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Collection Development Policy

Map Collection

Chris Winters
May 2009


Brief overview of the collection

·         History: The University of Chicago Library acquired sheet maps from its first days; these were either stored in a map case in Harper Library or else folded and bound into “books.” Neither storage option was ideal, and the Map Collection was founded in 1929 in part to provide a proper home for the Library’s map holdings and in part to satisfy the research needs of members of the Departments of Geography and Geology. The Collection had a mandate in its early years to acquire the largest collection of then-contemporary maps in the Midwest. For many years it was well funded and quickly became the largest non-coastal map library in the United States. Funding was very poor between the late 1930s and the 1970s, but the Collection ranked high in the massive federal distribution of maps of foreign areas after World War II. It was also the recipient of a great many important gifts from scholars in geography and urban studies. Since the 1970s funding has improved, and it has been possible to acquire sheet maps that build on the Collection’s strengths. In addition, the Collection has had access to GIS (computer cartography) software since the early 1990s and has acquired a substantial amount of spatial data.


·         Broad subject areas emphasized and de-emphasized: The map fund is used to acquire sheet maps and spatial data for the Map Collection. Most sheet maps at the Map Collection are topographic, urban, or thematic maps.


·         Audience/Purpose. The collection supports the research and teaching needs of faculty and students in numerous university units, particularly the Committee on Geographical Studies; the Departments of History, Economics, Sociology, and Geophysics; the Harris School of Public Policy Studies; and the Booth School of Business. At one time or another students and faculty from nearly every unit of the University have brought research questions to the Map Collection.


The Collection is also used to support informal research, e.g., research for travel or genealogical purposes. The growing use of the Internet for informal research has greatly reduced the role of the Map Collection in non-scholarly research.


Collecting guidelines

·         Levels of selection. Collecting in the Map Collection differs in many ways from collecting in disciplines: [1] The budget is adequate only to acquire a much smaller percentage of respectable publications; [2] a much larger part of the budget is devoted to sets, e.g., of topographic maps and spatial data; and [3] even more than with monographic budgets one must be aware of what is likely to become available online for free or for very little money[1].

Contemporary collecting focuses on topographic, urban, and thematic maps and their digital equivalents.

A large part of the budget is used in most years to acquire sets of foreign topographic maps. Such maps are a fundamental tool of much research and are very unlikely in most cases to become available in digital form in the near future. Roughly speaking, the Collection aims to have holdings at a scale of ca. 1:25,000 for the United States and for the densely settled parts of Western Europe; holdings at a scale of ca. 1:50,000 for the densely settled parts of the rest of the world; and holdings at a scale of ca. 1:250,000 for everywhere else. Ideally, these are updated every fifty years or so, but, in practice, it is not possible to be quite so precise. Cost per sheet of these sets varies from less than a dollar to more than $100. Sets contain from a dozen to several thousand sheets. Thus, even medium-sized purchases are major investments. Selection involves a complicated calculus of cost, likelihood of use, and availability.

Spatial data of all sorts also constitute an important component of most years’ purchases. The cost of such data varies from trivial to thousands of dollars a CD. As with topographic maps, selection requires a careful consideration of many factors. North American municipal data and foreign census data with boundary files have been among the genres funded most often.

It also seems worthwhile to update the Map Collection’s holdings of urban maps. While street maps can be generated with Google Map, there is no reason to think that superseded data will always be available systematically online, and paper maps of urban areas often include information not available through Google Map. Ideally, a high-quality map for major cities every five or ten years seems about right.

Part of the annual budget is used the way most book funds are generally used: for recent scholarly monographic works, which would mostly be classed as thematic maps. Many new cartographic monographs are geology maps. Because the most detailed geology maps are rarely requested, these are bought only selectively. Scholarly map publications in urban, cultural, and historical geography are acquired at the “research” level.


·         Type of materials included and excluded. Emphasis is put on material likely to be of interest to scholars. Tourist maps are acquired mostly when more reliable maps are unavailable.


·         Physical formats included and excluded. Paper maps, CDs, DVDs, and (occasionally) downloadable data sets and programs constitute the bulk of material acquired. Every so often microforms are funded.

·         Publication dates collected. Relatively recent materials constitute the bulk of what is acquired.


·         Languages. There are no language limits. It is expected that cartographic materials for every country will be published in the language(s) of that country.


·         Geographical range. There are no geographical limitations on what is collected. Contributions from area-studies colleagues are welcomed, but the map fund is used for material from every part of the world.


·         Chronological span. There are no limitations.

Areas of distinction

The systematic and well-funded purchases of topographic, urban, and thematic maps of the Collection’s first decade were complemented by the acquisition of the Levasseur collection from the John Crerar Library. This collection, assembled by French geographer Émile Levasseur (1828-1911), includes numerous 19th-century scholarly maps and a scattering of earlier material. As a result of this early collecting activity, hardly any other libraries have as many late 19th- and early 20th-century maps.

In general, perhaps because the map market is not organized as systematically as the book market─and also because map libraries are almost always funded less generously than book libraries─map collections at major universities generally show less overlap with other collections than book libraries. Even during the periods when it was funded least generously, the Map Collection acquired a great deal of material that is apparently not held at any other institution.

Related University of Chicago collections

The geography fund is used to acquire most atlases. Many other bibliographers (especially those associated with area studies) fund atlases as well. There is a particularly noteworthy collection of early atlases at Special Collections, which holds some sheet maps too, mostly bound in books or stored in boxes.

Some East Asian sheet maps too are still kept folded in the stacks.

Cooperative arrangements and related collections

There are no formal arrangements for cooperative acquisition, but the existence of certain materials in other libraries has influenced the building of the Map Collection over the years.

The Newberry Library holds one of North America’s most distinguished collections of early maps and makes up for the Collection’s deficiencies in this area.

The Research Center at the Chicago History Museum holds an excellent collection of Chicago materials that complements the holdings of the Map Collection.

A growing number of Websites have also made cartographic material available to local users.



[1] Oddly enough, the American government is the world’s chief source of free spatial data. Raster images of all current American topographic maps (down to scale 1:24,000) can be downloaded for free. Vector data for the United States originally compiled at a nominal scale of approximately 1:100,000 are similarly available. American government vector data for the entire rest of the world at a scale of 1:1,000,000 are easily obtained in various forms, and lower-quality vector data at 1:250,000 for selected regions are also available. Generally speaking, foreign governments are never as generous. A few have made low- or medium-quality raster images of some topographic maps available. Most will only sell vector data for very large sums of money (perhaps hundreds of dollars a sheet). Commercial firms sell or (more often) lease foreign street data for even more money (thousands of dollars a month).