Maps, Mapping, and GIS

by Michele Tobias, David Michalski, Dawn Collings – April 15, 2020

The UC Davis Library provides resources and services for those studying and applying spatial information. These include physical map collections, GIS resources and tools and services, and a vast array of geographic and cartographic material across the UC Davis Library. 



Michele Tobias

GIS Data Curator/ Specialist

(530) 752‑7532

In this Guide:

Drop-In Hours

The UC Davis Library’s Geospatial Data Specialist provides Drop-In Hours on Mondays from 1:30-3:00 in the DataLab Classroom – room 360 in Shields Library. This time is set aside for any and all questions about spatial data, from simple to complex. Library patrons are always welcome to make an appointment for another time with the Geospatial Data Specialist, Michele Tobias, to discuss spatial data.

Email Lists

UC Davis affiliates can sign up for email lists through the UC Davis Information & Educational Technology’s Sympa list serve manager.  The “Geospatial” email list is a widely-used list for UC Davis faculty, students, staff, and local community members who work with any type of geospatial data.  The list can be used for announcements or questions.

Geospatial Software

The geospatial industry has a number of established, well-respected, and long running free and open source projects that may suit the needs of researchers and students.  The Open Source Geospatial Foundation oversees many of these projects, including QGIS (which runs on Mac, Linux, and Windows).

Esri’s ArcGIS suite of software is available to any UC Davis affiliate. Information on product availability, and licensing guides can be found at

GIS Workstation

The lower level of Shields Library has one GIS workstation that UC Davis students, faculty, researchers, and other staff may to use for a maximum of two hours per day. The workstation room is located near, but outside the Map Room and is open the same hours as the Library. The workstation has the full suite of ArcGIS 10 software (available to campus affiliates) and QGIS 3 (available to anyone).

An 11″ x 17″ color scanner is available for maps and aerial photography.

Workstation use must comply with UC Davis Computer Use Policies and the Library Computer Use Policy as well as the following guidelines:

  • GIS software and data licensed by the library may not be used for commercial purposes.
  • Software and spatial data may be licensed and subject to restrictions on who can use it and how it can be used. We provide GIS users with public domain data and any other data and software that we can under the terms of the licenses.
  • It is advisable to save your data and project files to portable media.

The UC Davis Library Map Collection is an extensive research-level collection of maps, both print and electronic, and a supporting collection of guides, gazetteers and atlases. It supports a variety of disciplines including agronomy, botany, history, economics, and environmental studies. The collection emphasizes the Central California Valley area and maps of local importance. The collection also contains many topographic maps and maps of agriculture and agricultural-related subjects from areas with similar climate and growing types to those of the Central Valley. Digital geospatial data are collected with an emphasis on the Central Valley, California and areas related to current and anticipated University research and instruction needs, with an emphasis on data that may be made freely available to the University community.The Map collection emphasizes the Central California Valley (Sacramento and San Joaquin River Valleys) in all scales, formats, and subjects. The collection also emphasizes maps (especially for agricultural-related subjects) of areas with a similar agro-climate to the Central Valley (i.e., Mediterranean) and for major viticulture and wine producing regions. Maps of other regions of the world are available at a smaller scale and on more limited subjects. (e.g., topography, roads).

Finding existing GIS data is a common but often difficult task.  Sometimes the data you would like is simply not available, but other times it’s just difficult to find.  Here are some strategies for finding data.

Search Engines

Searching for data online is going to require a search engine.  Many search engines have advanced options that can help narrow down a search or restrict the results.  For example, Google has menus for Settings and Tools, as well as searches targeted to specific results like images.

Search Terms

Keep your search terms broad.  Also, try synonyms for terms you are interested in.  For example, if you were looking for a shapefile of beaches in California, you might search try separate searches for “beach shapefile” or “coast shapefile”.  Also, try synonyms for the data type. “GIS”, “map”, “geospatial”, and “shapefile” might find different but relevant results.

Think about how data might be developed or what kinds of layers would go into your analysis rather than terms that define your final product.  For example, you might be interested in identifying areas considered a “food desert” but you might need to look for layers for “census data” and “grocery store locations”.


Search results for geospatial data often fall into one of three categories.

  1. Good: blog posts explaining where to find data, why there is a lack of data, or what tools could be of use for your field.
  2. Better: Question board responses on sites like Stack Exchange. These can be a treasure trove of solutions, but also frustrating if your question was posted a while ago and has no answers.
  3. Best: Sites like repositories with links to download the data you are looking for. Don’t forget to check for metadata so you have some provenance for your data.


Data Repositories

Data repositories are places that store data.  Many public repositories are themed by subject or by the entity that produces the data.  For example, many California counties, the State of California, and the federal government have their own repositories for GIS data, including repositories for specific agencies.  Data Basin is an example of subject-specific repository that focuses on data for environmental stewardship.


Academic Publications

Researchers in your field may be using datasets that are useful for your research.  Read the methods section and citations list to look for sources of datasets and links to how to access the data.


Ask for help

On campus, talk to the Library’s GIS Data Curator or ask on the Geospatial email list.  If the data you need is from a particular place, such as a county or conservation organization, you may be able to contact the organization’s GIS, data, or IT staff to ask about the availability of data.  Additionally, posting in online forums (such as the aforementioned Stack Exchange), websites, or social media using keywords that describe the data you need (see the discussion above about synonyms) and hashtags to get a broader audience can be fruitful.

The USGS National Map Viewer allows users to explore and download vector geospatial data, mainly for the United States.

Tags: Geography

The USGS Earth Explorer is USGS tool for querying and ordering raster geospatial data including satellite images, aerial photographs, and cartographic products. Log in as a guest or as a registered user. Registered users have access to more features than guests do. If you plan on using Earth Explorer frequently, you may wish to register.

Tags: Geography

A site for discovery of geospatial data from multiple sources developed and maintained by Tufts University.

Geospatial data discovery site with data contributed from a number of leading universities as well as state and local governments.

The David Rumsey Historical Map Collection has over 11,000 maps online. The collection focuses on rare 18th and 19th century North and South America maps and other cartographic materials. Historic maps of the World, Europe, Asia and Africa are also represented. Collection categories include antique atlas, globe, school geography, maritime chart, state, county, city, pocket, wall, childrens and manuscript maps.

Fire Insurance Maps online (FIMo) is a research portal to find and view high-definition, color Fire Insurance Maps, Real Estate Atlases, Plat Books, and other historical maps showing building structures, building construction details, property ownership, property uses, and other useful information.

UC Davis has licensed the maps for the state of California.

Tags: Maps

Sanborn fire insurance maps, created to assist fire insurance companies assess risk, are large-scale community plans drawn at a scale of 50 feet to one inch. The maps give street names, street and sidewalk widths, property boundaries, and house and block numbers. Sanborn maps also contain data about construction details, building use and the utilities and transportation infrastructure that supported the community overall. Several editions of maps exist for some cities.

Coverage: 1867-1970
Tags: California, Geography

Social Explorer provides quick and easy access to current and historical census data and demographic information. The interface lets users create maps and reports to illustrate, analyze, and understand demography and social change.

Contents included:
The entire US Census from 1790 to 2010.
The entire American Community Survey (ACS) from 2005 to 2014.
All annual updates from the American Community Survey.
InfoGroup data on religious congregations in the United States for 2009 and 2010, including maps for counties and special census areas, as well as point maps of the actual congregation locations.
The Religious Congregations and Membership Study (RCMS) from 1980 to 2010.
Carbon Emissions Data for 2002 from the Vulcan Project.

Coverage: United States; 1790 - 2010
Tags: Census, Cultural Studies, Government, Religion


PolicyMap is a fully web-based online data and mapping application that gives you access to over 15,000 indicators related to demographics, housing, crime, mortgages, health, jobs and more. Data is available at all common geographies (address, block group, census tract, zip code, county, city, state, MSA) as well as unique geographies like school districts and political boundaries. Data comes from both public and proprietary sources.

This Barry Lawrence Ruderman Catalogue from Antique Maps Inc., provides views of antique maps. The variety can give the researcher a diverse view of the cartography.