Show Notes: Discover Sanborn Fire Insurance maps with Julie Stoner of the Geography and Map Division of the Library of Congress. Learn the best search strategies, how to download the Sanborn maps for free, and hidden online resources! Sanborn maps are an invaluable tool for family history because they provide an up-close look at the places where your ancestors lived.
Watch the Video:
(This interview has been minimally edited for clarity.)
Lisa: Today we’re talking about Sanborn fire insurance maps and how we can use them for genealogy. They’re available at the Library of Congress. Here to tell us more about that is Julie Stoner. She’s a reference specialist in the geography and map division of the Library of Congress.
Julie: Thanks so much, Lisa. Happy to be here.
I adore the Sanborn fire insurance maps because they give us such a unique perspective and view of our ancestors’ world.
What are Sanborn Fire Insurance Maps?
Start us off and tell us exactly what are Sanborn fire insurance maps?
Julie: The Sanborn fire insurance maps are a uniform series of large scale maps. They date starting from about 1867, though, they mainly start in the 1880s, and they run mostly through the 1950s. There are some from later dates as well.
It was a company started by a man named D.A. Sanborn. He was drawing these maps at a building level to sell to fire insurance companies so that they could then assess how much to charge people for the fire risk of their building. We use them for a lot more things today than they were originally intended for because they show the building level details of a city.
We have over 12,000 cities and towns represented. Some smaller towns may only have a few sheets. But the larger cities may have multiple volumes. They would go back and create a new map every 10 or 15 years or so. Therefore, you can really see how a city changed over time and how the buildings changed over time, and how a neighborhood was built. These maps can be used for all sorts of things now.
Lisa: I love the fact that they have such detail and are really unique. There really aren’t any other maps quite like these, are there?
Julie: It’s true. We do have other maps, like real estate atlases, and things like that of maybe a few cities, here and there, like Washington D.C. or New York. We have land ownership maps, but nothing of quite this scale or detail.
Sanborn Fire Insurance Maps Online Collection
Lisa: Let’s talk about the scale of the map collection. At the Library of Congress you have the physical map collection, and then there’s the collection that we can access online. Tell us a little bit about the scope of the collection? And does it vary whether we’re online or in person?
Julie: It does vary a bit because of copyright restrictions. As I said, we have about 12,000 different cities and towns represented, that equals over 700,000 map sheets. So, that’s a that’s a lot of sheets of maps. And a few years ago, the library, in conjunction with a third party, took on a project to scan all of the public domain Sanborn maps. Public domain means that there are no copyright restrictions on those maps. So that included anything published before 1922 at that point. Then anything published before 1964, in which the copyright wasn’t renewed. The library took on this project to scan all those, and those are completed and are all online on our website and can be downloaded.
That copyright date is now a rolling date. This means that there are now maps between 1923 and 1926 that are public domain that we haven’t scanned yet, and we are working to get those scan to get those online. And as soon as new maps come into the public domain, we hope to process them and upload those when that happens. So, a very large chunk of the Sanborn maps are online. But, if they are not, you can always come and see them in person as well, because we do have the physical copies.
Sanborn Map Resolution
Lisa: You mentioned that the part that the part of the collection that is in the public domain is available online. And they’re downloadable. Are those pretty high-resolution maps, so that we’ll be able to use those in our own genealogy projects?
Julie: For sure! They are definitely high resolution. The library scans them at the highest resolution that we can and so there’s actually a variety of files that you can download. We have JPEG images, which are a bit lower quality but are good for something like PowerPoints or computer screens. And then we have our TIFF files, which are the largest high-resolution files which have. These are a good size for printing.
Lisa: I know that the online collection, which I think most of our folks would be interested in accessing from home easily, is at the Library of Congress at the loc.gov website at https://www.loc.gov/collections/sanborn-maps. Tell us a little bit about what we’ll find there on the website.
Fire Insurance Map Research Guide at the Library of Congress
Julie: Sure, so that link that you said is a landing page for our digital images. Let’s start with the fire insurance map research guide that we have that is about our fire insurance maps in general, not just the Sandborn maps. There are a few other companies though Sanborn took those over in time. They became pretty much became the only one.
On the research guide page, there’s a large section on the left side of the page that says Sanborn Fire Insurance Company Maps. If you click on that, you will find a number of links to help you with your research of the Sanborn Fire Insurance Company maps.
How to Search for Sanborn Maps
I want to point out the easiest way to find the maps. Under the searching for Sanborn Maps tab you will see some information including a link to our Sanborn Fire Insurance Map Checklist. This is the easiest way to find the maps that you’re looking for. It will take you to our fire insurance map index. And this is the easiest way to search for maps.
It’s so large that it can be a little overwhelming. This checklist is taken from a 1981 publication produced by the library that lists all of the Sanborn maps that we have in our collection. While the library has the largest collection of Sanborn maps in the world, we do not claim to have every one ever made. We are missing some. For example, if you found a map at your historical society that is not on this list, it just means that we don’t have it in our physical collection. Not that it doesn’t exist.
You can search by state at the Map Index. If you click on U.S. from the drop-down menu, you’ll find all the states. Scroll through and pick your state. I live in Virginia and I was born here, so I will search for Virginia. I will then see a list of hyperlinks with all of the cities available with Sanborn maps in the collection. Scroll through here and click on the city of interest. For example, if you want to click on Richmond you will get the list of Richmond maps here at the library. It’s a table and on the far left side you will see the date of the volume. And then you will see the number of sheets in that volume. Other geographic areas included sometimes in larger cities. The Sanborn Map Company would pick some areas farther outside the city to include in that volume, perhaps a few sheets. You’ll see a column called Comments which is mostly about the physical binding of the maps your library. And then a column called Website. If you click on the website link it will take you to the digital images.
Why are there multiple dates on Sanborn maps?
And just one other note about the date. If you look at the date, sometimes it can look a little confusing because you’ll see two dates listed. For example, volume 1924 through April 1950. So what’s happening here is that starting in the mostly the 40s and 50s, the Sanborn Map Company, decided it was faster, instead of making an entirely new map to cut and paste over an old map. So, this 1924 date is the face of the map. The 1950 date is the last time that they updated it. So, it’s really showing a 1950 era Richmond, but they’re just using that base map of 1924.
Downloading Sanborn Fire Insurance Maps
When you click through to these digital images, we can download them. Click on an image and you will see in the center of the screen the map that you can scroll in and out of, and then at the bottom underneath the image, you’ll see the download link. You’ll find that there are several options for JPEG images, a GIF file, and then the high resolution tiff file. It’s pretty great. We’re very happy that a lot of these are now online for researchers to use from outside of Washington, DC.
What do the colors and symbols mean on Sanborn maps?
Lisa: And when you look at these maps, there’s a lot of detail. There’s color coding, and all kinds of markings. Do you have resources on the website to help people interpret the map?
Julie: Sure we do. The best method first is to look at the first page of a volume. If you zoom in you will see that there is a map key. It’s a box usually at the top or the bottom of the sheet. That is going to show you what the colors and the symbols in each volume mean.
Different cities have different unique characteristics, and the Sanborn Map Company would map those. So, not every map is going to have every symbol. The key at the front is a really good way to see what specifically applies to that volume.
For example, pink typically means brick. Yellow typically means it was made out of frame, or wood. Green can change. I’ve seen it as cement, I’ve seen it as special, not exactly sure sometimes what that means. The colors indicate the type of building materials, and then you will see what the hash marks or the circles or the x’s mean, in various buildings. There are a lot of abbreviations that the Sanborn Map Company uses as well. D typically stands for dwelling, S for store.
If you want to see an entire list of the symbols, we have a great resource back on our research guides page. Go back to the research guide to the Interpreting Sanborn Maps section on the left. That’s going to tell you a lot more about the colors, the symbols, things like that.
If you go to the Internet Resources, under Websites, there’s a list called Sanborn Map Abbreviations and Legend created by Environmental Data Resources, who are the copyright holders of the Sanborn maps. They’ve created this great PDF that shows the most common abbreviations and symbols used to the Sanborn fire insurance maps. It’s pretty comprehensive.
Sanborn Fire Insurance Map Search Strategies
Lisa: That’s a fantastic resource! If we do the search and we don’t see the town that we have in mind in that list, is there another way or any other way to search to figure out if it is part of a bigger map? Perhaps it’s just too small of a town to have its own map?
Julie: That’s a great question. If it’s a really small town and you don’t see it on the list, the other thing you can do is search back on the index page. The main index page under the full text field. For example, there might be a few sheets of a smaller town on a bigger city. You can search for that in the all full text fields. That will search the other geographic location that we saw, like in Richmond. So say if we typed in Manchester, and we did a search for that. You would see that it’s here as well under Richmond, as well as its own city. So, you can see that maybe it had earlier sheets here in Richmond. If you don’t find it in the search, and you don’t find it in the search fields, and if you don’t find it in the list, then it’s likely that one was not made at that town. Unfortunately that does happen. A lot of small cities and towns just don’t have them sometimes.
Searching for counties and regions in Sanborn maps
Lisa: Well, that brings up another question. Are these always sorted by town or city? Or might we even see a county or even some other kind of regional area described in a map?
Julie: That’s a great question. You do sometimes see counties, I can think of an example off the top my head if you go to California, for example. If you scroll down to Los Angeles, you’re going to see that you have the city of Los Angeles, but then you also have Los Angeles County. That’s going to cover some of the county areas that are outside of the city itself. Typically they’re covering things like factories or industrial areas, or things of that nature, but you never quite know.
Another example would be in New Jersey. If you go to New Jersey, and scroll down to New Jersey coast which includes several different seaside towns. This would be an example of when you might want to do the full text search if you didn’t find it in the list. For example, New Jersey Coast includes Longbranch, and Monmouth Beach, etc. All of these volumes are kind of scattered down the coast.
I like to say that, for every rule for Sanborn maps, there’s an exception. It would be worth perusing that list just to see what other gems are out there are maybe very close by areas that would be worth taking a look at, even if we do find our cities listed or in a search.
The Sanborn Fire Insurance Map Index
Lisa: I can imagine there was a lot of effort that went into the indexing part of this collection, just getting all these cities and counties and everything listed. Was that work that the Library of Congress had to do? Or was that given to you by the company who now owns the copyright on Sanborn? And does it include anything besides a geographic place such as for example, any map with a saloon or any map with a particular feature?
Julie: That would be pretty amazing! Unfortunately, no, we don’t have anything that would list every saloon ever found, though, if somebody wanted to do that project, we’d be happy to take that.
This list was created by the Library of Congress in 1981, and we’ve added to it as we gained new material. The library is always looking for Sanborn maps that we don’t have in our collection. And when we find them, we do try and acquire them and then add them to our index. So, this particular list was created by staff at the library in 1981.
Lisa: What made me think of that question was I know that the David Rumsey collection out at Stanford is now working with and experimenting with a special type of OCR to pull that kind of text off maps. It’s amazing to see what technology might be able to do for us in the future.
Sanborn Map GIS Project
Julie: It is amazing what technology could do. And you’re right, there is a great project going on right now called machine reading maps that is experimenting with pulling the text out of the Sanborn maps to then create new products out of that.
We also have a new GIS project. GIS is geographic, geographic information systems. It’s basically putting information on a map so that you can see it and comprehend it at a glance.
One of the problems that we were having with our Sanborn maps, especially for our very large cities, like New York, LA, Chicago, is that there are so many volumes covering that city, and people would want to know where their exact address was. Well, there are, let’s say, seven or eight volumes of New York City. Which volume includes that address, right? So, we’ve created what we’re calling the Sanborn Atlas Volume Finder. You can find the link on our resource guide page. Click the link and you will see a map of the country. It’s going to pinpoint our current volume blinders.
We are hopefully going to be making more as we go. But basically, the first map is an index of what we have. Tight now we just have Los Angeles, Chicago and Detroit. We’re working on getting Washington DC and New York City out.
But say, for example, you’re interested in a map of Detroit, or an address in Detroit. If you click on Detroit on the pink pin, you can then click on the Sanborn volume finder. That’s going to take you to the Detroit map. It’s going to show you exactly what areas are covered in Detroit. It’s going to show you the extent of the Sanborn maps for the different years that it was mapped in Detroit.
If you look on the left side of the screen you’ll see the legend. This is a range of years for each set of maps that was created. You might see 1884 to 1896 and then 1897 to 1899. You can click the years on and off. So, if you just wanted to know the earliest maps of Detroit, you can see where it was mapped. And you can enter your address in the upper right corner of the screen. That’s going to pinpoint for you the address. Then when you click on it, it’ll tell you the volume where you’ll find the map, and a link that’ll take you to the digital images. So you don’t have to guess which volume your address is in anymore. It will tell you whether the digital images are available, or if the map is not available online, you can contact us to learn more about it.
Lisa: What an amazing tool. It’s exciting to think that will continue to expand particularly for these really big cities where like you said it, it’s like a needle in a haystack with the addresses.
Julie: Yes, there are a lot of volumes for some of these cities. It can be really difficult without expert knowledge how to find your address. We feel like this is really going to help researchers in diving deeper into the Sanborn maps and really finding what they’re looking for.
Accessing Offline Sanborn Fire Insurance Maps
Lisa: You mentioned that sometimes you’re going to see that it is not available online. That might be a copyright issue or something else. Explain to us a little bit about what our options are for getting access to a map that might only be available in person the Library of Congress. How might we go about the in person visit, or making a request online to get a copy?
Julie: It’s the geography and map division policy that we will not scan or send items that are possibly under copyright protection. In the case of the Sanborn maps, if they were renewed or after 1964 then they are copyrighted, so we can’t send those electronically to you. You can make an in person visit to the Library of Congress reading room. We’re open Monday to Friday 8:30 to 5:00, and we will pull out anything you want to see.
Another option is that these volumes have all been scanned in black and white by ProQuest, a subscription database. Those are all scanned in black and white. A lot of universities and public libraries subscribe to the ProQuest database. Go to your public library and ask if they subscribe to the ProQuest database. If they do, you can see them there, and you can download them. However, those are black and white, so that’s a little bit not as helpful sometimes if you’re looking for building construction, and things like that.
There is also on our research guide page, under Internet Resources a link called the Union List of Sanborn Maps. This is a list compiled by the University of California at Berkeley of other institutions that have Sanborn maps other than the Library of Congress. So if, for example, you are in California, and you can’t make it to the library, you can see if other institutions also have those physical copies that you could go to that institution to see.
Lisa: I’m familiar with ProQuest. Do you happen to know, is there one place where you can look up and see which libraries subscribed to ProQuest? Or is that just too much to ask?
Julie: I think you would have to do that individually by library. I’ve never seen a master list. But I find that librarians are usually very helpful people. So, if you called your local library or university library, I’m sure librarians there could tell you help you track it down.
The Growth of the Sanborn Map Collection
Lisa: So it this indeed a growing database? And do you continue to get both stuff that can go online as well as maps that will just be available in person?
Julie: We are always looking for maps that we don’t have here in our collection. Usually, most of those are going to be more recent, like 1950s, 1960s and 1970s maps. The library gained most of our early collection from copyright deposit. It used to be that you had to send in a physical copy of something for to get it copyrighted and that’s how our collection was built. We are still always looking for new updated ones that we don’t have. It is a growing collection. I wouldn’t say that we’re receiving them every day or anything. But when we do find them, and we do like to acquire them.
Final Thoughts on Sanborn Maps
Lisa: Wonderful. Well, before I let you go, you are the guru when it comes to the Sanborn Fire Insurance Maps over at the Library of Congress. Anything else that we should really know about, or look for as we’re working with these Sanborn maps?
Julie: That’s a good question. First, I want to say that we always welcome questions to our division. On the left of the research guide, or on our main library of congress homepage, there’s a link that says Ask a Librarian, and you’re welcome to send us any questions that you have, that we haven’t answered on our research guide, or that you’re confused about. We’re always happy to answer questions.
The Sanborn maps are a fantastic resource for doing genealogy, for finding out more about the town you lived in, and the buildings that were there, and the types of buildings. A lot of the buildings will say what was in them, for example, a candy shop or a hat shop or whatnot. So, they’re a great resource to just find out more about the town. There’s always more to learn about them. I’m still learning about things that I didn’t know about Sanborn maps, years later.
Lisa: Julie, thank you so much for coming and sharing this terrific collection, and giving us such a unique view of the places where our ancestors may have lived. I’m sure you’ll be getting many inquiries through Ask the Librarian.
Julie: Yeah, dive in, reach out. We’re here to help.
Lisa: thank you so much for joining us here today.
Julie: My pleasure. Thank you.
Citing Sanborn Maps
Julie: The Library simply requests an attribution to the Library and the Geography and Map Division when publishing material from its collections, the format of the citation is up to you.
Show Notes: WorldCat.org just got a facelift. That means it’s time to revisit this library catalog website and do these 5 important things so you can effectively use it for your genealogy research.
Video Premiere with Live Chat
Watch Live: Thursday, Spetember 8 at 11:00 am CT
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Three ways to watch:
- Video Player (Live) – Watch the video premiere at the appointed time in the video player above.
- On YouTube (Live) – Click the Watch on YouTube button to watch the YouTube premiere with Live Chat at the appointed time above at the Genealogy Gems YouTube channel. Log into YouTube with your free Google account to participate in the live chat.
- Video Player above (Replay) – Available immediately after the live premiere ends.
Show Notes: WorldCat
If you are interested in finding out more about your family history and you want to build out your family tree, you are going to need records and resources. That’s exactly what the WorldCat website provides.
WorldCat.org is a free website that provides access through its card catalog to millions of materials from libraries around the world. You’ll find items such as:
- United States Civil War and other military records
- Family Bibles, church histories, and records
- Publications such as directories, handbooks, and magazines
- Birth, marriage, death, wills, and obituary indexes
- Microfilmed genealogy and local history collections
- Newspapers from around the world
- Town histories
- probate records
It’s important to keep in mind that not all libraries participate in WorldCat, and they can participate at different levels. Therefore, you’ll find different amounts of information about these different repositories.
The WorldCat website has received a facelift and now sports a new user interface, making it a great time to get reacquainted with this rich resource. Here are five things you should do right now to take advantage of WorldCat:
#1 Sign up for a free account or transfer your existing account.
To use all the features at WorldCat that we will be discussing you’ll need to have a free user account.
To create your WorldCat account, click the Create an Account link and follow the prompts.
If you already have a WorldCat account you will need to transfer it. Click the Sign In link and follow the prompts for transferring. You can transfer your favorited libraries and lists. However, because of the new website, the following data will not be transferred: profile picture, reviews, saved searches, watched lists, interests, and tags.
Transferring can take quite a while. Leave your browser open until it completes. In fact, when I transferred it never showed complete, so after about an hour I refreshed the page and attempted to sign in again. I was prompted to create a new password, which I did, and was then able to access my account and my transferred data did appear.
Sign into your account whenever you visit the site so that you can take advantages of the many features offered, including our next item, Lists.
#2 Create and Search Lists
Lists are a great way to organize the wide range of resources you can find through WorldCat. I like to create lists for surname and subject research.
How to Create a WorldCat List:
- After you run a search you will receive a list of results. Click the List (bookmark) icon on any item
- The add Item to List box will appear. In this box you can add the item to an existing list or click the Create List button to create a new list.
- Name the list, enter a description and indicate whether it is public or private.
- Click the Create button to save the list.
You can find all your lists by clicking on your account icon (upper right corner on desktop) and select My Lists
In addition to creating your own lists, you can search the public lists of other WorldCat users. Click Lists in the menu to browser popular lists. To search for a list by keyword, go to the search bar and select Lists from the drop-down menu, and search by keyword. When you find a helpful list, click the Follow button.
You can have up to 50 lists with up to 500 items.
#3 Discover Libraries
The best way to discover libraries near you is to add your location. Click the Update Location icon just under your account profile icon. Enter your town or zip code and libraries will be prioritized based on their proximity to you. If you’re going on a research trip, try changing the location to the zip code of the place you are traveling to, and then search for libraries and materials.
To browse libraries near you click Libraries in the menu. Add libraries to your list of favorite libraries by clicking the star icon on the library entry.
You can find your list of favorite libraries by going to the account icon and selecting Favorite Libraries.
#4 Use the Advanced Search Feature
The best way to search for items is to use the Advanced Search feature from the beginning. Click the Advanced Search icon to the right of the search box. (See image below)
Start your search by selecting the type of thing you want to search from the first drop-down menu. For example, select Keyword and then type a word (such as a surname) in the field next to it. To the right of the field, select what you want done with that keyword, AND, OR, or NOT. This will include, exclude or make the keyword options. Then go to the next line and do the same thing. You can set up to three parameters.
Next add a year range if desired. For example, 1900 to 1950. Then select the type of materials you want in the results by clicking Format. For example, you could leave it on All Formats to receive all types of materials or select just Newspapers.
You can also narrow your search by language. Once you’ve made all your selections, click the Search button.
On the results page you have the option to adjust the filters in the left-hand column.
#5 Search Name Variations
As you search for family surnames, it’s important to understand that it will not automatically search for name variations. Either search for variations in separate searches or use the Advanced Search using the OR or the AND feature. (See example below)
More strategies for getting great search results at WorldCat
Search for family names by entering the family name followed by the word “family” (e.g., “Mansfield family”)
Search for specific people by entering the person’s full name (e.g., “Emily Mansfield”)
Search for organizations by entering terms to describe the organization (e.g., “Lutheran”)
Search for geographic locations by placing name in combination with the abbreviated and full state name (e.g., “Union City IN” and “Union City Indiana”)
You can then narrow your search by returning to the main search page and entering more specific search terms such as “Mansfield family bible”.
Include multiple search terms in one search (e.g., “Lutheran” and “Union City IN”)
Final Thoughts on the New WorldCat
Like with any change to a website, the new WorldCat takes a little getting used to, and there are a few bugs that still need to be worked out. However, by doing these 5 things you’ll have access to millions of rich resources that can help you climb your family tree.
Elevenses with Lisa monthly LIVE show exclusively for Premium Members! In this Premium episode get inspired to finally organize your heirlooms and gather their stories for generations to come. This live show includes a very special guest appearance by a Premium Member who will share her heirloom project, heirlooms, and stories! Premium Members can join me for the live show on September 1, 2022 at 11 am Central and join in the live chat.
Watch Live: Thursday, September 1, 2022 at 11:00 am CT
(calculate your time zone)
Two ways to watch:
- Video Player (Live) – Watch the live show at the appointed time in the video player above. Click the “Watch on YouTube” button on the video player to watch on YouTube and participate in the live chat.
- Video Player above (Replay) – Available immediately after the live show. Join the conversation in the Comments section at the bottom of this page.
Live Chat: click “Watch on YouTube” to participate in the live chat on 9/1/22 at 11 am CT.
Dana Van Wormer Schreder, Premium Member
Lisa: What motivated you to take the time to create your heirloom catalogue?
Dana: I have 2 sons who do eyerolls when I bring up genealogy, so I was concerned about my treasures getting pitched after my death. That was my motivation. I assembled the printed sheets into a binder by category so family could zero in on their interest and then I held my breath. My heart was made happy. I saw folks going through the binder and reading the backstories of the heirlooms and connecting with them. I asked them to jot their name on any page they were interested in inheriting. They did! It was knowing the stories that made the magic.
1. Download and Customize the Template
Download the Heirloom Template
This updated Heirloom Template is a Word document. It’s easy to customize. Page 1 provides blank spots to write, making it easy to add more images, or resize the box provided for an image. Page 2 includes lines for writing and a large box for an image. You can delete either version and then use the one you prefer.
You can duplicate the page that you decided to use so that all your pages are in one document. To do this, go to Insert in the Word menu and click Blank Page. Highlight and copy the template content from page 1 and paste it onto page 2, and repeat. The final result can also be saved as a PDF.
Dana said she placed all of her pages in a binder and took it to her family reunion. That’s the perfect place to collect more stories! You’ll also find a page to collect memories of the heirloom from other family members. In a binder, the heirloom page could be placed on the left side and the memories page on the right side. You can use the first page as a cover if you have a “view binder” that allows you to slide a sheet in as the front cover.
2. Photograph Your Heirlooms
You can simply take photos of the objects with your camera. The Shotbox will give you a much more professional look that makes your heirloom look its best.
Dana said she uploaded her photos to Google Photos. I use Dropbox and save to dedicated folders. There are many cloud sharing options to get the photos to your computer so that you can easily add them to the template.
3. Gather History
Add what you know about the history of the item to the form. Consider leaving a little space or a blank page between items in your Heirloom Catalog to allow room for others to add their memories.
Use Google Lens to help identify objects, learn more about their monetary value, and the general history of the item. Google Lens is built into the free Google app, available in your app store.
Watch the video: How to Use Google Lens
4. Assemble the Heirloom Catalog Binder
After customizing and completing the pages, print your document. 3-hole punch the pages and place them in a 3-ring view binder. This will make it easy to add or subtract pages over time.