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About the Sanborn Fire Insurance Map Collection

Tracing the development and growth of cities and towns has been a popular study in recent years. Fortunately for the researcher on such a quest, the cartographic collections of the Library of Congress contain thousands of maps and atlases of urban areas, dating from as far back as the sixteenth century up to the present. Of particular note among the Library's holdings is an extensive collection of maps of American cities and towns giving detailed, accurate information about their buildings and other structures. The Sanborn Map Company of Pelham, New York, produced many such maps.

The Sanborn map collection consists of a uniform series of large-scale maps, dating from 1867 to the present and depicting the commercial, industrial, and residential sections of some twelve thousand cities and towns in the United States, Canada, and Mexico. The maps were designed to assist fire insurance agents in determining the degree of hazard associated with a particular property and therefore show the size, shape, and construction of dwellings, commercial buildings, and factories as well as fire walls, locations of windows and doors, sprinkler systems, and types of roofs. The maps also indicate widths and names of streets, property boundaries, building use, and house and block numbers. They show the locations of water mains, giving their dimensions, and of fire alarm boxes and hydrants. Sanborn maps are thus an unrivaled source of information for their time about the structure and use of buildings in American cities.

The Sanborn collection includes some fifty thousand editions of fire insurance maps comprising an estimated seven hundred thousand individual sheets. The Library of Congress holdings represent the largest extant collection of maps produced by the Sanborn Map Company. The majority of the maps were acquired by the Library through copyright deposit, but the collection was substantially enriched in 1967 when the Bureau of the Census transferred to the Library a complete set of Sanborn maps. The 1,899 loose-leaf binders transferred were particularly noteworthy because they included later editions than those previously acquired by the Library. The Bureau of the Census set of maps had been regularly updated by printed, paste-on corrections supplied by the Sanborn Map Company, whereas the Library of Congress copies had been retained in the form in which they were copyrighted.

A checklist of the maps was compiled between 1974 and 1978 by staff members of the Reference and Bibliography Section of the Geography and Map Division, with the assistance of several summer employees assigned to the section in 1976 and 1977. The checklist describes the entire collection of Sanborn fire insurance maps, including bound and unbound maps as well as microfilm reels, in the custody of the Geography and Map Division. Entries are arranged alphabetically by state and by the name of the principal city in the map title. Following the state lists are citations of special maps produced by the Sanborn Map Company to show whiskey warehouses in New York, New Jersey, Pennsylvania, Maryland, West Virginia, Kentucky, Tennessee, Ohio, Indiana, and Illinois, sugar warehouses at principal ports in Cuba, and citations; of other special maps showing fire insurance maps of cities in British Columbia and Mexico.

In four columns the checklist records: (1) the entry number, (2) the city, county, and date of edition, (3) the number of sheets, and (4) comments. In the last column are the "500" and "000" series numbers that identify the volumes acquired from the Bureau of the Census, additional place names cited by the publisher in map titles, and other distinctive features of the map. The standard map is colored and measures 65 x 55 cm. Variations are noted in the comments column. Editions issued by the company in atlas format are here described as "bound."

There is an index to entries, arranged by state and county, and an alphabetical index that records some twelve thousand cities and towns cited in the body of the work. The numbers given in the indexes refer to entries, not to pages.

Compilation of the Checklist

  • Thomas G. DeClaire (Geography & Map Division)
  • Patrick E. Dempsey (Geography & Map Division)
  • Gary L. Fitzpatrick (Geography & Map Division)
  • James A. Flatness (Geography & Map Division)
  • John R. Hébert (Geography & Map Division)
  • Andrew M. Modelski (Geography & Map Division)
  • Michael H. Shelley (MARC Editorial Division)
  • Richard W. Stephenson (Geography & Map Division)
  • Maynard H. Yost (Geography & Map Division)

Electronic Database Entry

  • George Barnaj (Geography & Map Division)
  • Dominique Pickett (Information Technology Services)
  • Diane Schug-O'Neill (Geography & Map Division)
  • Colleen Cahill (Geography & Map Division)

Web Presentation

  • Electronic Searching
    • Matthew Bachtell (Network Development & MARC Standards Office)
    • Nathan Trail (Network Development & MARC Standards Office)
  • Web Creation and Editing
    • Dominique Pickett (Information Technology Services)
    • Diane Schug-O'Neill (Geography & Map Division)
    • Julie Mangin (Network Development & MARC Standards Office)

Summer Interns

  • Franklin Hawkins (Appalachian State University)
  • Paula Johnson (Gustavus Adolphus University)
  • Claren Kidd (University of Oklahoma)
  • John Manton (Youngstown State University)
  • Karl Proehl (State University of New York, Stony Brook)
  • Susan McMahon (Michigan State University)
  • Dennis Quillen (Eastern Kentucky University)
  • Katelynn Chambers (Catholic University of America)
  • Lauren Schott (Sarah Lawrence College)
  • Sarah McIntire (Frostburg State University)

Collections of the Sanborn insurance maps are to be found in other North American libraries. The holdings of some of these institutions are listed in the two-volume checklist entitled Union List of Sanborn Fire Insurance Maps Held by Institutions in the United States and Canada, published in 1976-77 by the Western Association of Map Libraries, Santa Cruz, California.

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  February 7, 2011
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