Maps: FAQ

What kinds of maps are there?

What do you mean by "large" and "small" scales?

What are degrees and minutes and seconds? What do they have to do with longitude and latitude?

What is GIS?

How do I find maps? Are they all cataloged?

Can I check out a map?

Can I copy a map?

How do I cite a map?

I am an instructor. Will you do a presentation on maps to my class?

What reference services are available? Who can I ask for help?

What happened to the Geosciences Library?


What kinds of maps are there?

Most maps fall into four general categories.

  • Political maps show human-defined areas like countries, states, provinces, cities, and the like. Here's an example of a political map of the world from the CIA World Factbook.
  • Physical maps depict terrain such as mountains, swamps, deserts, and forests. Relief maps show elevation by shading or color. Some physical maps are even three dimensional. Here's a relief map of North America from the CIA World Factbook.
  • Topographic maps are a kind of physical map where elevation is shown by special markings called contour lines. Useful for all sorts of purposes, they form the largest chunk of ET2's map collection. Learn more about them on our Topographic Map page.
  • Thematic maps display information other than the strictly geographic and are useful for visualizing data. For example, a map may show population density by shading more dense areas a darker color than less dense areas. Or, breakouts of a disease may be pinpointed on a city map. You could combine those two maps to make a new one that would indicate how population density affected the spread of disease. This the basic idea behind a geographic information system or GIS.

What do you mean by "large" and "small" scales?

Scale is indicated by a number formatted like this: 1:24,000. It means that for every 1 unit of real area, 24,000 units are depicted on the map. In other words, if this scale was measured in inches and feet, 24,000 feet of area would be depicted in a 1 inch area of the map.

Somewhat confusingly, the smaller the second number is, the "larger" the scale of the map. But think of it this way -- the larger the scale the greater the detail. You could imagine it as the scale that is most "zoomed in." You could also compare the idea of 1:24,000 map to a 1:100,000 map. In the same area, the former map would only have to display 24 things and could therefore do so in much more detail than the latter map which would have the same amount of space, but need to display 100 things. If you have a five minute speech you can talk in great detail about one topic, but only briefly touch on ten topics.

Just remember: LARGE scale, GREAT detail. SMALL scale, LESS detail.

For more information, check out our podcast episode on Understanding Scale: Maps, Math, & You.

What are degrees and minutes and seconds? What do they have to do with longitude and latitude?

The surface of the Earth is divided into sections. The dividing lines that run from pole to pole are called longitude. The ones that run around the Earth parallel to the Equator are called latitude.

Between one line of longitude or latitude and the next, we say that there is one degree (1°). Each degree is divided like a clock. It contains 60 minutes (60') each of which contains 60 seconds (60"). Sometimes you may hear someone talk about a "seven and a half or (7.5)" minute map. That map would display 7'30" worth of area, (NOT 7'50") because "half" of a minute is 30 seconds.

What is GIS?

A Geographic Information System (or GIS) analyses geographical data and presents it in a more visually understandable way that numbers in a chart would -- usually by creating a custom thematic map that displays specific information about the area. See our page on GIS Services to find out more about GIS and what it can do for you.

How do I find maps? Are they all cataloged?

We have many, many uncataloged maps, but we're working on getting it done. Take a look at our guide to finding maps.

Can I check out a map?

Yes, with the exception of Rare Maps. Loan times are the same as for books. Check with a supervisor about uncataloged maps.

Can I copy a map?

For any maps that will fit on standard scanners or copiers, you are welcome to use them to make copies for your personal use. For anything larger, we do have a large format scanner. E-mail libet2@indiana.edu with the details of your request to discuss your options.

How do I cite a map?

First, check the guide for the style you are using (MLA, Chicago, APA, etc.). Otherwise, try these resources.

I am an instructor. Will you do a presentation on maps to my class?

Yes, absolutely. Contact Theresa Quill to discuss it. If you prefer to do it yourself, we have a set of Bloomington topographic maps for classes you may check out.

What reference services are available? Who can I ask for help?

Reference staff are available in Government Information, Maps and Microform Services from 8 am - 4 pm Monday through Friday or by appointment. E-mail libet2@indiana.edu for more information.

What happened to the Geosciences Library?

The Geosciences Library has now been closed. The maps are moving to join the rest of the map collection in Government Information, Maps and Microform Services in the Herman B Wells Library.


Return to Government Information, Maps, and Microform Services.