David Rumsey Map Collection: Free, Unique, and Great for Visual Learners

One of the most exciting discoveries while writing California Out of the Box was when I found the David Rumsey Map Collection at Stanford.  This site provides a searchable, downloadable, and even printable platform where visitors can browse copious amounts of amazing maps.  The image above featuring The Unique Map of California is the back cover of our new California curriculum.  I love what this image has to say about the large size of California, the natural attractions such as Yosemite, and the helpful comparative chart of the highest Sierra peaks.

For some background on the collection:  Rumsey began collecting maps 30 years ago; he donated his whole collection to Stanford.  The collection contains 150,000 maps, and over 80,000 are scanned at high resolution and available online.  The maps span the 16th century through the 21st century.  The collection highlights North and South America, though other areas are covered as well.  Rumsey collected all types of maps — historical, atlases, road maps, minning maps, exploration maps, railroad and road maps, and more.

How can the collection be used in the learning environment?  Here is a simple exercise that students can perform to interact with these maps for whatever historical period, work of literature, or even earth science unit you are studying.

  1. Hit David Rumsey Map Collection.  Ask students to type in a city or country of interest in the map collection search bar (far right).
  2. Every map tells us different information.  Have students choose 2 maps from their search above.  What 3-5 things do they learn/notice in each map?  What’s similar?  What’s different?
  3. Narrow in on your particular area/time period.  Type in your time period/geographical area.  Locate 1 map and discuss as a larger group.  Discuss: What do you see?  Is it color or black and white?  What devices has the cartographer (mapmaker) used to note the land (such as land thickness border, names of areas, or color of areas)?  How do you know what areas are water? Mountains?  Other interesting features?  How do you know if an area is flat or tall, or deep?  How do you know what different route/line thicknesses mean (is there a legend)?
  4. 5 things.  Have students make a list of 5 things they have learned from looking more in depth at the above map.
  5. Student connection with time period.  Have student find a map of their choice that they enjoy from your period or area of study.  They should download or write down the name of the map.  The historical maps are particularly fun for students as they contain unique images.  Students should either write down or tell the class or small group 5 things they learn about the time period through their chosen map.
  6. Student Project.  Using either Google Earth or an atlas, have student trace a land area, and create their own map of that area.  They should research features they want to show the viewer.  It could be borders, agriculture, historical attractions, types of animals found in that area, topography, or — ????

The Unique Map of California used with permission from David Rumsey Map Collection, www.davidrumsey.com.

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