Cartographic Heritage into the Digital

Cartoheritage and Topographic Mapping

5611.2 - Minding the Gap: Cultural Resources and The National Map

Wednesday, July 5
3:10 PM - 3:30 PM
Location: Hoover

Since its founding in 1879 under the U.S. Department of the Interior, the United States Geological Survey (USGS) has had a wide range of responsibilities from hydrographic studies to mineral resource mapping to paleontological surveys. With new presidents elected and new secretaries in charge, the USGS has shifted and refined its priorities many times since its inception, adjusting to meet the demands of a country at war, economic crises, natural disasters and more. The USGS has, however, maintained its responsibility for mapping the United States throughout its tenure.

A thorough review of the history of the USGS, and related entities such as the Board on Geographic Names (BGN) and the Geographic Names Information System (GNIS), reveals vast bureaucratic intricacies with regarding to mapping, geographic naming and data collection in the U.S. that have persisted for over a century. The complex, reciprocal processes employed by the USGS, the BGN and the GNIS to create maps, and to collect digital naming data over the last 130 years, has created unintended gaps in knowledge that are exacerbated by the agency’s switch to geospatial information systems.

The USGS’s National Geospatial Program provides comparable – but not equivalent – data digitally through The National Map (TNM), which it describes as" a set of basic geospatial information provided as a variety of products and services” (USGS 2011). Notably, much of the landscape and cultural resources information shown on the familiar paper-based topo maps – some updated as recently as 2006 – was not digitized to be included in the TNM’s geographical information system. Instead, these documents, now called Historical Topographic Maps, are readily available only as static, geo-referenced images via discrete viewing systems. In contrast, TNM provides topography, boundaries, hydrography, land cover, orthoimagery, and transportation information as digital, attributable, data and is accessible online through several viewers.

Thus, because TNM does not include the data physically collected for the USGS Historical Topographic maps, the transition from paper-based information to digital data has created a significant gap – an important difference – between the “old” and “new” maps. The GIS-based National Map is parallel but not equivalent to earlier USGS paper maps, particularly with regard to cultural and landscape information. Review of the USGS website and relevant journal articles shows that this gap has not been clearly articulated to the public or the academic community. This paper investigates this issue in detail, considering both its causes and potential effects.

Elisabeth Orr

Assistant Professor of Landscape Architecture
West Virginia University

Lisa Orr, a licensed landscape architect, received her MLA from the University of California, Berkeley in 2002. She has practiced landscape architecture and planning in California, Pennsylvania and West Virginia for 15 years and is Owner/Principal of Radish Studio, a landscape architecture practice in Pittsburgh, PA. A native of West Virginia, Lisa joined the Landscape Architecture Program faculty at West Virginia University in 2012. Relying heavily on historic maps, her research investigates cultural landscapes in Appalachia, particularly cemeteries. Through the lens of cultural landscape analysis, her work reveals, interprets and supports the preservation of the region’s cultural resources.


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Nathan B. Piekielek

Geospatial Services Librarian
The Pennsylvania State University

Nathan Piekielek, (Ph.D.) is the Geospatial Services Librarian at Penn State where he supports the spatial research and teaching activities of all disciplines and units at the university. In addition to providing research consultation services upon request, he builds, maintains, and manages an extensive print map and digital geospatial data collection. He has a largely quantitative background in geographic information systems, remote sensing, and conservation ecology and is interested in how this expertise can be applied to contemporary challenges faced by academic libraries, like the large-scale conversion of print maps and historic aerial photographs to web-accessible, open source, high-quality digital geospatial data products.


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5611.2 - Minding the Gap: Cultural Resources and The National Map


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