From about the 1870s until the 1970s, the Sanborn Company was one of a few companies that specialized in producing fire insurance maps for the purpose of assessing fire risk and helping establishing fire insurance rates in various metropolitan areas. These fire insurance maps were extremely detailed and captured valuable information about a piece of property, including the dimensions of a property, size and purpose of individual buildings, and a description of the materials used in each building (brick, wood, iron, etc). The Sanborn Company became the dominant company in this industry and produced fire insurance maps for cities all over the United States, including Los Angeles, San Francisco, Kansas City, Houston, and New Orleans, among many others.
Today, Sanborns represent a unique and detailed historical record of property ownership, land use, and urban development in many American cities in the late 19th to mid 20th centuries. They are invaluable primary historical resources and used as documents of record by preservationists, historians, lawyers, and urban planners. In addition, Sanborns are also fascinating works of art. Each edition was hand-drawn and colored, bound in large leather and cloth volumes, and decorated with ornamental typeface.
In Los Angeles, the Sanborn Company produced approximately 45 different volumes, covering distinct geographical areas in the city. Los Angeles’s Volume 1 atlas, first published in 1888, covers part of downtown and the area just west of downtown, including MacArthur Park, Rampart Village, and Westlake neighborhoods. Volume 2 maps out the adjoining part of downtown and the area east of downtown, extending to the L.A. River (encompassing all the “districts” such as the Arts District, Garment District, Produce District, etc). Multiple editions of a single volume were usually, documenting changes to the urban landscape over time. Each volume corresponded to a particular geographic area and by looking at different editions of a single volume, a researcher can acquire a really interesting picture of how Los Angeles neighborhoods developed over a period of almost 100 years.
One of the challenges to providing reference services for Sanborns is that patrons can request to see a volume based on multiple access points: for instance, by neighborhood, street address, or they can request to see a particular year, edition, or format (physical book or microfilm version). And since they have so many access points, Sanborns can pose an access and information delivery challenge at the reference desk.
What We’re Doing at UCLA’s Young Research Library
At the Young Research Library, we are doing two things to help improve finability and access to our collection of historic Sanborn atlases. First, we are consolidating information about all of our holdings (by volume, edition, and format), which had previously lived on separate physical documents, into one single Google Spreadsheet. The Google Doc will serve as a “one-stop” reference shop that is flexible, sortable, and easy-to-use for librarians and patrons alike. But we’re taking it a step further. In addition to putting UCLA’s holdings into this online document, we’re also including information about Sanborn holdings at the Los Angeles Public Library and Cal State Northridge, creating a sort of “union catalog” of the three main Sanborn-holding institutions in southern California.
Now, instead of jumping from guide to guide to guide, we will have all this information in one easy-to-use online document. And more importantly, the data can be easily downloaded into various software formats to recreate the “union catalog” on paper, if desired.
In addition to the “union catalog,” we are also using Google Maps to create a visual Sanborn Index that can be accessed online with a stable URL, helping to expand access beyond just the reference desk. The Sanborn Index is layered over a street map of the city of Los Angeles, showing the coverage area of each volume (including Venice, San Pedro, Culver City, and North Hollywood). This easy-to-use online tool will help patrons (and librarians alike!) find L.A. Sanborn information easily by browsing neighborhoods, searching street addresses, or looking for notable L.A. landmarks on a Google Map. The coverage areas are based on information gathered from individual Sanborn atlases as well as the library’s copy of the Sanborn’s official street index.
All in all, our goal at the library is to not only preserve these valuable resources, but make them as findable and accessible to students and researchers as possible. The use of Google Spreadsheet and Google Maps should help ensure that a new generation of digital natives can better utilize these materials.