Change is something we can always count on, but that doesn’t make it any easier, does it? Understanding why the change is happening, how it affects you personally, and what you can do to adapt, does. So, when FamilySearch announced the end of their long-standing microfilm lending program, I immediately sought out the key expert who can answer these questions for you.
FamilySearch’s Goal for Microfilm and the Family History Library
It seems like only yesterday I was interviewing Don R. Anderson, Director of the Family History Library about the future of the library and FamilySearch. Back then, in 2009, he made the startling statement that their goal was to digitize all of the microfilms in FamilySearch’s granite vault. (Click here to listen to that interview in my Family History: Genealogy Made Easy podcast episode 16.) Fast forward to today, and we see that in less than ten years that end goal is within sight. We are also seeing the ending of a service nearly every genealogist has tapped into at some point: the microfilm lending program. Family historians have been able to place orders for microfilm to be shipped to their local Family History Center where they could then scroll through the images in search of ancestors.
On August 31, 2017, this service comes to an end.
Fear of the Unknown
It’s sort of scary to see this come to an end before every last roll of microfilm has been digitized and put online (just head to social media to read some of the concerns). It’s definitely been comforting to know that the records you need are just an order form and two weeks away.
I have always found that being armed with information helps alleviate fear, and so upon hearing the news, I reached out to FamilySearch to arrange a special interview with Diane Loosle, Director of Patron Services at FamilySearch. In this special Genealogy Gems Podcast interview, we take the time to really comb through what the end of the microfilm lending program means for you, and what your options are for records access going forward. I’ve been anxious to get this information into your ears and hands, and have spent the entire weekend producing this episode and transcribing it for you.
The Interview: The End of the FamilySearch Microfilm Lending Program
Lisa: One of the constant challenges for genealogists is gaining access to genealogical records that they need for their particular family history research. I imagine that you’ve had that challenge yourself. Thankfully, since 1938 the FamilySearch organization has been microfilming records around the world. They’ve been making these records available through the Family History Library in Salt Lake City, and through a tremendous lending program with their Family History Centers located worldwide. And that may be where you’ve gotten your hands on a couple of microfilms and records over the years. But of course, as the Internet has been more accessible over the last two decades, this is changing the landscape of record access. So more and more we are gaining access to digitized records online, and this has led to a really big change in the long-standing microfilm lending program.
I’ve invited Diane Loosle, the Director of Patron Services Division at FamilySearch, to talk about the change that’s occurred, what it means for you, and what your record access options are going to be going forward. Diane, thanks so much for joining me today.
Diane: I’m so happy I could come, and thank you for inviting me.
The Reasons Microfilm Lending is Coming to an End
Lisa: I imagine that you’ve been very busy with the changes. I know that the last day of the microfilm ordering was August 31, 2017. And you know FamilySearch has been digitizing records for years, so we are going to be shifting from microfilm to digitization. Why is right now the time that the change is happening, where you’re actually discontinuing the physical microfilm lending?
Diane: This is such an exciting time Lisa. We’ve been looking forward to this day for many, many years because when you think about the fact that you can get access to these images immediately in your home, for the most part – there are some that you have to access through a center or library, but the majority are in your home – that’s pretty wonderful. And so we are moving to a place where all of our fulfillment for your needs for your records is going to be digital and that’s what this change is all about.
So the reason that it’s happening now is that, a couple of different reasons. First, we have moved through a lot of the microfilm and have had those digitized and they are up online. So it was a good point with that.
We’ve also seen a huge drop in the orders of microfilms. So there’s not very many being ordered now, so that kind of lined up.
And then also our supplier. We have a single supplier for vesicular microfilm, and I think that’s important to understand that we’re talking about a certain type of microfilm because we use that type to make the copies and send them out to you. We have a single supplier, and that supplier has been kind of raising prices and giving us the indication that they would rather not be in that business. And so with all those things together, and the fact that we would like to take the resources that we are currently using to duplicate films, and send them out, and ship them and all of that, we’d like to take those resources and move them towards bringing you more records digitally.
It seemed like the right time to make this decision to finally finish it. Now we do have some of the collection that has not been completed of course, and I think that’s what’s causing most people concern is, “What happens? Can I get access to that during this time that you are still finishing it off?”
Lisa: Exactly, and you know I have visited the distribution center for your lending program, and it was massive and it looked really complicated. And then when you add on the idea that the access to the actual film itself is changing.
I just got a camera from my uncle, and it’s got 25-year-old film in it. It took me all day to find a local store that could develop it for me!
So, it’s like a perfect storm of a lot of technological changes, which is exciting, because as you said we can access things from home.
Digitization and Publishing Limitations
I know that when it comes to the microfilm that you guys have, the goal has been to digitize all of it. But explain to folks what the limitations are in terms of, do you have the rights to lend it, do you have the rights to digitize and put up online everything that you have microfilmed?
Diane: Right. So we are always limited by the rights associated with the collections because the record custodians stipulate those when we do the agreements. And in microfilm, we’ve been circulating things. Our intention is to circulate digitally everything possible legally for us to do. And that’s the majority of the collection.
Now in the process of doing this, what’s happened over the years is that laws have changed around Data Privacy, particularly in Europe and some other locations around the world. And as we’re going through and reviewing all of these, you can imagine these thousands of contracts for this process, we’re discovering that there are some that because of the changes in the Data Privacy laws, they really should not have been continuing to circulate because of those changes.
So those would then in the future be restricted because of the Data Privacy issues. And those are usually very modern records, those that have living people in them.
So there will be a set of records that maybe you could have gotten on microfilm previously that you would not now be able to get digitally. But that’s because they shouldn’t have been in circulation anyway because of the data privacy changes. But for the most part, what we’re circulating microfilm-wise you will have access to digitally.
Now, about 20% of the collection you have to access through the Family History Library, or through a Family History Center or affiliate library because of the contracts we have. And that was also true with the microfilm of course, and now it’s true with the digital images as well, based on the contracts, so there will be a certain set that is in that category.
Family History Center Affiliates
Lisa: Help us understand what affiliate centers are.
Diane: Affiliates don’t have to return the film they have. Affiliates are usually public libraries or Family History Centers in an LDS chapel. Local leadership will decide. So if they keep them, you can still access them. And the Family History Library in Salt Lake City will maintain a large microfilm collection as well. Go to familysearch.org and in the right corner, you’ll find the Get Help link (and click Contact Us). Search by zip code for affiliates near you. They will appear on a map. Libraries have extended hours compared to Family History Centers.
The best way to find out where the films are still located, both physical and digital, is the FamilySearch Card Catalog. Many people aren’t that familiar with the card catalog. Look for the Camera icon, then click to go to the document image.
Lisa: Let’s dig into that a little bit. So we’re talking about, you mentioned the term “affiliate centers” and I know that there are some locations which aren’t technically affiliates. Can you help define that for us? How do we figure out, before we make the jaunt over to the local family history center if that’s one that actually can still have some of the microfilm. Help us sort that out.
Diane: So if you go to any center or affiliate library out there, and I’ll tell you how to find those in just a minutes, they can keep whatever film they already have on hand. There’s nothing that’s saying that they need to send it back. Now that is dependent on decisions made at the local level. So, you know, the leadership of either the affiliate library, which is normally in a public library, or a family history center which is often in an LDS chapel, the local leadership there will make a decision about, you know, the film and what happens to them in the future, but we’re not asking them to send them back. So you’ll still be able to access them. And the library here in Salt Lake will maintain a large microfilm collection as well. So, it will still be available that way.
Now the way that you find these locations is if you go into FamilySearch, up in the right-hand corner there’s a Get Help link, and the Get Help link lets you get in touch with us. And then you can search actually using your zip code to find which centers and affiliate libraries are near you, and both will appear on the map that appears. So, uhm, you can find out which ones are near your location.
The affiliates are, as I said, often public libraries, so they may have extended hours beyond what the family history center might have because the family history center is often as I said in a chapel and manned by volunteers. And so they may not have as many hours as your affiliate libraries may have.
How to Identify Where the Films are Located
Lisa: So whatever they may have had on hand when the lending program came to an end, they had the option to decide if they were going to hang onto it, or if they were going to send stuff back. There’s going to be some just at the Family History Library in Salt Lake City. Do we go into the card catalog to identify where the existing films are still located?
Diane: Yes, so the best way to find out what’s available both digitally and where the films might be physically located is through the FamilySearch Catalog on familysearch.org.So if you go to Search on FamilySearch, and then Catalog, you can look up your location, look up the records your interested in, and it will tell you where those can be found.
Now, if it’s available digitally, and actually most people I’ve talked to where they would have this concern about “oh goodness, I’m not going to have access to my films!”, when I’ve talked with them, and we’ve looked them up, their records were already available digitally, they just didn’t know it. So, if you go in the catalog and look it up where it lists the microfilm, there will be a little camera icon out to the right-hand side, and if you see that little camera icon, you can click on that and that takes you straight in to the digital images for that record.
Now we publish those, we do about digitize about 1,500 microfilms a day at the vault. And we publish those pretty immediately up on to the website through the catalog. You will not find those through the Historical Records part of FamilySearch under Search Records. They’re just through the catalog, so there’s a much larger collection available through the catalog than what you see in the Historical Records section.
How Films are Prioritized for Digitization
Lisa: When we get notifications, I know I get your press releases and such on the new records that are coming out, does that include those? Because we do publish every Friday kind of a run down for all of our listeners out there, what the newest records are that are coming online.
Diane: It does not currently. That publication only includes things that are published online in the Historical Records section of the website. However, with this change, we’re looking to change that so it will include those being published to the catalog. Now the challenge with that is the volume! Because 1,500 films a day is a lot.
And these films, because the way that we did this initially, we prioritized all of the films that had been ordered in the last five years to make sure that those were available digitally, so it’s been kind of piecemeal a little bit.
So, you might have two or three films in a full collection that have been digitized and the rest maybe not, at this point, and so trying to help you understand what is and is not available through that publication. We’re still working through the details. But the intention is, as we go forward, will be to prioritize filling in those collections where maybe one or two films have been digitized and the rest have not yet. We will go through and make sure the whole collection has been digitized. And then we are going to introduce a process where you will be able to let us know if there is a film that you absolutely need. You can let us know, and we will work that into our prioritization and try to get that to you as quickly as we can. You know if you think about how long it took to get a microfilm to be delivered to you once you ordered it, you can think about it’s kind of the same time frame when it might then be available to you digitally.
How to Request that a Microfilm be Digitized
Lisa: How could they be contacting you to make that kind of request?
Diane: We are working on that process right now, trying to finalize it. So there’s kind of two options we’re looking at at the moment: One, you would contact us through our support line, the Help Line. The other is that we would just have a form up that you would fill out. Now the form is going to take more time to get established and up. So we may go out of the gate with not as ideal of a process, but we want to make sure that we can let us know, so we’ll be clear about what that is as we get closer to September 1st.
Lisa: When we get into the catalog, have you already flagged which ones are going to have restrictions, they are just not going to be able to be digitized? Because I think some people might be thinking “Maybe I should just hold on and wait, over the next couple months maybe they’ll get to this one, I’ll put in a request.” But I imagine that’s going to be a big job if you have to go in and try to flag every single one that you know you’re not going to have the rights to digitize. Tell us how you’re going to deal with that.
Diane: Well, that has not occurred and would be pretty impossible to do at this stage, just because of the volume of what we’re dealing with trying to go through. We’re doing it as we go to digitize the films. And so, we discover it as we go, as opposed to knowing it ahead of time.
Lisa: So if they put in a request, you pull it out, go ‘OK well let’s look at doing this,’ and then realize, no, this one’s not going to be able to do it. Then at least they would get that information?
Diane: Yes, they would. Well, what would happen is we’re working on a way so that in the catalog you would be able to identify that. So for example, a request actually came from the community out there that we be able to distinguish if a record can be viewed in my home, or if I have to be at the facility to view it, or if there is some other restriction on it. And so, because of that feedback, we thought “So let’s see if we can figure out a way to help people understand that.” Now, these things probably won’t be ready right out of the gate. But we’re looking for ways to make it simpler for you to understand what the challenges are with the record that you’re trying to access.
Gaining Access to Microfilm and Some Restricted Digitized Records in Person
Lisa: Sure. So, if we’re looking online and we see a record, and it’s not been digitized yet, would we at this point, until you get more formalized processes going, would you still encourage people to get in touch with the Family History Library in Salt Lake City? What other options are they going to have to gain access?
Diane: So first what I would do is I would look, because we’ll maintain the film inventory, so we know where the films are located, so I would first look and see, is this film available somewhere near me? Or if I have an opportunity to come to the Family History Library, and the film is there, great. But, so first look and see if you can locate it, then you can let us know through the channels that we’ll have available to you what the film is, and then we’ll put it into the list to be prioritized to be digitized. But I would always encourage folks to look and see if they are located near where that film already is because that would be much quicker for them to get access to that.
Lisa: If Salt Lake City is the only place, then, of course, this really whittles down to the big fear of everybody, is “Oh that one film I’m going to need, it’s only going to be in Salt Lake City and I can’t get there.” What other kinds of options might a person like that have?
Diane: Well, so I think that there are some options available to them because we have a large group of professional researchers who come to the library every day, and those folks could probably be useful to you in looking up those records and getting copies of whatever is needed. So that’s one option that people could take to do that.
The majority of what we’ll have, I don’t think the case would be that the only place you can get it is the Family History Library. If we do have a fair number of collections that are in that category as we finish this process off, then we’ll look at ways to provide some access where we can. But that access would probably be in a digital way as well. So that would be my suggestion, that they reach out to those who are here every day and could take a look at that. And I think you know there are other websites where you can get access to professionals as well, or just good samaritans, you know, that want to help you out.
Lisa: Absolutely, and there are lots of those. Finally, are there any records that the people listening are going to completely lose access to?
Diane: The only ones that would be in that category is because of data privacy. So, if there was an issue with, you know, a law changed, that made it so that we could no longer provide access to those. But that would have been true in the microfilm world as well.
Lisa: Exactly. So really, it really doesn’t change in that respect. We’re not losing records, we’re changing up how we access them. And I think you’ve helped shed a lot of light on kind of what the process will be and it sounds like you have a big job ahead of you.
“We’re not losing records, we’re changing up how we access them.” Lisa Louise Cooke
Shifting Resources to Meet the Goal
Lisa: How quickly do you think it’s going to help once the lending process is let go of, that the resources start going to all of this other work now that you have to do on the digital side?
Diane: I think it will move pretty quickly for us to, you know, start to do more with the resources we have. For example, we’re collecting around three million images with three hundred camera crews out there, about a week. So, that’s a lot! And we want to shift a lot of resources. Another place we’d like to capture more is with Africa and the oral genealogies project that we have, and gain more access there. So, we’ll be shifting to those. And then, of course, the vault is moving at a pretty good clip already, with about 1,500 films a day, so I think we’ll be able to keep up pretty well with the demand that’s coming at us from people. But, we’ll evaluate that as we go, and determine if we need to boost up more there or not, to be able to move more quickly for folks.
Empowering Genealogists to Learn More
Lisa: Any other questions that I didn’t think about that you’ve been hearing online, in social media, that you’d love to give us some input on?
Diane: Well, we have had some questions from some of the affiliate libraries about how do they get the access? So that’s been happening online a little bit. And so we just want them to know that we’ll be reaching out to them via calling all of them actually, and helping them through this process of setting up the things that they need to technically to be able to get access to the images digitally. So that’s definitely something they should know.
The other thing is that we have a lot of people who don’t actually know how to use the catalog [laughs] because you know they’ve grown up in a search world, or looking at the historical records the browsable images, and a lot of people don’t understand that there’s a lot of different ways to access the records on FamilySearch. So you have Search, which is a very small percentage of the collection actually, compared to the whole, and then you have the Historical Records that are only browsable, and that you can go in and look at the images browsing, and then you have everything that’s been published through the catalog. So there’s kind of three places that they need to look. So I think that’s the biggest piece I’ve seen: people just don’t know. They’re not aware of where to find those things. And you know eventually, it will be nice, maybe when those things come together. But at this point in time, they’re separate. And that’s because we wanted to ensure that you would maintain access. If we could just publish them quickly and maintain access for you, that’s the best in our minds.
Lisa: Absolutely! Well, I know that Sunny Morton here at Genealogy Gems is going to be joining us in future episodes talking more about just those different areas. And I love the way that you kind of laid it out for us because I think a lot of people weren’t that familiar with the differences. And she’s going to be helping us get a little savvier in that ongoing research.
Diane, thank you so much for taking time to visit with me, and to answer some of the questions. I know that you know that the emotions that run high are only because people are so passionate about family history, and they are so appreciative of what FamilySearch has done. It’s been an amazing resource that you guys provide to the public for free, which is just absolutely invaluable. And I know that I have a lot of confidence in where you guys are going because you always are out there looking forward. How far out into the future you guys look and you plan for is just phenomenal! It’s not just about us accessing records, it’s going to be for generations to come, and I love the fact that you guys are really laying the groundwork for that.
Diane: Well, thank you, Lisa! We are all about getting you access to records so that you can find your ancestors, and we will always be about that. I’m glad that I could come and help people to understand what’s happening and hopefully be a little less concerned about the change. I know it’s difficult, but it’s a wonderful change too.
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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.
(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.
The Research Guide at the Library of Congress
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 Legendcreated 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.
New Irish genealogy records top this week’s list of noteworthy new family history collections online from around the globe. Also, find records for Austria, Brazil, France, Germany, Guatemala, Spain, Wales and the U.S. (FBI criminal files and collections for CO, ID,...
Click the video player to watch episode 54 of Elevenses with Lisa about the 1890 census and substitute records. Below you’ll find the detailed show notes with all the website links I mention. Premium Members will find the downloadable ad-free PDF cheat sheet of these show notes at the bottom of this page in the Resources section, along with my BONUS 1890 Census Gap Worksheet.
What Happened to the 1890 Census
The census shows us our ancestors grouped in families, making it a valuable resource for genealogy. Soon the 1950 census will be available, but for now the most current census publicly available in 1940. In it we may find, depending on our age, ourselves, our parents, our grandparents, and our great parents. In many cases it’s quick and rewarding to make your way back in time to the 1890 census which was taken starting June 1, 1890. And that’s where the trail hits a bump. In January 1921 a large fire broke out in the Commerce Building in Washington DC where the 1890 census records were stored, and most were destroyed as a result. Only 6,160 individual names remain in the remnants. (Learn more about the destruction of the 1890 census at the National Archives.)
Prior to the 1890 U.S. Federal Census, the last census taken was in 1880. With about 99% of the 1890 being destroyed as the result of the fire, this leaves a 20 year gap in the census (1880 – 1900.)
Much can happen in a span of twenty years. For example, your ancestors could have been born and reached adulthood. Filling in their timeline for this period requires a bit more effort, but the results are worth it.
In this video and article we’ll cover:
How to find the remaining fragments of the 1890 population enumeration
What you can learn from the 1890 census records
Lesser known 1890 census schedules that can still be found.
The best 1890 substitute records and how to find them.
Surviving 1890 Federal Census Population Schedules
A very small portion of the 1890 census has survived, but it’s more than just the population schedule. Here are the six types of records still available.
List of the locations covered by the surviving 1890 federal census:
Alabama: Perryville Beat No.11 (Perry County) and Severe Beat No.8 (Perry County)
District of Columbia: Q Street, 13th St., 14th St., R Street, Q Street, Corcoran St., 15th St., S Street, R Street, and Riggs Street, Johnson Avenue, and S Street
Georgia: Columbus (Muscogee County)
Illinois: Mound Township (McDonough County)
Minnesota: Rockford (Wright County)
New Jersey: Jersey City (Hudson County)
New York: Brookhaven Township (Suffolk County) and Eastchester (Westchester County)
North Carolina: South Point and River Bend Townships (Gaston County), Township No. 2 (Cleveland County)
Ohio: Cincinnati (Hamilton County) and Wayne Township (Clinton County)
South Dakota: Jefferson Township (Union County)
Texas: J.P. No. 6, Mountain Peak, Ovilla Precinct (Ellis County), Precinct No. 5 (Hood County), No. 6 and J.P. No. 7 (Rusk County), Trinity Town and Precinct No. 2 (Trinity County), and Kaufman (Kaufman County)
Questions Asked in the 1890 U.S. Federal Census The following questions were asked by the census taker:
Number of families in the house
Number of persons in the house
Number of persons in the family
Relationship to head of family
Race: white, black, mulatto, quadroon, octoroon, Chinese, Japanese, or Indian
Whether married during the year
Total children born to mother
Number of children living
Birthplace of parents
If foreign born, how many years in the United States
Naturalized or in the process of naturalization
Profession, trade, or occupation
Months unemployed during census year
Able to read and write
Speak English; if not, language or dialect spoken
Suffering from acute or chronic disease (if so, name of disease and length of time afflicted)
Defective in mind, sight, hearing, or speech
Crippled, maimed, or deformed (with name of defect)
Prisoner, convict, homeless child, or pauper
Home is rented or owned by the head or a member of the family
(if so, whether mortgaged)
Head of family a farmer, if he or a family member rented or owned the farm
If mortgaged, the post office address of the owner
2. Schedules for Union Soldiers & Widows
According to the National Archives, “The U.S. Pension Office requested this special enumeration to help Union veterans locate comrades to testify in pension claims and to determine the number of survivors and widows for pension legislation. (Some congressmen also thought it scientifically useful to know the effect of various types of military service upon veterans’ longevity.) To assist in the enumeration, the Pension Office prepared a list of veterans’ names and addresses from their files and from available military records held by the U.S. War Department.
Index and images of schedules enumerating Union veterans and widows of veterans of the Civil War for the states of Kentucky through Wyoming. Except for some miscellaneous returns, data for the states of Alabama through Kansas do not exist. Some returns include U.S. Naval Vessels and Navy Yards. The schedules are from Record Group 15, Records of the Veterans Administration and is NARA publication M123.
Nearly all of the schedules for the states of Alabama through Kansas and approximately half of those for Kentucky appear to have been destroyed before transfer of the remaining schedules to the National Archives in 1943.”
The 1890 Oklahoma Territorial Census lists people who lived in the Oklahoma Territory. The seven counties making up the Oklahoma Territory at the time are listed below. Note the number as they were often listed only by these number on the census.
One of the primary uses of the census by the government is to compile statistical reports using the data gathered. Many of these can be found online at places like Google Books.
The Delaware African American Schedule came about because of one of these statistical reports. According to the National Archives, in 1901 the Chief Statistician for Agriculture wrote a report about agriculture in the state of Delaware. Just before it was to be published, some of the conclusions reached in the report were disputed. The controversy centered around what was then referred to as “Negro” farmers. The results was that additional research was conducted in an effort to find all “Negro” farmers in the 1890 and 1900 Delaware census records. The dust up over the statistical report was fortunate indeed because these records are now available.
The list is roughly in alphabetical order according to surname and contains the following information:
Enumeration District (ED) Number
ED Description (locality and county)
5. Statistics of Lutheran Congregation & Statistical Information for the U.S.
These record collection offers limited usefulness because they don’t name people. However, if you have questions about Lutheran ancestors around 1890 or would like more contextual information about the time period, they might be worth a look.
Statistics of Lutheran Congregation reproduces a list of each Lutheran church or local organization compiled by the Census Office from information submitted by officials of the Lutheran officials.
How to find the records:
The National Archives – Contact the National Archives regarding National Archives Microfilm Publication M2073, Statistics of Congregations of Lutheran Synods, 1890 (1 roll). Records are arranged by synod, then state, then locality.
For each church or local organization, the following information is given in seven columns:
(1) town or city
(3) name of organization
(4) number or type of church edifice
(5) seating capacity
(6) value of church property
(7) number of members.
6. Statistical information for the entire United States
Statistical reports were compiled and analyzed by the Census Office after the 1890 census was completed. These massive statistical reports are available in National Archives Microfilm Publication T825, Publications of the Bureau of the Census.
Now that we’ve scoured every inch of available records remaining from the 1890 U.S. Federal Census, it’s time to go on the hunt for substitute records. We’ll be focusing on the best available and easiest to find resources.
1885 & 1895 State Census Records:
The U.S. federal government was not alone in taking the census. Some states also took their own state census. These were usually conducted in the years between the federal censuses, most commonly on the “5” such as 1875, and 1885. You may find some as far back as 1825 and as recent as 1925, as in the case of the state of New York.
How to find the records:
Look for state census records at state archives, state historical societies, and state libraries. Many are also conveniently searchable online, most commonly at FamilySearch (free) and Ancestry (subscription.)
Lisa’s Pro Tip: Get a Bit More with Mortality Schedules
Do you happen to have someone in your family tree who was alive and well in the 1880 census but nowhere to be found in the 1900 census? Official death records may not have been available during this time frame where they lived, compounding the problem.
The U.S. Federal Censuses from 1850-1880 included a mortality schedule counting the people who had died in the previous year. Since the 1880 census began on June 1, “previous year” means the 12 months preceding June 1, or June 1 (of the previous year) to May 31 (of the census year).
Ancestry has a database of these schedules which fall just before the 20 year time frame we are trying to fill. However, this collection also happens to include Mortality Schedules from three State Censuses: Colorado, Florida and Nebraska. There were conducted in 1885. They weren’t mandatory so there are only a few, but if you happen to be researching in one of these states, you just might get lucky.
While you’re searching, be aware that not all of the information recorded on the census is included in the searchable index. This means that it is important to view the image and don’t just rely on the indexed information.
Ancestry 1890 Census Substitute Database
Ancestry has compiled a special searchable collection of records that can be used to fill in the gaps left behind by the loss of the 1890 census. It includes state census collections, city directories, voter registrations and more.
Find More 1890 Census Substitute Records at Ancestry
This substitute collection is a tremendous help, but don’t stop there. You can also manually hunt for substitute records to see if there might be something helpful that is overlooked in the 1890 census substitute search. This works particularly well if you have a specific research question in mind.
You might be wondering, why would I need to search manually? Many people rely on Ancestry hints to alert them to applicable records, and they figure the search engine will find the rest.
This is a mistake for two reasons.
only approximately 10% of Ancestry® Records Appear as hints.
There may be a record that meets your needs that was not captured in the 1890 Census Substitute Collection. Try going directly to the Card Catalog and filtering to USA and then by decade such as 1890s.
FamilySearch 1890 Census Substitutes
While FamilySearch doesn’t have one massive substitute database, you can find several focused 1890 census substitute collections available online, at Family History Centers around the country and world, and in book form at the Family History Library in Salt Lake City.
How to find the records: 1. Go to FamilySearch 2. Log into your free account
3. In the menu go to Search > Catalog 4. Click Titles 5. Search for 1890 census substitute 6. If desired, filter down to records available or at a Family History Center near you.
City Directories as an 1890 Census Substitute
Some of the best and most comprehensive substitute records are city directories. If published in your ancestor’s area when they lived there, they can offer a year-by-year record. And that can do wonders for filling in the gap between the 1880 and 1800 census.
How to find the records:
You can find city directories at the big genealogy websites like Ancestry, MyHeritage and FamilySearch, as well as state archives, historical societies and libraries. Google searches also come in very handy in unearthing lesser known websites and repositories. Two of my favorite places to look that are both free and online are Google Books and Internet Archive.
Google Books Search for the state and county. On the results page click the Tools The first option in the drop-down menu will be Any View. Change it to Full View. The third option is Any Time. Click the down arrow and select Custom Range and set it to 1880 through 1890.
Episode 30: Lisa’s 10 surprising things to find at Google Books