Mapping Our History

Published on November 06, 2017

Map lovers in Ontario and beyond now have a unique resource available to them, thanks to the work of a dedicated group of librarians, students, and technicians. The Historical Topographic Map Digitization Project successfully digitized at the 1:25,000 and 1:63,360 scales almost 1100 maps of Ontario dated from 1906-1977. They are available for viewing and download from the Scholars GeoPortal website.

"This project is important because it digitally captures the cartographic history of Ontario going back to 1906 for the first time," said Cheryl Woods, Map Librarian and the project co-lead. "Offering free digital access to georeferenced topographic maps over time has never been done at this scale."

The maps are of value to a wide variety of users, from genealogists seeking historical place names to environmental consultants searching for previous land uses to students and scholars from a range of disciplines.

This map section showing London, Ontario is from a map published by the Department of Militia and Defence, 1915.

This map section showing London, Ontario is from a map published by the Department of Militia and Defence, 1915.

Each step along the project's trajectory was complex. First, Woods and the collaborative team created an inventory of all the maps available for this time period. Then, they located all the maps from over a dozen collections in university and government holdings. Staff from three universities, including Western, scanned the maps to exact specifications. Then came the painstaking work of geo-referencing each map - locating 8-12 points on the map and associating them with real world coordinates. Metadata tags were added to each map, such as "Power Lines," "Mills," and "Churches," to improve searchability. Finally, the team worked to ensure that the maps could be accessed intuitively.

The project website offers a map index that allows users to pinpoint a location and view a list of all the map editions available for that location, which can then be viewed online or downloaded.

Explore the maps at

Collaboration by many institutions and organizations was key to the success of the project, which was initiated and funded by the Ontario Council of University Libraries. Woods adds, "Our project resonates with other map librarians and their users across the country, and we are sharing our best practices with others who want to replicate our results for their region."