Wisconsin Geospatial News

WI Historical Society’s Map Archives

With thousands of maps, atlases, and plat books, the Wisconsin Historical Society (WHS) map archives are a treasure trove, one of the key caches of our state’s rich mapping heritage.

An historical institution…

Near our office stands the home of the oldest American historical society to receive uninterrupted public funding. The Wisconsin Historical Society was founded in 1846, two years before Wisconsin statehood. The map collection and archives are but a small component of WHS’ Library and Archives Division, one of seven divisions in an agency that also manages a museum, a research library, and historic sites across the state.

Maps and atlases galore

While largely related to Wisconsin, the WHS’s holdings span the globe and date back in time to early exploration days. About 50% of the collection covers some part of Wisconsin with another 25% having an extent in the Midwest.

A popular part of the collection is Sanborn Insurance Maps that hold a wealth of information on early land ownership, land use and urban development. This well-known collection was once used to assess risk in insuring particular buildings; and has now become valuable to historians, genealogists, architects, and geographers.

Atlases and plat books are another major component of the collection. While the atlases have been catalogued under the UW-Madison MadCat system since the mid-70’s, the plat book collection has an in-house index up through 1960. Updated Wisconsin plat books are added regularly.

Preservation and maintenance

While there is still a small budget for map purchases, individuals and private companies donate many. In addition, WHS has had a role as repository of USGS published maps in the past. Nonetheless, as the collection grows, maintenance is required. Preservation and organization of the collection is the largest task of the map librarian, Gerry Strey. The older and more fragile maps are sealed in an acid-free and vacuum-sealed plastic. Maps are prioritized by importance to be protected through this costly and time-consuming process. Almost all the maps are held in a climate-controlled room.

Access and the future

Maps in the WHS Archives are accessible for study and reproduction. Requests are made through the map librarian who will help clarify and verify requests. Maps and other visual materials can be reproduced in paper or digital media according to a fee schedule for media and intended use.

While there are no immediate plans to provide online access to any major component or series of the map archives, WHS has begun adding significant amounts of other historical documents and images on their website in the Digital Library and Archives section. And as new orders are taken for digital reproductions of historical maps, these images will also eventually be added to the online archives. (Caption for photo, if you can figure out how to come up with enough room for it: Gerry Strey, WHS Map Librarian)