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More digitized versions of 'irreplaceable' map collection available

SALT LAKE CITY— The University of Utah’s J. Willard Marriott Library recently announced a 77 percent increase to its collection of digital historical maps documenting the development of 26 Utah cities.

The library's Sanborn Fire Insurance Co. collection now includes 1,950 maps. After copyright restrictions were lifted, the university was able to digitize maps through 1963, an additional 850 maps.

“The beauty of the Sanborn maps is that they tell you ... really rich data and information,” said David Rencher, chief genealogical officer for The LDS Church's FamilySearch.

Originally created to provide detailed information for fire insurance companies, the Sanborn maps include building addresses, street names, the number of stories in each building, the material a building is made out of, the buildings' use and even the right of way on the road the structure sits on. The maps also provide a building “footprint” — the shape and orientation of the building on its lot.

There are more than 1.2 million archived maps detailing the history of approximately 12,000 cities across the nation between 1867 to 1970, according to the D.A. Sanborn website. To this day, the company is still known mostly for these detailed, colorful and sometimes hand-drawn maps. According to Walter Jones, assistant head of special collections and head of Western Americana at the library, the original volumes of large maps (sometimes two or three feet long) can weigh up to 40 pounds.

There are a number of reason the Sanborn maps were digitized.

“I really love the paper side, however I do think that having these digitally is a great idea from the preservation view as well as the access point of view,” said Heidi Brett, public relations specialist for the library.

Even with protective covers, documents that old are difficult to preserve. Jones is particularly happy about the digitization because patrons kept coming in, flipping through the books and reshelving them despite being asked not to. Books were getting moved and lost all the time.

“They’re irreplaceable,” Jones said.

“From the technical end, we have long seen that the Sanborn maps have been one of our top three most visited digital collections,” said John Herbert, head of digital technologies at the library. With the collection now offering 1,100 maps, people will have even greater and easier access to this information.

The maps are used by historians, developers and for zoning and emergency planning. They’re also a particular treasure to genealogists.

“There’s so much you can add to a picture of an ancestor,” Rencher said, discussing the use of Sanborn maps. For example, he said, people can use some of the information they have gathered in family history research, pull up the map of the area and discover, “Oh, she was truly the girl next door.”

Rencher can’t wait to use the maps himself and called them “another arrow in the quiver” for genealogists in the area.

Histories of cities and buildings also come to life by way of the Sanborn maps.

“I love to look at the maps to find Chinese vegetable gardens in Salt Lake City,” said Jones, pointing out where the gardens used to be near 300 South and 200 West in the late 1800s.

“Even people that don’t have an interest in following their family may decide they want to follow the history of their house,” said Rick Sayre, a certified genealogist from Springfield, Va. Sayre teaches about the Sanborn maps all over the nation, including at the Salt Lake Institute of Genealogy.

Herbert said the maps are “aesthetically pleasing” because of their color-coding. Kenning Arlitsch, former head of the digital technologies at the time of the university’s first release of digital maps in 2002, said that to his knowledge, it was the first digital Sanborn collection in full color, staying true to the colorful paper maps.

Other digital copies of the maps were made available beginning in the late '90s. But The Library of Congress hasn’t digitized any Utah maps, and ProQuest Information and Learning’s collection is black and white and requires a subscription.

The university's collection offers an easy and free way to access the maps. And while smaller digital collections are available in Utah through organizations like the Utah Historical Society, Jones said, “We have the premiere collection.”

Whether it’s to aid in locating ancestors or to simply bring history to life, the Sanborn maps are a good source, he explained.

“They are significant, beautiful and accessible,” Jones said.

“You really ought to check them out. There’s a gold mine of information for a family historian,” Sayre said.

The collection can be found through the library's website