University of Wisconsin–Madison

Wisconsin Geospatial News

USGS historic map scanning project has strong Wisconsin ties

As the leader of a project to scan, catalog metadata, georeference, and release approximately 200,000 USGS maps published since the early 1880s, I thought it might be interesting to highlight the many Wisconsin connections to this major USGS initiative.

The work to create the Historical Topographic Map Collection is being conducted at a USGS office in Madison with the significant expertise of UW-Madison faculty, staff, and students. In fact, the USGS has relied on UW Cartography Lab and UW-Madison Geography and Cartography students for cartographic, GIS, and publishing expertise since the late 1970’s.

A pilot study was done in 2005 – 2007 to look into the feasibility of being able to convert the entire collection from lithographic paper copies to georeferenced files. I sought advice from Jaime Stoltenberg at the UW-Madison Robinson Map Library. Jaime served as a mentor and metadata subject-matter expert during pilot stages of the project. A scanner was installed in the Library and USGS hired geography students to scan more than 15.000 topographic maps during the developmental phase of the project.

A major constraint for the conversion of any large collection of paper maps to electronic files suitable for use in a GIS is the georeferencing of scanned map images. USGS provide research dollars to Dr. Jim Burt, UW Geography Department, to develop a semi-automated process to greatly speed georeferencing while maintaining map accuracy standards of the original maps. The software was developed, tested, revised and used to georeference more than 100,000 USGS topographic quadrangles, with an eventual project goal of more approximately 200,000 maps. Jim’s software is in the public domain and available through the UW Geography Department Web site.

During the past several years, USGS has conducted this project using many Geography and GIS Certificate students. I’m convinced the initiative would not have succeeded without the initial guidance from Jaime, the technical contributions of Jim Burt, and the tremendous effort of several dozen UW students!

Check out the USGS Web site for more information on the Historical Topographic Map Collection, or visit the USGS Store to locate and download historic topos.