Skip to Main Content

Maps And GIS: Home

Why Use Maps and GIS?

Maps are not just a way to locate a place you want to visit or find the best best from one location to another. Maps can be a great way to present information and to tell a story with data. This guide will give provide information on how to read maps, find maps to meet your needs, and provide resources for creating your own maps.

Understanding Maps and Map Features

Although maps can provide an easy way to locate places on the Earth, or elsewhere, to fully understand what is being presented in a map and determine if the map is the right one for your needs, it is helpful to understand a few concept about how maps are made and how the represent the area that they incorporate.

A map projection is used to portray all or part of the round Earth on a flat surface, which cannot be done without some distortion. Mapmakers have devised a number of ways to project the image of the globe onto paper.

Every flat map misrepresents the surface of the Earth in some way. No map can rival a globe in truly representing the surface of the entire Earth. However, a map or parts of a map can show one or more — but never all — of the following: True directions. True distances. True areas. True shapes.

The degree and kinds of distortion vary with the projection used in making a map of a particular area. Some projections are suited for mapping large areas that are mainly north-south in extent, others for large areas that are mainly east-west in extent, and still others for large areas that are oblique to the Equator. The mapmaker must select the projection best suited to a specific map.

The following resources will help you visualize how the roughly spherical Earth is projected onto a flat plane to make a map:

Projection Wizard:

Esri Map Projections page:

Scale is the relationship between distance on the map and distance on the ground. A map scale usually is given as a fraction or a ratio such as 1/10,000 or 1:10,000which means 1 unit of measurement on the map—1 inch or 1 centimeter—represents 10,000 of the same units on the ground. If the scale were 1:63,360, then 1 inch on the map would represent 63,360 inches, or 1 mile, on the ground (63,360 inches divided by 12 inches equals 5,280 feet, or 1 mile). The first number (map distance) is always 1. The second number (ground distance) is different for each scale; the larger the second number is, the smaller the scale of the map.

An information sheet from the U.S. Geological Survey gives more detail on scale.

Aerial maps are produced using aerial photography or remote sensing satelite imagery.

Climate maps give information about the climate and precipitation of a region, often by using colors to show climate or precipitation zones.

Economic maps feature economic activity in an area. Symbols may be used to show the locations or extent of economic activities.

Geologic maps show the distribution of geologic features, including different kinds of rocks and faults, usually printed on top of a regular map (called a base map). The geology is represented by colors, lines, and special symbols unique to geologic maps. The USGS has information on colors and symbols used on geologic maps.

Historic maps are useful to historians, environmentalists, genealogists, and others interested in researching the background of a particular area.

Hydrologic maps show water-resources information, such as depth to ground water, floods, irrigated acreage, aquifers, water availability, surface-water discharge, chemical or mineral content of water, surface impoundments, and water temperature.

Physical maps illustrate the physical features of an area, such as the mountains, rivers and lakes. Colors may be used to show relief-differences in land elevations. 

Political maps indicate state and national boundaries and capital and major cities.

Resource maps show natural resources in an area, often using symbols or colors to show the locations of natural resources.

Road or highway maps show highways and roads, cities, and often other points of interest in an area.

Satellite image maps are multicolor or black-and-white photograph-like maps made from data collected by Earth resources satellites.

Shaded-relief maps accentuate physiographic features of special interest using relief shading that simulates the appearance of sunlight and shadows on the terrain and creates the illusion of three-dimensional topography.

Thematic maps feature special subjects such as population, temperature, soils, hazards, vegetation, etc.

Topographic maps show the topography (shape and elevation) and features of an area on the earth's surface, using contour lines and symbols. See the USGS webpage Topographic Map Symbols for more information.

GIS (Geographic Information Systems)

Geographic Information Systems (GIS) are systems that are used to manage and visualize data. A GIS can be used to relate data to a location or geographic area, such as where different species of animals are found within a particular country or survey responses of people in the different neighborhoods of a city.  GIS programs often have dozens to hundreds of different tools and functions to help the user visualize the desired information on a map.  Maps generated can be used strictly for data organization or can be made into publication-quality documents for display.  GIS-based data is used across many fields from public health to commerce to scientific and academic disciplines, or anywhere data needs to be displayed in the context of a geographical area. 

All current students, faculty, and staff have access to ESRI's ArcGIS and ArcGIS Online and can download ArcGIS products to their personal, office, or lab computers and laptops. Information on how to download the software can be found here:

ESRI ArcGIS Download Information

The following GIS software products are open access software and can be downloaded for free. Both are available in the NDSU Libraries’ Data Visualization Lab.



Finding Maps and GIS Data

United States Geological Survey (USGS) Maps and GIS Data

The United States Geological Survey (USGS) is one of the major creators and sources for maps and GIS data in the United States. Here are some of the most important resources that they provide

This map series divides the United States into quadrangles bounded by two lines that span either 7.5 or 15 minutes of latitude and  longitude. The scale of 1:24,000 (1 inch = 2,000 feet) shows an area in detail, useful for engineering, local area planning, and recreational purposes such as hiking or hunting. Contour lines show the shape and elevation of the terrain. The maps also show and name prominent natural and cultural features. For more information, see Topographic Map Symbols.

A set of topographic maps is available in the library storage annex. The USGS no longer prints or distributes topographic maps to libraries, so those in our print collection are not be the most recent version. The USGS provides digital topographic maps that are available free of charge; follow the steps on the digital topographic maps locator page to download your map. You'll also have an option to order a print copy of the map (for a fee). This site also contains scans of many of the historic topographic maps dating back to the 1880's.

Records of the topographic maps available in the library storage annex may be viewed in the online catalog. Use the request button in the online catalog to have the maps you need delivered to one of the library locations. Be sure to check holdings for both states for maps that cross state borders.

Provides search, browse, display, download, and export of metadata to provide access to earth science data from the archives of the United States Geological Survey (USGS).

National Geologic Map Database
The National Geologic Map Database provides access to a searchable catalog of maps from the USGS, state surveys, and other publishers; a lexicon of names and descriptions of geologic units; online map viewers for geologic and topographic maps; and standards and schema for geologic maps and reports.

National Map
National Map is a collaborative effort among the USGS and other Federal, State, and local partners to improve and deliver topographic information for the Nation. It has many uses ranging from recreation to scientific analysis to emergency response.

USGS Geo Data Portal
Landscape and climate data sets from the USGS that are available in an interactive and web accessible format.

The USGS produces many other map series. These are just a few examples, which can be found in the Government Documents shelving area (northwest corner of the 2nd floor).

Circum-Pacific (CP) Map Series I 19.91/2:
Coal Investigations (C) I 19.85:
Geologic Investigations (I) I 19.91:
Geologic Quadrangle (GQ) I 19.88:
Geophysical Investigations (GP) I 19.87:
Hydrologic Investigations Atlases (HA) I 19.89:
Hydrologic Unit Map (I) 19.89/2:
Land Use and Cover (L) I 19.112:
Mineral Investigations (MR) I 19.90:
Miscellaneous Field Studies (MF) I 19.113:
Miscellaneous Investigations Studies (I) I 19.91:
Oil and Gas Investigations Charts (OC) I 19.92:
Oil and Gas Investigations Maps (OM) I 19.93:
Scientific Investigations Maps (SIM) I 19.91/3:

Links to Maps and GIS Data

Census Atlas of the United States
The complete content of the Census Atlas of the United States. Topics covered range from language and ancestry characteristics to housing patterns and the geographic distribution of the population.

Census Maps
Maps and geospatial information from the Geography Program at the U.S. Census.

CIA Maps from The World Factbook
Maps from the CIA's The World Factbook.

Data and Statistics (including Maps) About the U.S. at
Find a variety of maps, including environmental maps, state maps, weather maps, and more.

Earth Observatory
Images and maps from NASA.

Geographic economic data from the Federal Reserve.

Geologic Atlas of the United States
The Geologic Atlas of the United States is a set of 227 folios published by the U.S. Geological Survey between 1894 and 1945. Each folio includes both topographic and geologic maps for each quad represented in that folio, as well as description of the basic and economic geology of the area. Maintained by Map and GIS Collections and Services within the Texas A&M University Libraries.

Geospatial Data Gateway
The Geospatial Data Gateway (GDG) is the One Stop Source for environmental and natural resources data. The Gateway allows you to choose your area of interest, browse and select data from our catalog, customize the format, and have it downloaded or shipped on CD or DVD. This service is made available through a close partnership between the three Service Center Agencies: Natural Resources Conservation Service (NRCS), Farm Service Agency (FSA), and Rural Development (RD).

GIS Products from the National Water and Climate Center
Maps of precipitation, temperatures, snow water equivalent, and water supplies.

Global Ecosystems
The U.S. Geological Survey is leading an effort to classify and map global ecosystems. This effort pioneers the global mapping of standardized ecosystems using a practical approach that models ecosystem occurrences as unique physical environments that support a particular land cover type.
Historical Topographic Maps - Preserving the Past
The USGS National Geospatial Program (NGP) is converting historical printed topographic quadrangles to an electronic format. Currently more than 90,000 GeoPDF maps available to download and view.

Library Of Congress Map Collections
Digital Collections of Maps from the Library of Congress. Collections include the American Revolution, the Civil War, Cities & Towns, Mapping the National Parks, and other maps from US and world history.

Map Locator
Map Locator uses open source software and the Google Maps programming interface to find topographic maps by searching zip code, address, or navigating on an interactive map. Pan, zoom, or change the map to see satellite imagery or a topographic map view, order printed maps, or download a scanned map image in GeoPDF® format.

Mapping the National Parks
The Mapping the National Parks collection documents the history, cultural aspects and geological formations of areas that eventually became National Parks. The collection consists of approximately 200 maps dating from the 17th century to the present, reflecting early mapping of the areas that would become four National Parks, as well as the parks themselves. From The Library of Congress American Memory project.

National Geospatial-Intelligence Agency
The nation’s premier source of geospatial intelligence (GEOINT). NGA creates GEOINT products using imagery, geospatial and targeting analysis, image sciences and modeling for U.S. national defense and disaster relief.

National Wetlands Inventor
The U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service is the principal Federal agency that provides information to the public on the extent and status of the Nation's wetlands. The agency has developed a series of topical maps to show wetlands and deep water habitats.

Office of Coast Survey's Historical Map & Chart Collection
The Office of Coast Survey's Historical Map & Chart Collection is a rich archive of high-resolution images capturing a vast wealth of the U.S. government's historical surveying and mapping. The collection of over 35,000 scanned images - covering offshore and onshore sites - includes some of the Nation's earliest nautical charts, bathymetric maps, city plans, and Civil War battlefield maps.

Panoramic Maps Collection
The panoramic map was a popular cartographic form used to depict U.S. and Canadian cities and towns during the late nineteenth and early twentieth centuries. Panoramic maps are nonphotographic representations of cities portrayed as if viewed from above at an oblique angle. They show street patterns, individual buildings, and major landscape features in perspective. Part of the Library of Congress American Memory Project.
Game and Fish Maps/Data Resources
Choose from prepared maps, or use the Interactive Map Services to customize your own map.

Geographic Information Systems
Create maps, browse data, and extract data from the North Dakota GIS Hub.
Landslide Maps
From the North Dakota Geological Survey.

Publications and Maps
Links to maps available from the North Dakota Geological Survey.

NDDOT GIS and Mapping
From the Department of Transportation. Sections on NDDOT Maps and GIS information.

Travel Information Map
The map is updated several times a day to show current road conditions in North Dakota. You also can overlay weather radar images, links to weather cameras, and other information.
ArcGIS Explorer
Free app for windows, IOS, and Andriod that allows you to take your own GIS data into the field on your mobile device.  There are also map layers from various organizations and projects free to access.  Map layers work in conjunction with your device’s GPS to give you live positioning in the context of whatever data with which you are working.

Color Landform Atlas of the United States
Each state link brings up a menu of links to maps and other online information about the state.

Cornell University - Digital Images from the CUL Map Collection
This collection consists of digitally reproduced images of paper maps from the Cornell University Library's Map Collection. Includes maps from locations around the world, ranging in date from the nineteenth century to the present.

David Rumsey Map Collection
The historical map collection has over 28,000 maps and images online. The collection focuses on rare 18th and 19th century North American and South American maps and other cartographic materials. Historic maps of the World, Europe, Asia, and Africa are also represented.
Many maps and satellite images. Use the US Geology & Maps list of links for maps of every state.

Google Earth
Get the world's geographic information at your fingertips. Google Earth allows you to travel the world through a virtual globe and view satellite imagery, maps, terrain, 3D buildings, and much more. With Google Earth's rich, geographical content, you are able to experience a more realistic view of the world.

Historical Map Archive
Digitized historical maps from University of Alabama Libraries.

Historical Maps of the United States - University of Texas
Historical maps of the United States from the Perry-Castañeda Library Map Collection at the University of Texas at Austin. Also includes a link to an extensive list of other historical map websites.

Maps of Africa
This site features digital copies of 113 antique maps of Africa and accompanying text dating from the mid 16th Century to the early 20th Century. Provided by Northwestern University Library.

Maps of Canada - Natural Resources Canada
Includes the Atlas of Canada (with 393 interactive maps), topographic maps, and other maps covering all aspects of Canada's natural resources.

Minnesota Maps Online
Historic maps from the collections of the Minnesota Historical Society and the Office of the Secretary of State.

National Historical Geographic Information System
Provides aggregate census data and GIS-compatible boundary files for the United States between 1790 and 2011

The North American Environmental Atlas
The North American Environmental Atlas is an interactive mapping tool to research, analyze and manage environmental issues in Canada, United States and Mexico. Maps are downloadable free of charge and available in an easy to use map viewer format.

United Nations Cartographic Section
More than 100 general maps in addition to deployment maps and political operations are available.

World Digital Library
The World Digital Library (WDL) makes available significant primary materials from countries and cultures around the world, including many maps.

World War Two Newsmaps
These maps were produced by the U.S. Army during and immediately after World War II. Hosted by The University of North Texas Libraries.

Library Reference Staff

Profile Photo
Library Reference
Main Library