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Last modified: Monday, November 7, 2011

Public access to Indiana's historic Sanborn maps provides treasure trove of information

Officials in communities ready and waiting to begin using detailed data on state's past

Nov. 7, 2011

BLOOMINGTON, Ind. -- Considered a treasure trove of American history sought after by genealogists, urban planners, sociologists and a gamut of other researchers, Sanborn Fire Insurance maps, first created beginning in 1867 for assessing fire insurance liability for buildings in U.S. cities, are now available to the public for more than 300 locations in Indiana.

Bloomington Map

A digital copy of an 1883 Sanborn map of the downtown city square in Bloomington.

Print-Quality Photo

The Sanborn Company designated Indiana University's Herman B Wells Library Map Collections as the repository for the original Indiana Sanborn paper maps which the company produced between 1883 and 1966. A recent joint project between IU and Historical Information Gatherers Inc. now provides digital color versions of the maps to the Indiana Spatial Data Portal (ISDP).

"Indiana's historic Sanborn Maps provide an enormous amount of information regarding the growth of our cities and towns," said Anna Radue, an IU database and geographic information systems (GIS) specialist who is also president of the Indiana Geographic Information Council, the coordinating body for GIS in Indiana. "The maps include the outlines of buildings, the location of windows and doors, street names and property boundaries, and even the building materials used for framing, flooring and roofing materials. Genealogists, planners, demographers and the general public will find these maps invaluable for visualizing our past urban areas and understanding our present."

A 2011 grant from IndianaView funded the digital archiving of the 10,020 public-domain maps and 1,497 copyright-restricted maps that represent 305 different Indiana locations. The ISDP provides access to more than 20 terabytes of Indiana geospatial data and most datasets are available to the public for download with no use restrictions. IU's high-performance networks and computing infrastructure support the ISDP, which archives and provides Web access to imagery provided by data partners within and outside IU.

Sanborn maps offer researchers and the public detailed information regarding town and building information in approximately 12,000 U.S. towns and cities from 1867 to 1970. Rich in historical data, each collection includes a decorative title page, an index of streets and addresses, a 'specials' index with the names of churches, schools, businesses, and a master index indicating the entirety of the mapped area and the sheet numbers for each large-scale map.

Other general information includes population, prevailing wind direction, outlines of each building and outbuilding, street and sidewalk widths, fire walls, natural features like rivers and canals, railroad corridors, building use, house and block number, the strength of the local fire department, indications of sprinkler systems, locations of fire hydrants, location of water and gas mains and even the names of most public buildings, churches and companies.

Shaun Scholer, GIS coordinator for Richmond, Ind., and Wayne County, said local government was interested in using the digital maps to assist in community projects.

"I appreciate your help and access to the files," he said. "We have been trying to figure out ways to get access to them for years."

Scholer noted, "Through the use of the 1909 Sanborn maps, Wayne County/City of Richmond GIS Interlocal was able to identify early factory and home site foundations. We have also helped a local urban archeologist excavate old home sites."

IU Bloomington Libraries serves as the repository for Indiana maps and holds the rights to make the pre-1924 maps available to the public. They are available here. Black-and-white versions from the Digital Sanborn Fire Insurance database that are licensed for use by IU students and faculty can also be found here.

After 1910, Sanborn used what IU Libraries' Lou Malcomb called "paste-overs" to record changes in the maps.

"So these are quite fragile but may be viewed at the Herman B Wells Library," she said. "And more information about the pre- and post-1924 maps may be obtained by contacting the IUB Map Collection (here)."

The Sanborn maps announcement comes in advance of "GIS Day at Indiana University" to be held from 10 a.m. to 3:30 p.m. Nov. 16, at Herman B Wells Library. The event is open to the public and will include information booths, geocaching activities and a 4 p.m. keynote address by Katy Börner, the Victor H. Yngve Professor of Information Science in the IU School of Library and Information Science. Guests will also be able to speak with IU Libraries staff about the Sanborn maps.

The grant provider, IndianaView, is a consortium that includes IU, IU South Bend, Indiana University-Purdue University Indianapolis, Ball State University, Indiana State University, Martin University, Purdue University, Purdue University Calumet, University of Notre Dame, Vincennes University, the Consortium of Universities for Spatial Information Science, Indiana Geological Survey, Indiana SpaceGrant Consortium and the Indiana Geographic Information Council. The purpose of the consortium is to promote sharing and use of public-domain, remotely-sensed image data (aerial and satellite platforms) for education, research and outreach across universities, colleges, K-12 educators and state and local governments.

To learn more about the Sanborn maps, please contact Steve Chaplin, University Communications, at 812-856-1896 or, or Shawn Conner, director of communications and marketing, IU Libraries, at 812-856-4817 or