Vol. 10 No. 6 June 2002
Where was I? Maps on the Web
by Irene E. McDermott Reference Librarian/System Manager
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When I think of romance, of glamour, of utter elegance, I always picture an aerial view. I love to look down on a city, on an ocean, on the world perhaps wearing a little black dress, with maybe a Manhattan in my hand. This to me is the ultimate in sophistication.

I get the same kind of tingle when I look at a map (without the cocktail, of course). For some reason, depictions of the world in squiggly lines, tiny print, and four colors spark my imagination. I can dream that I am moving about in exotic locales, all without the inconvenience of travel. Even when I visit a place, it gains more depth and meaning for me when I can connect it with its two-dimensional representation. Go ahead. Call me a "map nerd." I can take it.

Fortunately for me and my fetish, there is a tremendous amount of spatial data on the World Wide Web: multitudes of maps; armfuls of atlases; cartloads of cartography. Enough to keep a map nerd like myself clicking and dreaming for years.

Maps on the Web are designed for many uses, and many of them are free. Here are a few.

Map Portals

USGS National Mapping Information

The U.S. government has spent our tax dollars mapping and snapping its territories and the world. Now, it gives these images and data back to us in several different formats. The U.S. Geological Survey is in charge of many measurements of the earth on which we live. Its mission is to monitor biological resources, natural hazards, and ground water to help us humans live well on our planet. Consequently, the USGS does a great deal of mapping: topographic maps of earth and sea, natural hazard maps, satellite views, and aerial photos. This page is the portal into the whole bag of USGS goodies.

U.S. Gazetteer

This gazetteer can identify places to view with the TIGER Map Server and obtain census data from the 1990 Census Lookup server. You can search for places, counties, or MCDs by entering the name and state abbreviation (optional), or 5-digit ZIP code. Note: ZIP code boundaries do not necessarily match place boundaries.

Geography Network Explorer

Click on the "Explorer" box to generate your own maps using online GIS resources, including information from the United States NSDI (National Spatial Data Infrastructure) Geospatial Data Clearinghouse. The NSDI is a collection of over 100 spatial data servers that have digital geographic data primarily for use in GIS software. These data collections can be searched through a single interface based on their descriptions. Enter a place name, define your map theme, then click the search button to generate a map based on your criteria.

Directional Maps

How do we get there from here? Find out by using these online map makers. Type in one address to get your basic map. Type in a second to generate turn-by-turn directions to your destination.

Maps On Us

In return for a free registration, Maps On Us will draw you a map with whatever level of detail you choose. Because Maps On Us comes from, it allows you to search the Yellow Pages for an address, then plug it in to your map search.


MapBlast, by, was one of the first mapmakers on the Web. If you know the address, you can get a map and directions for over 200 countries, including the Slovak Republic. Also, search by U.S. airport codes.


This site is good if you are planning a road trip across the U.S., Canada, or Europe. No graphical maps for 2000-mile trips, but great turn-by-turn written directions. This site also offers maps for over 200 countries.

Yahoo! Maps

Yahoo! has engaged Navigation Technologies to power its mapping service. Yahoo! Maps can build maps based on addresses in several countries, including France, Germany, and Spain, as well as the U.S. and Canada. It can give directions for the U.S. and Canada. Caution: Navigation Technologies does not give the most practical routes from point A to point B. Be sure to double-check your directions on a paper map.

The free U.S. street maps are somewhat more detailed than those of Mapquest, MapBlast, and Yahoo! Maps. Use this site also for a physical or political rendering of the world. For $150, will provide your school with all kinds of maps of the U.S. and Canada.

Ordnance Survey Maps

Planning a trip to England? Visit this site from Britain's National Mapping Agency to download free road maps of Northern Ireland, England, Scotland, and Wales. Come here also for British historical and outline maps.

GORPs Trailfinder

In return for a free and quick registration, GORP (a.k.a. Great Outdoor Recreation Pages) allows users to search for trails by National Forest or city name. Sort trails by name or ease of transit. All trails are described in words: Many have maps attached to their descriptions. How Far Is It

Type the names of any two cities into the search boxes on this Indonesian travel site, and it will tell you the distance between them (as the crow flies) in miles, kilometers, and nautical miles (in case you will be swimming).

Instructional Maps

"War is God's way of teaching Americans geography," wrote Ambrose Bierce. It is so true. I have to admit that I myself had only a vague notion of where Afghanistan was before September 11. Here are some sites to help us all conquer our geographic ignorance.

Outline Maps

The Education Place from Houghton Mifflin offers this access to outline maps of the world (plus historical maps of the 13 colonies and the Lewis and Clark expedition, among others). Students and teachers, get your project maps here!

Perry-Castañeda Library Electronic Map Collection

The University of Texas at Austin brings us a selection of beautiful current and historic maps. Get maps of the world's hot spots, e.g., the Middle East, or view the latest map of the political world. This is an excellent resource!

National Atlas of the United States
of America

The U.S. Department of the Interior offers this map generator for the purpose of providing "a reliable summary of national-scale geographical information." After you find a map of the segment of the U.S. that you seek, you may then add overlays, or "layers," to view environmental and demographic information for the area.

The World Fact Book 2001

Trust the CIA to bring you the latest intelligence in cartography. These maps, originally designed to brief agents on their assignments, are now available to all. Go ahead. Grab yourself a current map of the Seychelles or Bosnia and Herzegovina.

Map Machine

National Geographic and ESRI bring you dynamic maps, atlas plates, and street maps. According to the site, "Each of the Map Machine's dynamic maps is created on the fly, according to your specifications. This is possible through a technology known as geographic information systems, or GIS." Very cool. Still, this site isn't great for finding directions. Use it for unique renderings to decorate school reports.

Search the world atlas or view larger-scale regional maps. Infoplease also offers additional geographical information for the U.S. and the world.

Earth and Moon Viewer

How does the Earth look from the moon right now? In topographic view? With its current cloud cover? Find out at John Walker's Earth and Moon Viewer. See our planet showing the day and night regions at this moment, or view the Earth from the sun, the moon, the night side of the Earth, above any location on the planet specified by latitude, longitude, and altitude, from a satellite in Earth orbit, or above various cities around the globe.

Earth Viewer

Paul Carlyle wrote this Earth Viewer, a new Java applet that shows the Earth illuminated by the sun for any day of the year, as well as in daily and seasonal animations. The Earth can be viewed as it appears from space, or as a flat map. Images are generated from actual satellite photos of the day-lit and nighttime Earth.

Historical Maps

We know what our world looks like now, but what did it look like then?

Map Collection: 1500-1999

The Library of Congress holds more than 4.5 million items, of which Map Collections represents only a small fraction. Search by keyword, or browse by place name, subject, creator, or title. Check out George Washington's map of his own farm!

David Rumsey Historical
Map Collection

Ooooo! Pretty, pretty! Search or browse this digital collection of nearly 6,500 old maps. They really knew how to decorate those things in the old days. The Rumsey collection focuses on rare 18th and 19th century North and South America cartographic history materials, although it also offers a few historic maps of the world, Europe, Asia, and Africa.

Old Maps

Old Maps offers access to Britain's most extensive digital historical map archive. Search by place name, gazetteer, address, or coordinates to find maps of England, mostly from the 19th century.

Topographic Maps

If perchance I walk or bike somewhere, I want to know if I'm going to get out of breath doing it. Elevation makes such a difference in the amount of effort involved! I can plan for slopes with a topographic map.


Search by place name, latitude and longitude, or UTM coordinates. Move around the map by clicking on the edges. Get your map for free, printed out in small, medium, or large. Or, order a custom laminated copy for $15.

Maptech MapServer

It's great to get these free topographic maps and even navigational charts of U.S. locations. You can save and customize your maps here, too.

Hazardous Maps

Can you actually tell how dangerous it is to live in a place? Sure, with these maps of hazards, both natural and man-made.

USGS National Seismic Hazard Mapping Project: Interactive Maps

Who in the contiguous U.S. over the next 50 years will most likely have their dishes knocked out of the cupboard by an earthquake? Find out by zooming in on this contour map of national earthquake hazards.

NOAA's Operational Significant Event Imagery (OSEI)

Want a bird's eye view of current natural disasters? Just click into NOAA's Operational Significant Event Imagery (OSEI) page. Fires in Mexico, snow in Iowa, or "black water" off the Florida Keys: If it happened today, you can see it here from above. Almost as if you were God.

EO Natural Hazards

NASA tracks fires, dust, smoke, severe storms, volcanoes, floods, and algal blooms worldwide with its satellites and makes the images available here.

National Landslide Overview Map of the United States

Are you in danger of waking up to a sliding hillside in your bedroom? Find out from this map, offered by the USGS.

World Atlas of Artificial
Night Sky Brightness

The Royal Astronomical Society and Istituto di Scienza e Tecnologia dell'Inquinamento Luminoso (ISTIL: Light Pollution Science and Technology Institute) of Thiene, Italy, brings you these images of the world lit up at night. View the world as a whole, or get close-ups of North America, Europe, West Asia, and Oceania, among others.

Earthshots: Satellite Images
of Environmental Change

Wherever there is environmental change, Earthshots from USGS (who else?) keeps track of it. See with your own eyes how drought has shrunk Lake Chad in West Africa. Experience the damage that the Khmer Rouge did to Cambodia by forcing its people to build irrigation ditches in a strict grid. Finally, view Mt. St. Helens from space in shots taken from 1973 to 1996.

Aerial Maps

Talk about a good view! You don't need a house on a cliff to enjoy these ultimate views of our planet.


Florida International University offers this easy-to-use front end for looking at USGS aerial shots of the U.S. Search by address or place name.


Microsoft adds value to these close-up satellite shots from USGS by linking them to topographic maps and home-buying information. Type in your U.S. address and see what your house looks like from space. The database can also be searched by type of place, e.g., rivers or airports; geographic coordinates, i.e., latitude and longitude; or decimal coordinates, featuring latitude and longitude with a floating decimal point. Data Services
and Applications

Click on "RESAC United States" to choose Landsat images of the Lower 48. Or, explore the rest of the world in beautiful satellite imagery.

NASA Earth Observatory

Our planet is gorgeous! Visit the Blue Marble section of the Earth Observatory [] to view its loveliness from space. From this point of view, it is hard to imagine why humans go to war. Check out the Visible Earth project here to view the globe with various data overlays related to atmosphere, ocean, land, energy, and life.

Extraterrestrial Maps

Moon Calendar

Paul Carlise wrote this Java-based Moon Calendar for elementary school students. It shows the phases of the Moon for each day of a selected month, from 3999 B.C. to 3999 A.D. Set the map in motion and watch the moon cycle through its phases.

Sky & Telescope's Interactive Sky Chart

Just enter the name of your town and time zone and the Java-based Interactive Sky Chart will paint you a picture of your sky at night. Constellations are included. From here, you may maximize the chart or have it formatted for printing. The site leaves a cookie on your computer so it can remember your location the next time you visit.

Just Scratched the Surface

Well, actually, I didn't scratch the surface at all. There are just too many map resources online to be able to dig too deep! I couldn't possibly cover them all. But this is a fair sampling, a good starting place.

These sites were all viable in April 2002. I hope they help you get where you need to be!

GIS: Maps That Help Industry and Government

GIS (Geographic Information Systems) is software that allows users to combine digital maps with layers of other information: street names, demographics, etc. The result is a graphical snapshot of situations and trends that can be very useful to planners of all kinds. Mark your calendar: GIS day is November 20, 2002.

GIS information is usually offered in digital data sets. Data sets from the U.S. government are generally free. There is also free software available to view and manipulate these data sets, although its functionality is limited. Here are some GIS resources.

ESRI: GIS Software

Redlands, California-based ESRI (Environmental Systems Research Institute), a private consulting firm working on land use analysis projects, specializes in GIS information and viewers. This is a place to get started learning about GIS.

Geography Network

The Geography Network is a portal for accessing geographic content, including live maps and data, from many of the world's leading providers. Use this site to learn how to find data, use it, and publish it on the Web.

This is another division of ESRI devoted to teaching GIS for use in all kinds of applications, even tracking flight-related noise at the Minneapolis-St. Paul International Airport!

Directions Magazine: Your GIS News Source

What's happening in the cool new world of GIS? Find out at this online 'zine. This excellent resource has lots of links to other GIS sites, too.

Irene E. McDermott's e-mail address is
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