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The Project: Reading a Sanborn Map at the Library part (a)

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This is the third post in a series addressing digital scholarship in business and economic history related to Library of Congress collections. Read the first post and the second post.

I have been making steady, if slow, progress on the next steps I outlined in my last post.

  1. identifying a place to focus on
  2. which will be dictated by which Sanborn maps I can match with directories
  3. and researching a mapping platform in which to work.
Key for Sanborn Fire Insurance Map from Atlanta, Fulton County, Georgia. Sanborn Map Company, 1899.

I picked Atlanta, Georgia, which is where I grew up. The Library also conveniently has directories that correspond to years of digitized Sanborn maps from the 1890s. I will primarily work in the StoryMap platfrom from ESRI. It’s my contribution to the Library’s exploration of new ways to engage people with the collections using this platform.

With those decisions made, I needed to learn how to read a Sanborn map.

I went to the Library webpage for the Sanborn Maps Digital Collection. I read the introduction and the “How to Use” essay, and I explored the Sanborn Samplers. I found map sets for Atlanta from the late 19th century and clicked on the 1899 maps. There are 126 images available to view. I paused. Where do I start? How do I start?

Thankfully, knowing where to start is straightforward: you start at the very beginning. The very beginning of 126 images is the Key, a kind of visual table of contents. You see colored sections with numbers all over a birds-eye map view of Atlanta. But, how does this starting place get you started?

I find it helpful to think of it like the table of contents in a book. The colored sections are like chapter names, smaller pieces of the larger whole. Individual map sheets are like the chapters themselves. Looking at the Key gives me a broad sense of where the sections are in relation to each other. And, the different colors let me distinguish one section from its neighbors.

The numbers in the colored sections are like page numbers. In a book, I get to Chapter 1 by going to the page number listed by it. In the Sanborn map, I get to the detailed map of that pink section by going to the image number written inside it. So, one colored section and its number correspond to the detailed map sheet.

Screenshot of Georgia School of Technology from the Key for Sanborn Fire Insurance Map from Atlanta, Fulton County, Georgia. Sanborn Map Company, 1899.

Some iconic institutions and landmarks are labeled on the key, such as Georgia Tech School of Technology (now, Georgia Institute of Technology). Here, I see that Georgia Tech is in a pink square labeled “109.” To see the detailed map of this area, I knew I needed to go to Image 109. To see Image 109 yourself, go to this map viewer page. There is a drop down menu at the top left of the image. Select “109” from the drop down box and click “Go”. Image 109 will load and you will see the detailed map of Georgia Tech.

Now that I have a basic understanding of how to navigate this edition of the Sanborn maps, I can move forward to identify which map sheets detail business districts, and which one I may use for the StoryMap. My next post will describe my process for doing this.

Comments (2)

  1. I LOVE Sanborn maps. This is a fun way to interact with them. Thank you for your post!

  2. I agree with Michelle. Fantastic way to work with these historic maps! Thank you for your efforts!!


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