Teaching with Primary Sources: Maps and Atlases

Jen Hoyer

Brooklyn Connections is the education outreach program in the Brooklyn Collection. It focuses on cultivating 21st Century learning skills in students and supporting teachers on the incorporation of archives materials into curricula. This blog post is part of a series from the Brooklyn Connections team, sharing skills and ideas for using archives primary source material in the classroom.

With Google Maps available at the touch of a finger, students are more familiar than ever with using maps to get around. Exploring the ways we can use maps as informational texts leads to great classroom conversations about what these documents teach us about history.


For an activity with historic maps, you’ll want to spend a bit of time thinking about what you would like your students to learn about. Public transit maps are a great starting point to study transportation. Demographic maps can tie into curriculum about immigration. We see the ways neighborhoods change over time by contrasting two (or more) street maps of the same geographic area. It’s also a great idea to find a map with a key, and to have copies of the key available for students.

Our maps at the Brooklyn Collection are available for you to browse during our open hours. You can also go online to explore digitized maps from the Library of Congress, the New York Heritage Digital Collections, Brooklyn Historical Society, New York Public Library, and many other cultural heritage institutions.


Start off with a conversation: ask students if they have ever used a map and what they have used it for. Discuss possible uses such as: finding your way, navigating public transit, locating yourself if you are lost, and any other ideas the students suggest.

Talk about the difference between a map and an atlas. We like to explain it this way: a map often shows a broad overview; we talk about what “birds-eye view” means, and discuss how a map may not show all the details but can give us a big picture. By contrast, an atlas is a book of maps that might each focus on smaller areas and may show more detail on each page.

One way to illustrate this difference is by zooming in on Google Maps, which acts here as both a map and an atlas. When we show all of New York City, we see something that looks similar to other maps we might find – like an MTA map.

Google map, zoomed to show New York City

As we zoom in on Google Maps to a borough, and then a neighborhood, and finally the blocks around a school, we see something much more similar to an atlas page. This close-up view no longer gives us the big picture, but it provides a lot of details.

Ask students to make observations about what they see on these Google maps. Are there any symbols that stand out to them? Any landmarks or names they are familiar with? Ask students how they would determine what the various symbols on the map mean. Students could be invited to make a key to explain colors or symbols they see on Google Maps.

Now it’s time to look at your historic map – or maps, if you’ve selected more than one. At this point, it can work well to have students work through a graphic organizer that asks them to make specific observations about the map. I like to print off reproductions of maps for students to work with either independently or with a partner. Having their own copy of a primary source gives students a way to interact with historic documents in a really tangible and exciting way.

If my goal is to give students a general overview of how maps are useful for studying history, I often choose a map or atlas page that depicts an area around their school or another familiar landmark. For this example, I’ve selected an atlas page around a middle school in Park Slope:

Desk Atlas view of area in south Park Slope
“Plate 31.” Desk Atlas of Brooklyn, City of New York, Volume 1. New York: E. Belcher Hyde Map Co, Inc., 1929.


Students can look at their map and answer questions that ask them to make observations about street names and building names, or that ask them to look for any familiar buildings or landmarks. They can work with a key to determine what some of the symbols or colors on the map mean. I like to start with simple questions: What are the names of three streets you see on your map? What color are most of the buildings on your map? What does that color mean?

For the purposes of exploring how maps show us changes over history, it’s a great idea to compare historic and present day maps. We can look at the same area as above on a modern map (in this case, Google Maps) and ask the same questions about making observations and identifying landmarks.

Google map view of the area around MS88 in Park Slope
Google map view of south Park Slope.


This map shows us many of the same streets. It also shows different and changed features Students can be invited to make observations about the differences, and from there create a list of questions about why these differences have occurred.

A great way to wrap up this activity is with a conversation about what the map has taught us regarding a historic event or place, and what a map cannot tell us. What questions do we have after exploring historic maps, and where could we go to find the answers?

Outcomes and Assessment

This is a terrific exercise for practicing the skill of making observations when looking at primary sources. How effectively was the student able to locate specific features and name details?

This activity also allows the teacher to evaluate a student’s ability to make connections between a key and its corresponding map or atlas, as well as between different maps showing the same area.

This post is the second in an ongoing series. Read the other posts in the series: What's a Primary Source?, Observations and InferencesCiting SourcesUsing the Internet to Find Primary Sources Online, Asking Questions for Research, Notetaking Skills, and How can we do research with political cartoons?

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