Maps and Geography Research Tools

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This article provides an overview of maps and a list of map research websites. The sites are perfect for anyone planning travel or even surveillance.

What is a Map?

A map is a diagrammatic representation of the earth’s surface or a portion of it. The science and art of map-making are called cartography.  There are many different types of maps, such as:

  • Geographic – Includes all areas of the world, countries, the United States, individual states, counties, cities, and towns. 
  • Road – These are important for planning vacation trips and surveillance missions as they show interstates, highways, roads, and streets.
  • Topographic – shows the topography of an area. Star maps show the constellations of stars in the sky. 
  • Online – Web-based versions such as MapQuest or Google Maps.
  • Historical – show the history of a geographical area. Census maps show the population and demographics of an area.

Following are links to websites and mapping resources, geographic information, and more:

Google Maps – Provides directions, interactive tools, and satellite/aerial imagery of the United States. Google can also search by keyword, such as type of business.

MapQuest – Yep, MapQuest is still around! This timeless classic helps you find directions and explore towns and cities worldwide. MapQuest displays addresses and lets you view nearby businesses, get driving directions, and more. – A leading provider of mapping products and solutions to business, education, and consumer markets. Has versions for the Wall, World, United States, Travel, Travel Guides, Atlases, and more.

Other Map Research Websites

  • Earth View – Click to zoom in on any world region.
  • Gazetteer – U.S. (U.S. Census Bureau) – The United States Census Bureau gazetteer is used to identify places to view with the Tiger Map Server and obtain census data from the 1990 Census Lookup server. You can search for places or counties by entering the name and state abbreviation (optional) or 5-digit zip code.
  • How Far Is It? – This site allows you to type in two cities using the city name, Zip codes or coordinates anywhere in the world and find out how far apart they are.
  • Map Books 4 U: Thomas Guide Books – Order laminated Thomas Guides®, road atlases, Rand McNally Street Guides, EasyFinder Folded Laminated nav tools, Digital Edition Cd-Roms, Magnabrite® Magnifiers, and Wall Planners
  • Mapping the National Parks – This collection documents the history, cultural aspects, and geological formations of areas that eventually became National Parks. The collection consists of more than 200 documents dating from the 17th century to the present, reflecting the early mapping of the areas that would become four National Parks and the parks themselves.
  • Mineral Industry – International mineral locations provided by the United States Geological Survey
  • U.S. Census Bureau – TIGER – Topologically Integrated Geographic Encoding and Referencing system
  • U.S. Geological Survey – The U.S. Geological Survey (USGS) collects information needed to understand the Nation’s water resources and provides access to water data, publications, as well as to recent water projects and events


University Servers

The following are services maintained by various United States universities and colleges:

  • Clark University, Guy H. Burnham Map & Aerial Photography Library – An active spatial data information center with more than 230,000 documents, 7,800 aerial photographs, 1500 CD-ROMs, as well as atlases, journals, globes, reference materials, tourist information, and monographs (primarily on the subjects of cartography, history of cartography, computerized cartography and imagery interpretation, remote sensing, and GIS).
  • Digital Collection – University of California at Berkeley
  • Library of Congress, Geography and Map Division
  • University of California at Santa Barbara. Alexandria Digital Library Project for Geographically-Referenced Information (UCSB) – A distributed digital library with collections of georeferenced materials. ADL includes the operational library, with various nodes and collections, and the research program through which digital library architectures, gazetteer applications, educational applications, and software components are modeled, prototyped, and evaluated.
  • University of Georgia, Rare Collection at the Hargrett Library – A collection of more than 1,000 historic materials spanning nearly 500 years, from the sixteenth century through the early twentieth century. Although not limited to a single geographic subject, the collection heavily emphasizes Georgia as a colony, state, and surrounding region.
  • The University of Michigan – The principal collection of cartographic materials at the University of Michigan, emphasizing historic and modern mapping, including digital resources. It has the most extensive collection of printed documents in Michigan and is one of the largest at an academic institution.
  • USGS Digital Line Graph Data Browser – University of Virginia Library – Geostat (the Geospatial and Statistical Data Center) houses UVa’s, geospatial, and social science datasets. One of the library’s Electronic Centers, our lab has specialized software to analyze digital geographic and statistical data and trained staff to help you find and access the data you need.

Mapping Books

Whether you’re trying to determine where to meet a client or studying the movements of the subject you’re following, understanding how to read maps can help you navigate the streets and gather the information you need on the individual. Mapping skills are critical for planning surveillance missions and determining safe routes and driving paths when providing personal security and bodyguard services. The following books provide helpful information:

  • The fundamental elements, what they mean, and how to read them
  • The best online websites and reference tools to use for planning your surveillance
  • How to navigate from location to location, chart distances, and estimate travel time
  • The best software programs for computers, tablets, and mobile devices
  • The different types of maps – U.S.A., state, county, city, street, and more

We recommend checking out these specific titles:

SaleBestseller No. 1
Rand McNally 2024 Midsize Easy to Read – 100th Anniversary Collector’s Edition
  • Rand McNally (Author)
  • English (Publication Language)
  • 160 Pages – 04/17/2023 (Publication Date) – Rand McNally (Publisher)
SaleBestseller No. 2
Rand McNally 2024 Large Scale Road Atlas – 100th Anniversary Collector’s Edition (The Rand McNally Large Scale Road Atlas)
  • Rand McNally (Author)
  • English (Publication Language)
  • 286 Pages – 04/17/2023 (Publication Date) – Rand McNally (Publisher)
SaleBestseller No. 3
Rand McNally Road Atlas & National Park Guide 2024: United States Canada Mexico
  • Atlas: A four-color, 132-page National Park Guide details the best of the best in each park — from trails, drives, and natural wonders to programs, museums, and lodges.
  • Atlas: Park inset maps highlight key points-of-interest.
  • Folded Maps: Larger map with a bigger type size than the Rand McNally Folded Map
  • Folded Maps: Clearly labeled Interstate, U.S., state, and county highways
  • Folded Maps: Indications of parks, points of interest, airports, county boundaries, and more
SaleBestseller No. 4
Rand McNally 2024 Road Atlas: United States, Canada, Mexico: 100th Anniversary (Rand McNally Road Atlas: United States, Canada, Mexico)
  • Rand McNally (Author)
  • English (Publication Language)
  • 136 Pages – 05/01/2023 (Publication Date) – Rand McNally (Publisher)
  • National Geographic Road Atlas – Adventure Edition
  • National Geographic Atlas of the World – You never know when a surveillance mission will lead you out of the country and worldwide. Be prepared with an influential atlas from one of the world’s leading authorities.
  • Merriam-Webster’s Geographical Dictionary – Great for quickly looking up information.
  • Map Use & Analysis –  Become an expert on how to use and analyze.
  • Zip Code Atlas: United States Mail Business Bible (United States Zip Code Atlas) – This book may be helpful when researching a particular address or if the only thing you have to start your investigation is a zip code.

In addition, private detectives should familiarize themselves with the latest software tools and apps designed for mobile devices. Having a solid working knowledge of the latest technology and tools will help you plan routes and surveillance while on the go. Check out our article on how to use Google Maps in your surveillance planning process.

Questions and Comments

If you have any questions about these map research websites, please post a comment below.

Michael Kissiah is the owner of Brandy Lane Publishing, LLC, which owns and operates a small portfolio of websites, including Michael created more than 20 years ago after working as a private investigator in the state of Florida. Since that time, he has become an expert at how to find information online and has written over 1000 articles on topics related to the investigation industry. In addition, he is the author of the "Private Investigator Licensing Handbook", available at


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