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OCUL releases over 1000 early topo maps of Ontario…

Guest post by Amber Leahey, Scholars Portal, and Jay Brodeur, McMaster University Library

The Ontario Council of University Libraries (OCUL1) is pleased to announce the release of a shared digital collection of more than 1000 early topographic maps of Ontario, now available online!

Map libraries are really wonderful places–just ask any Librarian or staff member who provides patrons with services, guidance, and access to maps and associated cartographic material at university libraries across Ontario. Or better yet, ask the countless patrons who use the collections’ vast and varied information to support activities in their research, education, work, and private lives. Indeed, there is much to be said about sparking interest in maps and GIS by telling a story with old maps–which there are many of–at libraries across the province. With such rich and diverse map collections, and thanks to the careful curation and digitization of over 1000 early topographic maps of Ontario, academic libraries continue to play a key role in preserving our national and provincial heritage in the digital age.

Led by the OCUL Geo Community, the OCUL Historical Topographic Map Digitization Project is a province-wide collaboration to inventory, digitize, georeference, and provide broad access to early topographic maps of Ontario. The initiative represents the single most comprehensive digitization project of the early National Topographic Series (NTS) map collection in Canada. The publicly-available collection provides access to georeferenced topographic maps at the 1:25000 and 1:63360 (one inch to one mile) scales, covering towns, cities, and rural areas in Ontario over the period of 1906 to 1977. As the collective achievement of individuals representing university libraries across Ontario, this shared collection exemplifies OCUL’s continuing commitment to collaborative approaches that improve access to knowledge both within and beyond the province. The completion of this project also serves as an opportunity to reflect on the history of the OCUL Geo Community, and celebrate the shared vision and effort that have made possible the current achievement.

The significance of historical maps

Much like a photograph, landscape painting, or textual account, a historical or otherwise superseded map preserves information from the past and provides its viewer an opportunity to explore the ways in which environments, cultures, and human knowledge have changed over time. As a part of their mission, map collections, libraries, and archives have a long tradition of preserving and providing access to a wide array of cartographic and cultural information.

In the present day, early topographic maps are a critical resource for those with an interest in historical events and exploring change over time. For many researchers, local historians, planners, conservationists, engineers, and consulting firms (to name but a few), historical topographic maps provide a unique snapshot of a given time period, showing both man-made and natural features such as spot heights, waterways, shorelines, boundaries, roads, railways, houses, barns, electricity lines, industry, agriculture, and much more.

Ottawa’s Changing Landscape and Growth 1906-1948
Animated compilation of early topographic maps of the Ottawa area, showing changes and growth between 1906 and 1948.
From curation to digitization: The role of the OCUL Geo Community

Among the challenges faced in producing such a comprehensive digital collection is the effort required to inventory and bring together sheets that exist across a multitude of map libraries. Given the variety and quantity of maps that are created during any given period and the finite nature of storage space and budgets, map collection curators are required to make careful (and often difficult!) choices about the collections they develop, steward, and preserve over time. As a result, many institutions have focused their topographic map collections around items of local relevance and significance. In Ontario, for example, the maps that make up the digitized series–originally produced by the Department of National Defence (until 1923: the Department of Militia and Defence)–are dispersed across many Ontario University Libraries. Over the years, Ontario libraries have collaborated to develop a comprehensive inventory of known maps from the series in existence, working closely with the Ontario Archives and Library and Archives Canada more recently for this digitization project. That the vast majority of sheets in these collections could be found at OCUL institutions is a testament to the foundational work of the early Geo and Map Communities.

As the predecessor of the OCUL Geo Community, the OCUL Map Group (then known as the OULC Map Group) was formed in 1973 with the goal of communicating and collaborating on map-related projects. Among their completed initiatives was the creation of a union catalogue of topographic maps across institutions. The importance of this work to OCUL Geo’s current-day success shouldn’t be overlooked, as these foundational efforts provided a means for coordinating map collections across OCUL institutions, and helped ensure maximal collective coverage in a cost- and space-efficient manner. Today, the OCUL Geo Community continues the goals of its predecessor, with a commitment to fostering dialogue around important issues such as best practices for the digitization of maps in libraries, access to maps and GIS for research, and collaboration on a variety of library activities in these areas.

Moving forward, the group plans to engage with the wider map community in Canada about the project, specifically at the upcoming Association of Canadian Map Libraries and Archives Carto 2017 Conference being held in Vancouver, B.C. in June (ACMLA website). The group hopes to identify opportunities to build on the project, engaging with other university libraries and archives, to digitize maps from this national collection.

We are very excited about this release, please let us know how you may be using the maps for your next project! For more information or to get in touch with us contact the project members at

We hope to hear from you!

1 OCUL is a consortium of 21 University Libraries in Ontario, and fosters collaboration around library activities and services including map and GIS collections, digitization, and digital curation.  Ontario’s university libraries have been working together through OCUL on initiatives such as this since 1967. In 2017, OCUL is celebrating its 50th anniversary, and this project demonstrates the ongoing success of this collaboration.}

Accessing digital historical census boundaries just got a whole lot easier!

Finding and mapping historical census data can be a little difficult. Statistics Canada makes census data available for the 2011, 2006, 2001, and 1996 Censuses, with some profile tables available back to 1991. For boundary files, fewer censuses are made available online, with only 2011, 2006, and 2001 files. They do not provide access to earlier censuses any longer.

There are some sources for earlier census data and boundary files available through the Data Liberation Initiative (DLI) program, a national consortium made up of universities that formed together in the mid-1990’s to pay for and access Statistics Canada data, namely Public-Use Microdata Files (PUMFs). Part of the DLI includes access to older census tables and boundary files, including census tracts, dissemination/enumeration areas, census metropolitan areas, census divisions and census subdivisions, with some boundary coverages back to 1971. These boundary files represent some of the oldest digital boundary files produced in Canada, and are still used by researchers today. Both English and French data files were produced, and files are stored in varying GIS and non-GIS formats.

Today, access to the collection is typically mediated by the library at subscribing DLI institutions, some providing links to the data files online, but most only have access via a local connection FTP server. Given that the data are not available online publically, this prevents people from searching Google and finding the census boundary files. In addition, for some of the censuses, the spatial data are stored in ASCII text, or ESRI proprietary interchange format E00. This presents challenges for use in current GIS, and loading in open geoportals.

In Ontario, Scholars Portal and the Ontario Council of University Libraries (OCUL), have begun a year-long project to gather and convert all existing Canadian digital census boundary files, including the DLI collection, and other census boundaries digitized over the years by university libraries across Canada. The project will make data and documentation available openly in an interactive geoportal – Scholars GeoPortal ( Access to this important historical GIS collection will be improved greatly, and it is hoped that by making the collection available publically, these data will be shared and reused more effectively, reducing duplication for researchers everywhere.

Here is an overview of the censuses we are almost finished converting and loading, including creating ISO 19115 – North American Profile metadata for. (Some of these were reused from other national projects including the Canadian Century Research Infrastructure (CCRI) GIS boundary files):

2011 – Statistics Canada (in portal)
2006 – Statistics Canada (in portal)
2001 – Statistics Canada, DLI (in portal)
1996 – Statistics Canada, DLI (in portal)
1991 – Statistics Canada, DLI (in processing)
1986 – Statistics Canada, DLI (in processing)
1981 – Statistics Canada, DLI & Map and Data Library, University of Toronto Libraries  (Census Tracts in portal; the rest in processing)
1976 – Statistics Canada, DLI *(only point files available)
1971 – Statistics Canada, DLI & Map and Data Library, University of Toronto Libraries (Census Tracts in portal; the rest in processing)
1961 – Historical Atlas of Canada (Provided by the GIS & Cartography Office, Department of Geography and Planning, University of Toronto) (in processing)
1951 – University of British Columbia Libraries, and CCRI (University of Alberta Libraries) (CCRI in portal)
1941 – CCRI (University of Alberta Libraries) (in portal)
1931 – CCRI (University of Alberta Libraries) (in portal)
1921 – CCRI (University of Alberta Libraries) (in portal)
1911 – CCRI (University of Alberta Libraries) (in portal)

To check out the progress, you can easily view the boundaries by going directly to the portal.

In the near future, we plan to make the census boundaries inventory available so that gaps can be collaboratively addressed by the community and those who are interested in doing national, comprehensive digitizing and georeferencing work for this important historical census collection.

For questions and more information, please contact me at


I would like to acknowledge the ongoing efforts of university libraries for their ability to manage and archive census data, boundary maps, and GIS. These collections are truly valuable to researchers and historians, and access to these collections would not be possible today if it weren’t for these efforts. I would like to thank the kind contributions from the following universities, organizations, and individuals throughout the project:

Vince Gray, Western University Libraries
Eva Dodsworth, University of Waterloo Libraries
Marcel Fortin, University of Toronto Libraries
Leanne Trimble, University of Toronto Libraries
University of Alberta Libraries
University of British Columbia Libraries
Data Liberation Initiative, Statistics Canada

And, to Jeff Allen, our student assistant at University of Toronto Libraries & Scholars Portal, who has worked tirelessly on this project for almost a year now…

Many thanks,

Amber Leahey
Data and Geospatial Librarian
Scholars Portal, Ontario Council of University Libraries