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Maps at VPL

The VPL map collection includes maps and atlases of every description: from street maps of present-day Vancouver to historical atlases of ancient Rome, from bathymetric maps of the ocean floor to geological maps of Jupiter's moons.


The historical maps and atlases housed in the Special Collections complement source materials which document and illuminate the past of the geographic area of the Pacific Northwest.

Geographic Scope

The geographical limits of the map collection are: the present area of B.C.; old Oregon County, i.e. Oregon and Washington territory to 1846 when the 49th parallel was established as the United States - Canadian boundary; some Alberta material for the approach to the mountain barrier and its exploration; pre-1898 Yukon Territory and the Klondike gold rush; Alaska pre-1867 and the Alaska boundary dispute; and the Bering Sea to the conclusion of the fur seal arbitration issue. The majority of maps in the collection are of British Columbia.

Chronological Scope

The map collection consists of a few maps from the 1700s, a larger number from the 1800s and a majority from the 1900s. Maps from after 1985 are kept in the History and Government collection on the 6th floor.

Special Handling of Early Maps

Patrons must note the complete call number and title of the map they wish to see on a request form located at the Special Collections information desk. All maps are retrieved by Special Collections staff.

Maps must be handled extremely carefully as they form part of the Northwest History heritage collection. Special care in handling maps is important to ensure their preservation. Maps are for reference use only in the Special Collection Department Reading Room. Photocopying of maps is not permitted owing to their fragility. In some cases copies of maps exist on aperture cards; these may be copied. Maps may be photographed.

Types of Maps - Searching Maps in the Catalogue - Locating Place Names - Tips for Further Research

Types of Maps

The map collection includes the following types of maps:
  • early city maps of Vancouver
  • street maps of some B.C. municipalities
  • fire insurance plans of Vancouver
    • detailed block by block maps of buildings, used by fire insurance underwriters to assess buildings for fire risk
    • very useful for conducting research on a Vancouver building's history
  • early auction/real estate maps
    • real estate described for sale
    • useful for researching a property's history
  • hydrographic charts of the Pacific coast
    • maps of the coast of British Columbia produced by the British Navy for navigational purposes between 1859 and 1930
  • bird's eye maps
    • Several early maps of Vancouver that present a panoramic view of the city.
  • older topographic maps (various scales) - these are useful for identifying:
    • shipping routes and steamship calls
    • trails
    • transit and transportation routes
    • boundary disputes
    • locations of post offices
    • locations of mines
    • river systems
    • locations of shipwrecks
    • railway lines
    • logging camps and sawmills
    • canneries
    • whaling stations
    • fish hatcheries
    • locations of settlements
    • First Nations reservations
    • distribution of First Nations languages

Searching Maps in the Catalogue

Maps can be searched a number of ways, most commonly by title, author or subject, but also by call number, series, publisher keyword, format or general keyword.

1.    Title: In most cases, a map’s title will be the name of the geographical area it covers, or of a prominent geographical feature found in it. For example, an early map of Vancouver from when it was a settlement called Granville may be searchable under Granville. All maps in the online catalogue should have [cartographic material] as part of the title. Patrons must make note of the title if they wish to view a map.

2.    Author: Some maps will have the name of an individual as the author, but many do not credit their designers. Such maps usually have the publisher’s name given as the author.

3.    Call number: Patrons must make note of the call number if they wish to view a map.

4.    Subject headings: As mentioned, the subject headings include the geographical region covered by the map (in this case, Vancouver), as well as other notable features. In this example, these features include the names of businesses on the map (Coal Harbour Fishery, Hastings Sawmill Company) and the type of map (Insurance, Fire).

5.    Aperture cards: Many of Special Collections’ best maps have been reproduced on aperture cards (cards that hold a frame of microfilm) to preserve the originals. These can be used to view and print the map using Special Collections’ microfiche reader/printer. If a map is also available in aperture card, this is noted in the Local Note field.

6.    Notes: Additional information about the map can be found in this field. These notes can be especially useful when conducting detailed research or trying to identify the features of a particular map. To search for words in this field, do a general keyword search (select Key words anywhere in the Search drop down menu).

7.    Format: All maps in the library’s collection should have the format code MAP. Items that appear to be maps, but do not have this code, may be atlases, map books or other similar items.

8.    Collection: This will indicate if a map is in Special Collections or another division or branch of the library.

9.    Item Type: All items in Special Collections, including maps, are for reference use only and cannot be signed out.

For additional information on historical maps, try using these subject headings in the online catalogue:

British Columbia – Maps
British Columbia – Maps, physical
British Columbia – Historical geography – Maps
Ghost towns – British Columbia – Maps
Vancouver (B.C.) – Historical geography – Maps
Washington (state) – Historical geography – Maps
Oregon - Historical geography – Maps
Yukon Territory – Maps
Yukon Territory – Boundaries – British Columbia – Maps
Yukon Territory – Historical geography – Maps
Alaska – Historical geography – Maps

Locating Place Names

Gazetteers are geographical indexes that list settlement names, islands, mountains, creeks, lakes, rivers, etc. and provide brief verbal descriptions of feature locations, as well as exact topographical map references.

Gazetteer of Canada. British Columbia. 
Canadian Permanent Committee on Geographical Names. Ottawa, 1966.
NW 910.3 C2121g1

Geographical gazetteer of British Columbia.
Victoria, B.C., 1930. British Columbia.
Dept. of Lands. Geographic Division
Includes information on: the history of place naming in the province; how the development through mining changed the outlook for the region; and how the nature of settlements was changed following railway construction throughout the province. This gazetteer also provides an alphabetical listing of the location of historical monuments and tablets in the province; road, railway and shipping distance tables; a table of spelling and pronunciation of named features indexed; and an explanation of the climatic zones throughout the province. Post offices and railway-stations are also indexed.
NW 910.3 B86g

Canadian Permanent Committee on Geographical Names, 1897-1979, British Columbia [microform].
Toronto: Micromedia, 1985.
Includes decisions from Geographic Board of Canada, 1867-1948; Canadian Board on Geographic Names, 1948-1961; Canadian Permanent Committee on Geographic Names, 1961-1979. Indicates names changes, variants and origins of names on maps.
Level 6: REF MICROFICHE 910.3 B86C

British Columbia place names.
by Akrigg, G.P.V. and Helen B. Akrigg. Vancouver, B.C., : UBC Press, 1997.
This edition of British Columbia place names includes 2,400 place names, chosen using two principal criteria: (i) the geographical prominence of the feature described, and (ii) the cultural or historical importance of the name the feature bears. Also, when a name is redolent of B.C. life, or carries with it an anecdote that the authors felt they did not want the reader to miss the name has been included.
NW 910.3 B86aa

British Columbia coast names, 1592-1906; to which are added a few names in adjacent United States territory; their origin and history, with maps and illustrations, by Captain John T. Walbran...
Walbran, John T. Ottawa: Gov't. Printing Bureau, 1909.
A landmark work by Walbran, who travelled between the strait of Juan de Fuca and Dixon entrance for years, commanding the Canadian government ship Quadra. Through his travels, he became thoroughly versed in the geography of the B.C. coast, and acquired an extensive knowledge of place names and their origins, most notably First Nations, British and Spanish. (Circulating reprint edition on Level 6: 910.3 W86w2.)
NW 910.3 W15b

The Encyclopedia of raincoast place names: a complete reference to coastal British Columbia
by Scott, Andrew. Madeira Park, B.C., : Harbour Pub., 2009.
Updates the original Captain John T. Walbran volume: double the size and includes three times more place names. It tells the stories behind the place names and illustrates the history of the region in capsule form. Four thousand entries describe over five thousand place names: how they were discovered, who named them and why, and what the names reveal.
NW 910.3 S42e

Place names of the delta of the Fraser.
by Nelson, Denys. Vancouver, B.C., 1927.
This work covers the history of place names one hundred miles east from the Strait of Georgia, bounded on the north by the Coast Mountains, on the east by the Cascades, with its southern limits in the State of Washington.
NW 910.3 N42p1

Oregon geographic names.
by McArthur, Lewis A. Portland, OR: Oregon Historical Society Press, 1992.
More than 5,400 entries of state place names are included (ranging from Linn County's Aberdeen to Zwagg Island in Curry County). Dates are given as to when the names were first used, also reasons for the choice of names with special and often colourful pertinent information that gives the reader insight into the history of each name. The work often lists alternate names by which a place has been, and continues to be known.
NW 910.3 066m4

Origin of Washington geographic names.
by Meany, Edmond S. Detroit: Gale Research Co., 1968.
A reprint of a book originally published in 1923. It contains 2813 entries, some of which are cross references to obsolete place names found in older documents. Most entries include the location of the place, the origin of the name and sometimes the history of the name, especially if it has changed over time.
NW 910.3 M48o

Yukon: Places and Names.
by Coutts, R. C. Sidney, B.C.: Gray’s Pub. Ltd., 1980.
This volume is both a place name dictionary, as well as a dictionary of local history. It explains the origins of place names in Yukon, gives their locations and geographical co-ordinates, and usually relates some aspect of the place’s history.
NW 971.21 C87y

Dictionary of Alaska Place Names
By Orth, Donald J. Washington: United States Government Printing Office, 1967.
An exhaustive volume that functions as a combined place name dictionary and gazetteer of Alaska. Entries include the location of the place, it’s geographical co-ordinates and, if a place name has undergone changes, the history of the name.
Central Adult Ref. Nonfiction 910.3 A323o1

Historical atlas of British Columbia and the Pacific Northwest: maps of exploration: British Columbia, Washington, Oregon, Alaska, Yukon
by Hayes, Derek. Vancouver, B.C.: Cavendish Books, [2000]
This stunningly illustrated historical atlas details how, over time, the mysteries of the North Pacific have been probed. It is a treasure chest of five hundred years of maps, from antique charts drawn at the beginning of the sixteenth century to modern satellite images of today.
NW 912.711 H41h1

Historical cartography of British Columbia, with a separate appendix of maps.
by Farley, Albert Leonard. Ann Arbor, University Microfilms [c1961]
Volume 1 is a thesis which discusses the history of mapping of British Columbia
Volume 2 is an atlas of B.C. maps.
NW 912.711 F23h Vols. 1 and 2

Tips for Further Research

Vancouver City Development

Two birds eye maps, dating from 1890 and 1898, give a panoramic view of the city. Fire insurance maps can be used to trace the development of city blocks, and the early city maps give an overview of the city. Try using these subject headings in the online catalogue:

History of a Building or Home

Fire insurance maps provide information about every structure on a given city block, including type of construction, storeys, building position, driveways, and location of oil tanks and water hydrants. Special Collections has maps from 1885 (when the city was known as Granville), 1889, 1913, 1944 and 1954-1961. Use the following subject heading in the online catalogue:

Transportation History

Transit and street maps in Special Collections can be used to trace the development of Vancouver’s transportation system. Try using these subject headings in the online catalogue: