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Programming with Library of Congress Digital Collections : Maps

This guide is designed to help all types of libraries explore primary sources available from the Library of Congress online collection, and to connect with their communities through programming and educational opportunities.

Maps as Primary Sources

In this digital age of GPS, physical maps (and digitized versions of physical maps) are important primary sources.  

Primary source maps not only show locations and boundary lines, which can be compared and contrasted with how our world or city looks today, but many primary source maps also have illustrations and notations that can provide additional information about the time period or the map creator. They show how the cartographer or mapmaker saw and interpreted the location or how society perceived locations at a given point in time. With over 5.2 million maps, the Library of Congress' Geography and Map Division is one of the largest and most comprehensive map collections in the world. 

Have you ever felt lost?  The ability to read and interpret maps teaches spatial thinking and awareness as well as visual literacy and critical thinking skills. There are many different kinds of maps--road maps, topographical maps, geologic maps, weather maps, and astronomical maps. Explore all of these and more with primary sources.  


Mapping the National Parks

Mapping the National Parks includes over 200 maps from the 17th century to the present showing the history and geological formations of areas that eventually became National Parks. Our National Parks are treasures that should be celebrated.

These maps can also act as conversation starters about the history of our land and who originally inhabited land.

Map shows boundary lines in red.  Writing over this area of land says "Proposed Great Smoky Mountains National Park."  Blue lines are throughout the adjoining areas.

"Proposed Great Smoky Mountains National Park," (1928-1930) by the U.S. Geological Survey, Department of the Interior, [topographic map].

Collection Highlights

Black and white map from the 1500s is titled

Americae sive qvartae orbis partis nova et exactissima descriptio

Americae Sive Qvartae Orbis Partis Nova et Exactissima Descriptio, (1562) by Diego Gutièrrez and Hieronymus Cock depicting North and South America with the adjacent seas. 

Map is in color and shows Mount Desert Island, Maine.  Map shows defined boundaries and topography of the area.  Map is dated 1887.

Mount Desert Island, Maine

Map of Mount Desert Island, (1887) by George N. Colby and J.H. Stuart.

Map shows land masses above body of water that lines/rays coming out of the water.  On the land, there are illustrations of trees, houses, and some hills.

Champlain Map of the Northeast Coast of North America


Descripsion des Costs, Pts., Rades, Illes de la Nouuele France Faict Selon son Vray Méridien : avec la déclinaison de la ment de plussieurs endrois selon que le Sieur de Castes le franc le démontre en son liure de la mécométrie de l'emnt, (c. 1607, by Samuel de Champlain, [map]. This nautical chart covers the coast of North America from western Nova Scotia to Cape Cod.

Land mass fills almost entire image.  Some water surrounds the land.  Map is titled

Great Smoky Mountains National Park

Topographic Map, Great Smoky Mountains National Park, Tennessee and North Carolina, (1934), by U.S. Geological Survey.

Map in color shows topography of Acadia National Park and Vicinity.  Large land masses are surrounded by light blue water.

Acadia National Park

Topographic Map, Acadia National Park and Vicinity, Hancock County, Maine, (1960), by U.S. Geological Survey.

Programming Ideas

Map in the shape of an eagle.The bird is drawn over an existing map of the United States.  Its head and beak are in the northeast, its wings spread out west, and its feet are over Florida.

image: The Eagle Map of the United States, (1832-1833) by Isaac W. Moore, Carey & Hart, & Joseph Churchman, hand colored map.

Look at this map from the Library of Congress Mapping the National Parks Collection. It is titled The Eagle Map of the United States and was created in 1832-1833. With patrons, lead a discussion reflecting on:

  • Why did the cartographer choose to overlay an eagle on the map?
  • What are the similarities/differences between this map and a current map of the United States?


Create a map of your hometown or a favorite place to visit. Think about what features you will include on your map. Make your map in the shape of something that represents this location or area to you.

Or, provide library patrons with old maps, and, using paints or markers, have them enhance the map with decorations or drawings. What symbol or image would they draw onto the map to represent the area that the map portrays?  


Visit a National Park in your area (either in person or virtually--the National Park Foundation created this collection of virtual tours of national parks). 

Create a map of the Park. What areas or features do you want to highlight? How will you delineate trees, mountains/hills, and water features? If you want to indicate which animals live in the park, how will you do so? 

Or, design your own National Park. What kind of features would you want to include in your park? (ex. hiking trails, observatories, playgrounds, monuments). Draw a detailed map of your park.

Color Map of Yellowstone National Park has mountains, trees, lakes, and sky with clouds drawn.

Yellowstone National Park, (190-?), by Union Pacific Railroad Company

Partnership Opportunity

See if your library can partner with a National or State Park in your area. Your library could offer park passes, maps, and maybe even circulate a hiking pack (with trail guides, binoculars, a compass, a first aid kit, and a flashlight) for patrons to check out. If you can, incorporate a primary source map of your local park!

For Fourth Grade Patrons and Families

Did you know that patrons in 4th grade can get FREE passes for themselves and their families to visit national parks, wildlife refuges, marine sanctuaries, and forests through Every Kid Outdoors (an interagency collaboration between the Department of the Interior, U.S. Army Corps of Engineers, National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration, and the U.S. Forest Service.) The passes are valid through August 31 of the students' fourth grade year.

Use Chronicling America to search for an article about a National Park in your state.  Think about:  

  • Did you learn something new about your state?
  • When or how did the park become public land?  
  • What do you think a current newspaper article would say about your park?


Write your own article about or review of a state or national park. If you are not able to visit the park in person, find some pictures or go on a virtual tour of the park. What are some of the highlights of the park you visited? If you could change or add something to the park, what would it be?

"The St. Charles Herald" newspaper page has full page article titled "Wanted: The Dunes National Park." There are several columns about national parks and black and white photographs trees and a mountain.    

image: "Wanted: The Dunes National Park" in The St. Charles Herald, (October 4, 1919). 

There are so many great books about maps, so we included a few of our favorites.  (Don't forget that floorplans are also a type of map, and looking at a building over time can show history!) The following books make great pairings for storytimes or classes that feature maps and primary sources. Libraries can incorporate the primary source maps into their programming or as a display.  

Allen, Kari. The Boy Who Loved Maps. 2022. Anne Schwartz Books.

A little boy loves everything about maps--collecting them, studying them, and making them, but when a little girl asks him to make a map of the perfect place, he is "lost." Back matter includes activities to do with maps and step-by-step instructions on how to create a map of your home. (PK-Grade 4)

Cover of "The Boy Who Loved Maps" shows a little boy painting a large map.  The title of the book is on the land that is surrounded by water.  

Blackall, Sophie. Farmhouse. 2022. Little, Brown and Company.

Through salvaged articles Blackall found, Farmhouse tells the story of a real farmhouse and the family who lived there. In this Little, Brown Young Readers Behind the Page video, Sophie Blackall talks about creating Farmhouse.  (PK-Adult) 

 Book cover shows large white house with the title "Farmhouse" in red letters above it.  The front door of the house is open, and a little girl is following a cat down the steps.

Soontornvat, Christina. The Last Mapmaker. 2022. Candlewick Press.

Twelve-year old Sai, as the mapmaker's assistant to Mangkon's most celebrated mapmaker, joins an expedition to chart the southern seas. (Grade 4-Grade 8) *2023 Newbery Honor 

Book cover shows girl standing at the rail of a ship with a yellow orb around her head.  The title "The Last Mapmaker" is above her.  A Newbery Honor medal and a Walter Dean Myers Honor Medal are on the bottom of the cover.

Thermes Jennifer. Manhattan: Mapping the Story of an Island. 2019. Abrams Books for Young Readers.

Traces the 400+ year history of Manhattan and the people who have inhabited the island. (Grade 2-Grade 6)

Book cover shows the bottom half of Manhattan with trees on one side, rows of houses in the middle, and skyscrapers on the other side.  The bottom of the island is surrounded by water with the Statue of Liberty in the bottom corner.  At the top of the image is the title "Manhattan: Mapping the Story of an Island."

Wittenstein, Barry. Oscar's American Dream. 2020. Schwartz & Wade Books.

Follows the history of one building and how it changes over time  from a barbershop to a lady's clothing store to an army recruitment center to a coffee shop and more. (PK-Grade 3)

Book cover shows brownstone-style building with barbershop pole in front.  A man stands in front of the building, and people of various ages are walking by and greeting him.  A banner that says "Oscar's" hangs above a sign that says "American Dream."


Related Collections

The Sanborn Maps can be used with all ages. They were originally designed to help fire insurance agents determine the degree of hazard for a particular property. The Library of Congress has an extensive collection that can be sorted by date and/or by state and city. The Sanborn Maps were produced between 1867 and 1961, and they cover commercial, residential, and industrial properties in over 12,000 cities and towns in the United States, Canada, and Mexico. 


Find the Sanborn Fire Map of your city/town or of the block and lot where your library is/was! Compare and contrast it with what exists today and how the space is currently used. If possible, take a walk around the area of the Sanborn map that you are using to look for similarities and differences.

If you cannot go on a walk, use Google Earth to show digital maps and take a virtual field trip to the area!

Map shows blocks and lots with yellow and pink rectangles, designating buildings.  Streets are labeled, and in the top right corner it says "New Orleans and Carrollton R.R. Co.'s Napoleon Ave. Station"

image: Sanborn Fire Insurance Map from New Orleans, Orleans Parish, Louisiana, (1885), Sanborn Map Company, Vol. 1., Image 53.

Think about:

  • What does this map make you wonder?
  • What do the different colors mean?
  • What is the map recording?
  • What was not shown on the map?
  • When was it created?
  • Why was it created?
  • What is the same/different today?

The Library of Congress has created a Sanborn Map Navigator that allows users to click on the map to find a particular location. As you change locations, different primary source maps and newspaper photographs will appear from those locations.  

The Library of Congress' Cities and Towns Collection includes over 3,000 maps of locations around the world, dating from 1201 to 2019.  See if you can find a map of your birthplace or of somewhere to which you would like to travel.    

Color map of the city of Chicago shows bird's eye, panoramic view of the city.  There are many buildings and lots of ships in the water below the city.   

Since ALA is based in Chicago, here is an 1857 map of the city.

image: Chicago, (1857) by J.T. Palmatary, Christian Inger, Herline & Hensel, and Braunhold & Sonne, [map], published by Braunhold & Sonne.

Patrons can also find any map in the collection and then use physical and online resources to learn more about the location. Think about:

  • When was the map produced? 
  • Does the map accurately represent the location? 
  • What has changed? 
  • How would you update the map? 
  • Were things left out that you would include?  (If so, why do you think things were not included on the map?)

Two big horn sheep stand on a formation of rocks in front of an orange sky.  The text at the top reads "Department of the Interior, National Park Service," and the text at the bottom reads "The National Parks Preserve Wildlife."

The National Parks Preserve Wild Life, (1936-1939) by Works Progress Administration Federal Art Project.

The Library of Congress' WPA Posters Collection includes over 50 posters that were created as a part of the WPA between 1936 and 1943 to advertise National Parks. These posters were advertisements but are also works of art.  


Create your own poster for a National Park (real or imagined!)  What part of your park would you want to highlight on the poster?

Black and white map shows bodies of land surrounded by water.  A detailed border surrounds the land and water.  On the land, there are pictures of different animals and crops.

image: Universalis Cosmographia Secundum Ptholomaei Traditionem et Americi Vespucii Alioru[m]que Lustrationes, (1507), by Martin Waldseemüller. The "Waldseemüller Map" is the first document known to name "America." 

The Library of Congress' Waldseemüller Map is the only known copy of the 1507 map by Martin Waldseemüller. Waldseemüller's map was revolutionary because it was the first time the American landmass was depicted separate from the Eastern hemisphere and separated by the Pacific Ocean. For more information about the Waldseemüller Map, the Library of Congress has an interactive map presentation allowing users to compare his 1507 map to one he created in 1516, the Carta Marina. Patrons can look for similarities and differences. What new information had been gathered between 1507 and 1516? What is different between these maps and modern maps of the world?


The Library of Congress offers onsite Teaching with Primary Sources (TPS) summer institutes for librarians and educators. Among other analysis methods taught, the Library of Congress teaches the Jigsaw Method. Through the Jigsaw Method, a primary source, such as the Waldseemüller Map, is cut into multiple pieces and distributed to students/patrons to be analyzed. Observers have to analyze their individual piece trying to determine information such as when it was created, why it was created, and what it depicts. They then find a partner with a different piece of the map and share their observations, reflections, and questions. This continues until all of the pieces of the map can be put together, providing a full picture of the map. Once the map is put together, patrons/students should again reflect on when it was created, why it was created, and what it depicts. 

Once the map is put together like a puzzle, think about: Did your original observations and reflections change? Were any of your initial questions answered?

Statement on Potentially Harmful Content and Fair Use

Statement on Potentially Harmful Content
Some of the materials presented in this guide may reflect outdated, biased, offensive, and possibly violent views and opinions. In addition, some of the materials may relate to violent or graphic events and are preserved by the Library of Congress and presented here for their historical significance. 

Fair Use

Digitized primary sources in the Library's collection each include a "Rights and Access" or "Rights Advisory" statement within the catalog information.  These can help users determine whether the item is in the public domain or whether there are copyright restrictions.  For more information about the Library of Congress' policy on Copyrights and Primary Sources visit the website.