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Harvard Maps Collection

Print Collections


The Harvard Map Collection is the oldest map collection in America, having grown to include ca. 400,000 maps, more than 6,000 atlases, and several thousand reference books. Topographic maps, city plans, nautical charts, and thematic maps comprise this excellent research collection representing all chronological periods and significant map makers. The Map Collection also has a strong commitment to digital resources and manages the collections of the Harvard Geospatial Library. For more information, visit Getting Started at the Map Collection.

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Aerial Photography and Remotely Sensed Images

Aerial photography and satellite imagery refer to images taken, vertical or oblique, from an aircraft or orbiting satellite. The aerial photography and satellite imagery collection focuses primarily on the metro Boston area. This collection contains paper format 1952 aerial photos of Essex, Middlesex, Norfolk, Plymouth, and Suffolk counties at 1:20,000, paper format 1977 aerial photos of Boston at 1:2,400, paper format 1992 aerial photos of Boston at 1:5,000, and digital format 1995 Spot MetroView Satellite Imagery for Boston. We also hold a small collection of other miscellaneous aerial photography and satellite imagery in paper format and on CD-ROM.

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Antiquarian Maps

Antiquarian maps are one of the significant components of the Harvard Map Collection and have been a focus of the library since the founding of the College in 1636. The collection now contains several thousand original pre-1900 atlases and maps, as well as modern facsimile reproductions of early maps and atlases. Chronological coverage begins in the early 1500s and includes representative samples from well-known cartographers such as Bromley, Carleton, Hondius, Janson, Mercator, Ortelius, and Ptolemy.

The antiquarian collection focuses primarily on the northeastern United States and Europe although our holdings outside these regions are also substantial. We have a particularly noteworthy collection of early maps of Boston and Cambridge.

Any serious researcher is invited to use our collection. As with any antiquarian special collection, we do require that all patrons exercise special concern and respect for original materials.  Please see our Admittance page for more information.

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Atlases, Gazetteers, Books and Periodicals


The collection contains more than 6,000 atlases, including current world, national, state, and urban atlases. The historical atlas collection includes several early works, including those of Mercator, Ortelius, and Ptolemy. Our earliest original atlas is from 1511, and the collection contains many facsimiles of older works. Most notable among the 19th century volumes are the county and city atlases and those produced by various Fire Insurance companies.


Gazetteers give the location (longitude and latitude, country, state, province, etc.) of populated places and natural features. Some descriptive gazetteers also provide information about the population, economy, history, and industry of a given place. The Harvard Map Collection maintains an extensive collection of contemporary domestic and foreign gazetteers as well as current electronic gazetteers on CD-ROM. We also have a number of excellent historical gazetteers which are useful for locating places that may have changed name or are no longer in existence.

Books and Periodicals

The collection maintains a collection of monographs and serials related to the history of cartography, mapping in general, geographic information systems, aerial photography and remote sensing, and map librarianship. Although these journals (like all material in the Map Collection) do not circulate, patrons are welcome to read them in our reading room or photocopy needed material.

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Fire Insurance Maps

One of the most valuable sources for monitoring and viewing urban change are the fire insurance maps published in the 19th century. These maps were drawn at the scale of 1 inch = 50 ft (later 1 inch = 100 ft) which allowed very specific types of detail to be shown. For example, street width, building dimensions, the type of construction (frame, brick, stone), number of floors, roof composition, windows, elevators, wall construction, and street address are all shown.

The fire insurance surveyors mapped the built-up area, central business district, and surrounding residential blocks for over 12,000 towns and cities nationwide by the 1950s. Their publication for urban areas continues today, and it is reported that every town in the United States with a population of 2,000 (in 1950) has been mapped.

Our fire insurance map collection focuses primarily on the New England states. The original collection contains a complete set of fire insurance maps for Boston from 1867 to 1992 and Cambridge from 1873 to 1992, along with various Bromley, Hopkins, Richards, Sanborn, or Walker fire insurance maps for other cities in Massachusetts, Connecticut, the District of Columbia, and New York. Microfilm copies of the Sanborn fire insurance maps from Maine, New Hampshire, Vermont, Massachusetts, Connecticut, and Rhode Island from 1865 to 1985 are also available in the Map Collection. Original Nirenstein fire insurance maps of downtown business areas (1946) are held for AL, AZ, CA, CO, CT, DE, District of Columbia, GA, ID, IL, IN, IA, KS, KY, LA, ME, MD, MA, MI, MN, MS, MO, MN, NE, NH, NJ, NM, NY, ND, OH, OK, OR, PA, RI, TN, TX, VA, VT, WA, WV, WI, WY, as well as Montreal, Vancouver, and Victoria in Canada. Additional microfilm copies of fire insurance maps not held in our collection can be obtained by interlibrary loan from the Center for Research Libraries in Chicago.  The Harvard College Library subscribes to the Digital Sanborn Maps, which is available to all Harvard affiliates (Login required).

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Nautical Charts

Our Nautical chart collection includes sailing charts for navigation in open waters, general charts for visual and radar navigation offshore using landmarks, coastal charts for near-shore navigation, harbor charts for use in harbors and for anchorage, and small craft charts. They display features such as soundings, coasts, shoal waters, ports, restricted waters, landmarks, rocks, wrecks, currents, lights, buoys, radio aids, and even some cultural features such as urban areas, major roads, or buildings.

The nautical chart collection of U.S. waters includes the U.S. Coast and Geodetic Survey 19th Century Charts, U.S. Coast and Geodetic Survey 20th Century Charts, and the NOAA Charts. The nautical chart collection of world waters includes the U.S. Hydrographic Office 19th Century Charts, U.S. Hydrographic Office WWII Charts, U.S. Hydrographic Office 20th Century Charts, British Admiralty Charts, Defense Mapping Agency Hydrographic Charts, and the Naval Hydrographic Office of India Charts.

For a correspondence table relating the 20th century and 19th century chart numbering system of the U.S. Coast and Geodetic Survey Nautical Charts, please see the Superseded U.S. Coast and Geodetic Survey Nautical Chart Conversion Table.

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Street Maps

In addition to digital geospatial information and the usual Internet resources such as Google and Mapquest, the Map Collection maintains and collects large-scale paper maps for cities and towns throughout the United States. A strong collection of official state highway maps includes city insets and provides a time series revealing the changing transportation systems.

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Thematic Maps

Thematic maps depict the distribution of a single attribute or the relationship among several. They cover such subjects as transportation and communication, political and historical geography, human and cultural geography, vegetation, water resources, agriculture, land use, public works, and regional or city planning maps.

Thematic maps may be either "qualitative" or "quantitative." Qualitative thematic maps display the spatial distribution or location of a particular kind of feature. From these maps, the reader can determine the location of a feature, but cannot determine the quantity, except as shown by relative area extent. Quantitative thematic maps display the spatial aspects of numerical data. In most cases, a single variable of interest such as population density or income is chosen and the map focuses on the variation of the feature from place to place.

The Map Collection maintains an extensive collection of thematic maps at the world, national, and local level. Although some of our thematic maps exist as sheet maps, many are found within atlases, particularly the national atlases published by many nations.

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Topographic Maps

Topographic maps display relief features, water features, and cultural features. Large-scale topographic maps, such as 1:24,000 scale maps are especially useful for areas where detailed information is needed. These maps show detailed terrain and water features, major roads and power lines, cultural features such as schools, churches, cemeteries, dams, campsites, mines, and even building footprints. Intermediate-scale maps, ranging in scale from 1:50,000 to 1:100,000 cover larger areas but show fewer features. They are well-suited for land management and regional planning where less detailed information is needed. Small-scale maps such as those made at the scales of 1:250,000, 1:500,000, and 1,000,000, display very large areas on a single sheet and are useful for comprehensive views of regional landscapes.

Our topographic map collection contains U.S. Geological Survey maps of the entire United States at 1:24,000, 1:100,000, and 1:250,000; State of Massachusetts topographic maps from 1884 to the present at various scales; Canadian Topographic System maps at 1:50,000, 1:250,000, and 1:500,000; Tactical Pilotage Charts of the world at 1:500,000; Operational Navigational Charts of the world at 1:1,000,000; Defense Mapping Agency topographic maps of foreign countries at various scales; and a large number of other large- and intermediate-scale topographic map sets for foreign countries.

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Wall Maps

The Harvard Map Collection maintains a collection of several hundred current and historical wall maps for the world and regional geographies. These maps circulate to faculty and teaching fellows for classroom instruction.

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