cities, and from states to the country as a whole--are housed in more than seven thousand drawers of the Title Collection. Early general maps of the United States are housed in approximately eighty drawers, among which are many editions of desk-size and wall-size maps by such prominent American cartographers as John MelishHenry S. Tanner, G. Woolworth Colton, S. Augustus MitchellDavid Burr, John Disturnell, H. H. Lloyd, and Gaylord Watson. This part of the collection is most extensive for the midpart of the nineteenth century when the rapid expansion of the United States gave cause for the publication of many significant wall-size maps of the nation, such as the many editions of the "official" map of the country published by the General Land Office.

Beginning in the 1850s, entrepreneurs initiated an important phase in the history of American cartography by producing very detailed maps of counties. Often called land ownership maps because they indicate the farms and residences of subscribers, these were usually the first maps of most counties in the Northeast and Midwest, and the Great Plains states. In addition to showing land owners throughout the county, they often contain inset maps of towns and villages as well as vignettes of residences, businesses, and farms. County land ownership maps are among the most heavily used materials in the division because of their value to genealogical studies. The Title Collection contains nearly fifteen hundred such maps published before 1900. Before the end of the nineteenth century, most publishers had abandoned the wall map format in favor of county atlases. A few firms continued producing county land ownership maps, although in a less elaborate style, well into the twentieth century.

A special strength of the Title Collection is the wealth of American city plans, particularly for the major urban centers of the nation. In terms of volume, there are eight cities for which there are exceptionally large holdings: Boston (45 drawers), New York (100 drawers), Philadelphia (43 drawers), Washington, D.C. (114 drawers), Detroit (21 drawers), Chicago (42 drawers), Los Angeles (37 drawers), and San Francisco (25 drawers). The maps in these drawers range from basic street plans to special purpose maps.

Railroad maps constitute another important group of maps relating to the growth of the United States. Several hundred of these maps are found in the Title Collection, where they are organized into three categories: those showing the rail network of the whole country, an individual state, or a single railroad company.

Road maps are also well represented in the Title Collection. With the development of the automobile and the national system of highways, the road map was created to meet the needs of early automobile enthusiasts. The division's collection of American road maps, for both the nation and individual states, documents the evolution of this particular form of cartography and captures more clearly than any other medium the development of a transportation system oriented to individual movement.

Maps of Other Countries

Street-railroads map of Mexico City showing tramway lines
Rand McNally and Company. Mexico Tramways Company: Lines and properties in Mexico City. 1910. Library of Congress Geography and Map Division.

As might be expected, the contents of this portion of the Title Collection reflects best those areas where cartography developed into an important discipline. Canada and the European nations (especially the United Kingdom, Germany, and France) are well represented in the collections for both historic and current materials. Portions of the world that became parts of European empires were also well mapped in the latter part of the nineteenth century and the early twentieth century.

Relative sizes of different portions of the collection can be inferred from drawer counts: Mexico (190 drawers), Central America (360 drawers), South America (695 drawers), Europe (4,360 drawers), Asia (1,350 drawers), Africa (635 drawers), and Australia, New Zealand, and Oceania (480 drawers). Notable countries, in terms of size of the collection, include: Germany (765 drawers), France (720 drawers), Japan (300 drawers), United Kingdom (275 drawers), the former USSR (200 drawers, in addition to 64 drawers of city maps), and China (110 drawers).

Nineteenth-century maps for virtually all European nations are consulted in part to determine changing political boundaries and to find the location of villages and towns from which ancestors emigrated. Military and ethnographic maps constitute heavily used categories of the European portions of the Title Collection. In particular, there are exceptionally strong holdings for maps from the Napoleonic Wars and the first and second world wars. In recent years, considerable research regarding the Holocaust has been conducted within these categories, with emphasis on the location of towns, the movement of peoples throughout Europe, journalistic and propaganda use of maps, and the location of concentration camps. Many maps showing the distribution of various ethnic groups within individual countries were prepared after World War I, as the peacemakers attempted to redraw political boundaries that more closely approximated ethnic boundaries.

Outside the European area, holdings are not nearly as extensive. An important portion of the collection, however, is the grouping labelled Bible Lands, consisting of seventeen drawers of historical maps. They emphasize such Old Testament themes as Canaan, Exodus, Patriarchs, Judges, and Kings, while New Testament themes include the Birth and Life of Christ, Apostles, and Paul.

Much of the early mapping of Asian and African countries was conducted by European colonial governments. Consequently, the collections are very rich in the portrayal of colonial place names and boundaries as well as the cities established as administrative and commercial centers. There are extensive files of city plans for many of the major urban centers of the world. The great European cities, such as London, Paris, Berlin, and Rome, are well represented over the course of several centuries. For the Western Hemisphere, Mexico City, Quebec, and Montreal have the largest number of maps. For many cities, maps from this century are in more demand for research than the earlier ones. This is particularly true for the major Chinese cities of Shanghai and Canton, the maps of which are frequently consulted in the division's reading room.