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Volume I, Issue 2, June 14, 2002

Local Map Resources in Michigan

Kathleen Weessies, Maps/GIS Librarian, Michigan State University Libraries,


Public and academic reference librarians may find they receive questions about local land use that are not easily addressed through mass-market publications. To find land use information in Michigan, it is necessary to understand who creates the information, where the information is stored, and if and/or how this type of information is distributed. This article examines a variety of map resources that relate to zoning, flood risk, and historical land ownership. The purpose of this article is to assist librarians in guiding patrons to resources that exist inside and outside the library. The author urges librarians to build collections of local government maps that may not otherwise be preserved.


Questions relating to land use are frequently received at reference desks, particularly in public and academic/college libraries. Common questions may be from an entrepreneur interested in zoning, a landowner concerned with flood risks, or a genealogist looking for historical ownership. These three hypothetical patrons have a common interest in very large-scale information, parcel-by-parcel and house-by-house data. For the reference librarian wishing to address these needs, large-scale maps are necessary. Such products, however, aren't always available for purchase. Maps and atlases published each year and made available through standard map and book vendors are small-scale, and of virtually zero use for detailed information. This article will examine a variety of land use resources as they relate to the needs of these three patrons. Not all the materials that can help them are located in libraries or can be acquired by libraries. The purpose of this article is to help librarians guide these types of patrons to the correct answer, wherever it may be.

Finding Land Use Information

To find land use information or to direct a patron to the correct source, it is necessary to understand who creates the information, where it is stored, and if and/or how this information is distributed. Of the three patron groups mentioned in the first section, landowners are most interested in topics that affect their status as ultimate rulers of their domain. These topics include the presence of wetlands on a specific piece of property, the property's susceptibility to disaster (which in Michigan primarily means threat of flooding), and local planning issues such as eminent domain, assessment projects, and zoning changes. Real estate developers are interested in existing or future legal encumbrances on land they do not yet own. Genealogists are interested in learning which parcel of land a person or family owned. These questions can all be addressed using large-scale maps. In map terms, 'large-scale' means the maps are close-up, showing great detail for a small area of land. Scale in maps is relative. There is no rule of what is 'large-scale' or 'small-scale'; the terms are most meaningful in comparison to other maps (Larsgaard, 1998). This article is concerned with the level of detail that provides information at a house-by-house level. For this purpose, only maps with a scale of 1:24,000 (1" = 2,000 feet) or larger will be useful.

Large-scale information, often produced by local governments, is expensive to create and requires some work to discover and gather. For those reasons, it makes most sense for librarians to concern themselves with the resources available for their local area. Map reference literature is very limited, but what little there is makes note of the fact that patron requests are skewed toward the local area (Larsgaard, 1998). In one small college library study, more than 50% of map-related questions were for areas within 100 miles of the library (Brunvand, 1991). In another study, 80% of questions were for places within 200km [124 miles] of the library (Leeuwenberg, 1982). Therefore, librarians may focus their attention on building local information resources for their area, and be confident that they will be serving the majority of patron requests.

The Creation of Land Information

The responsibility for regulating land use is shared between national, state, and local governments. The activity of creating large-scale maps to reflect such regulation is similarly shared. Land use decisions are largely a product of local government, but are heavily influenced by state and federal government decisions that have land-use implications (Johnson, 1989). The federal government retains control of such issues as defense and interstate commerce. In recent decades the federal role expanded to include structural defense against flooding and improving navigable streams, lakes, and ocean shorelines. Even more recently the role has further expanded to protect wetlands of a certain size and to regulate the quality of water for human and wildlife health reasons (Gaddie & Regens, 2000).

The balance of administrative responsibility between the three levels of government varies widely from state to state. Michigan, for instance, is somewhat unusual with its robust township level governments. In many states, townships exist largely in theory and have little administrative responsibility. Michigan is also unique in its long history and expertise with wetlands and flooding. This is partly due to the presence of the Great Lakes and partly because Michigan has so many scattered wetlands and readily available groundwater. 1

The Michigan state government also is one of only two states to administer the regulation of larger wetlands normally under the jurisdiction of the federal government. In an unusual agreement with the federal government, Michigan was able to streamline state and federal administration at the state level. The state government goes further to regulate small wetlands (Cwikiel, 1996) and to limiting development in floodplains (Michigan Compiled Laws, 2001). County, township, and city governments concern themselves with parcel mapping and assessment issues relating to the collection of property taxes. Since 1921 city and village governments also have had the right to organize zoning boards and regulate land use within their jurisdiction. Townships and counties gained similar rights in 1943 (VerBurg, 1998).

Fourteen regional planning organizations have formed within the state to coordinate land-planning activities in particular regions. They do not take away the legal authority of local governments, but pool resources and expertise for issues of regional importance.

Figure 1: Regional Planning Commissions in Michigan

Name Description
Southeast Michigan Council of Governments (Region 1) 143 government units in Wayne, Oakland, Livingston, Macomb, Monroe, St. Clair, and Washtenaw Counties
Region 2 Planning Commission (Region 2) Local units of government in Hillsdale, Jackson, and Lenawee Counties
Southcentral Michigan Planning Council (Region 3) Local units of government in Branch, Calhoun, Kalamazoo, and St. Joseph Counties
Southwestern Michigan Commission (Region 4) Local units of government in Berrien, Cass and Van Buren Counties
GLS Region V Planning & Development Commission (Region 5) Local units of government in Genesee, Lapeer, and Shiawassee Counties
Tri-County Regional Planning Commission (Region 6) Local units of government in Clinton, Eaton, and Ingham Counties
East Central Michigan Planning & Development Regional Commission (Region 7) Local units of government in Arenac, Bay, Clare, Gladwin, Gratiot, Huron, Iosco, Isabella, Midland, Ogemaw, Roscommon, Saginaw, Sanilac, and Tuscola Counties
West Michigan Regional Planning Commission (Region 8) Local units of government in Allegan, Kent, Ionia, Mecosta, Montcalm, Osceola, and Ottawa Counties
Northeast Michigan Council of Governments (Region 9) Local units of government in Alcona, Alpena, Cheboygan, Crawford, Presque Isle, Montmorency, Oscoda and Otsego Counties
Northwest Michigan Council of Governments (Region 10) Local units of government in Antrim, Benzie, Charlevoix, Emmet, Grand Traverse, Kalkaska, Leelanau, Manistee, Missaukee, and Wexford Counties
Eastern Upper Peninsula Regional Planning & Development Commission (Region 11) Local units of government in Chippewa, Luce and Mackinac Counties
Central Upper Peninsula Planning & Development Regional Commission (Region 12) Local units of government in Delta, Dickinson, Marquette, Menominee, and Schoolcraft Counties
Western Upper Peninsula Planning and Development Regional Commission (Region 13) Local units of government in Baraga, Gogebic, Houghton, Iron, Keweenaw and Ontonagon Counties
West Michigan Shoreline (Region 14) Local units of government in Lake, Mason, Muskegon, Newaygo, and Oceana Counties

Publishing and Preservation

As previously mentioned, to find land use information or to direct a patron to the correct source, it is necessary to understand the origins and distribution of land use information. The economics and logistics of map creation affect how this happens. Governments are less likely to mass publish and distribute maps of large scale for a number of reasons. Original maps are extremely expensive to make. Also, a larger scale means that more sheets of paper are required to print a map for a given geographic area. Further, the product will be of interest to a smaller number of people and, therefore, less likely to return the cost of publication. Once printed, the publisher has the inconvenience of housing maps that are bulky and awkward to store. For historical information, the maps must also survive the dangers of being lost or thrown away. To survive, the maps must be perceived to have future value that offsets the cost and inconvenience of storage.

While local governments often have such information open to the public, little budget is devoted to make the information widely available. Local governments generally treat these maps as working documents and not as things that should be saved for their own sake (McGlamery, 2000). The government office may own only a single master copy of a map that is continuously updated and unable to be reproduced well, if at all. Maps are not produced with future users in mind. For instance the author recently viewed a local wetlands map that had no title, no year of publication, and no statement of responsibility. The few people who needed to use it understood this information; it wasn't considered a necessary addition to the document.

With the assumption by local government that such maps are of little or no interest to the general community or to posterity (or at least not valuable enough to offset the cost of and issues related to storage), little effort is made to archive them for an extended period of time. Local maps and plans are most likely to be stored and made available to the public if the government passes copies along to a library or other organization interested in long term preservation of documents. The maps are often not printed on a long-lasting media, not credited properly, and are stored rolled with rubber bands and paper clips that eventually destroy the paper and ink of maps.2 One improvement over the last decade is that maps are now rarely printed on diazotype, or 'blueline', a reactive paper that produces blotchy prints that yellow quickly in sunlight. Today's paper, ink and toner commonly used for plotting and photocopying large sheets are no better or worse than standard photocopy paper and toner. Color ink-jet prints still have serious fading issues (Yegyazarian, 2001) but, with careful storage, they are more readable and reproducible than the old bluelines. Data is moving online, but databases evolve continuously and are rarely archived as snapshots in time. Map creators may be unaccustomed to making and selling copies of their products, but with polite negotiations they may find a way to do so. In time, government officials may discover they are pleased to be able to refer casual enquirers to the library in order to use maps.

Sources for Land Use / Land Cover Information

As stated before, much of the most valuable parcel-by-parcel information is generated at the local level. The federal government, however, does produce some maps of great utility. Libraries may acquire some of the resources listed below but the acquisition process is more laborious than the procedures used with mass-distributed items.

Land Ownership

Figure 2: East Lansing, Michigan Parcel MapThe responsibility of keeping track of who owns which bit of land is shared between county and township/city governments. Maps containing information on every plat of land are known as "parcel maps". Creating and maintaining parcel maps is not legally mandated, but is convenient to local governments in carrying out their business. A county government often creates parcel maps for smaller units, but cities or townships with large populations may have the resources to take over the job. The only way to know is to first call the local unit of government, then the county, then the regional planning commission to see if any have been made. Parcel maps generally are Figure 3: Detail from "Saugatuck Township" in Atlas of Allegan County, Michigan. 1873.not labeled with landowner names, but are useful to the unit of government for planning purposes. For maps labeled with landowner names, the only commonly available product, outside local government offices, is a plat book.

County Plat books

County plat books have long been friends to genealogists because they make note of the owners of parcels of farmland. The first major era of plat book production in Michigan was in the latter half of the nineteenth century when private firms sent salesmen to county governments offering to create county plat book atlases. These older products are usually oversized and are often hand-painted. Each parcel of land over a certain size, 10 acres for example, is delineated and labeled with the owner's name. The focus is on rural land, so owners of incorporated land and small parcels are not identified. Some atlases contain additional historical information, such as paid advertisements by area businesses and photographs of residents. The atlas publishers would frequently canvass the town searching for subscribers. The Kalamazoo County 1910 plat book, for instance, includes 237 photographs of county landowners, their children, their farm, and their livestock. After about 1915 the practice died out, and plat books were few until the W. W. Hixson & Co. of Rockford, Illinois began publishing small inexpensive plat books. Hixson products were 8.5" x 11" and printed on newsprint type paper. Plat book coverage during the first half of the twentieth century is spotty and inconsistent across the state. Also hailing Rockford, Illinois is the Rockford Map Company. Since 1944 this firm has Figure 4: Detail from "Saugatuck Township" in Allegan County Atlas and Plat Book. 2000.published plat books for most counties of Michigan. Other plat book publishers that share the Michigan market are Farm and Home of Belmond, Iowa; Cloud Cartographics of St. Cloud, Minnesota; and Athentic, Inc. of LaPorte, Indiana. In recent years some Michigan counties have developed staff and expertise to self-publish plat books. Currently these include Allegan, Ontonagon, and Schoolcraft counties. The best way to discover the publisher of a county's plat book is to call the county clerk's office and ask. The county will sell copies of the plat book or will at least refer one to the proper vendor. These groups rarely retain extra copies of old editions for sale. Therefore plat books must be acquired as they are published. Historical plat books are hard to come by and are usually expensive when found. A typical 19th century county plat book generally sells for between $500 and $1,000; individual township pages removed from atlases may also be found for sale around $50 each.

Figure 5: Meridian Township, Michigan Zoning Map 2001.Current Land Use & Zoning

Local governments, with the approval of their voting constituents, have the choice of creating a zoning system to control development. The township or municipal government is responsible for maintaining a map showing the zoning classifications for the jurisdiction. The creation of such maps may be completed by the appropriate regional planning commission.

Local units of government vary greatly in their ability to reproduce and share zoning maps for the community.


When the Clean Water Act was passed in 1970, the Michigan state government soon began to negotiate taking over many U.S. Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) Figure 6: Wetlands map, MSU Institute for Water Research, 2002activities in order to consolidate state activities. Delineating wetlands within the state of Michigan is now primarily the function of the Michigan Department of Environmental Quality (DEQ). Michigan's DEQ has been delegated responsible for making decisions as long as they use the same definitions and standards as set down by the appropriate state and federal agencies (Cwikiel, 1996). Communities most likely to have large-scale wetland maps are those who have incorporated wetland development rules into their zoning ordinances. While in many states, citizens would need to contact a federal agency for water-related information, in Michigan, water related reference questions often need not go higher than the state government for answers (Gaddie, 2000).

The Department of Interior's Fish and Wildlife Services has created a National Wetland Inventory (NWI) map series. These maps can be purchased two ways: as clear overlays to topographic maps or as paper sheets that contain wetland information combined with topographic map features. The sheets are at a scale of 1:24,000 and possess the same sheet naming system as the more familiar 1:24,000 U.S.G.S. topographic maps series. The Michigan maps were not available for purchase for some time, but have recently become available again for purchase. They are also available in digital format at the NWI web site, [Opens a new window]. Geographic information system (GIS) software such as ArcExplorer is necessary to view the files. Wetlands are now viewable in an online tool developed by the Michigan State University Institute for Water Research, available at [Opens a new window]. 3 The data is derived from the printed NWI maps. The National Wetland Inventory maps are not legally enforceable. Only the local and state governments can legally define and delineate the precise legal wetland boundaries on or around a property.


Prevention of, and recovery from, disastrous flooding has been the responsibility of citizens and local governments throughout much of our nation's history. The federal government's role began in the early 19th century as projects intended to improve the navigability of rivers at times provided coincidental protection against flooding. Today the Army Corps of Engineers and the Federal Emergency Management Agency (FEMA) share flood prevention and reaction activities. Communities are strongly encouraged to limit building in flood-prone areas, but the federal government does not mandate this. Michigan state law holds that no building may be built within a 100-year floodplain Figure 7: Flood Insurance Rate Map. FEMA, 2001.without a permit (§31 of Act 451, 2001). Many structures exist within floodplains, as they were built before such legislation was passed.

FEMA's Flood Insurance Rate Map Program publishes very large-scale maps and reports depicting flood hazard areas for participating communities. As not all communities participate, the absence of a community's map in the series does not necessarily indicate the absence of flood zones. These maps are large scale (1:12,000, or 1 inch = 1,000 feet).

Reference Issues

Finding land use information requires many of the same steps used to address other reference questions. When on the trail of land use information, four questions must be addressed: who creates this information; who stores this information; who will make this information available to the patron; and has the library acquired this information? Some land use information is collected by and can be found within libraries. Some is archived as public record and is accessible through government agencies. There is always the possibility that the information was never gathered in a manner that is desirable to the patron. Librarians should not jump too quickly to this conclusion, but it does loom as a possibility in the background of every reference transaction.

Understanding the creation and distribution of local land information is of great help to reference librarians. This background, however, does not excuse librarians from conducting reference interviews. It is not necessary to always hand the patron off to a local government office, but it also is not feasible to collect all this information in the library. The library should collect what it can in accordance with the institutional collection development policies. A well-prepared librarian should also have on hand contact information for the myriad of relevant departments from the three levels of government.

Additional Sources

Directory of Michigan municipal officials, with selected listing of state & federal offices. (2002). Ann Arbor, MI: Michigan Municipal League.

Michigan township officials' directory. (1999). Lansing, MI: Michigan Townships

Miles, W. (1975). Michigan atlases and plat books: A checklist 1872-1973. Lansing, MI: Michigan Dept. of Education, State Library Services.

Sankey, M. L., & Ernst, C. R. (Eds.). (1998). The Librarian's guide to public records : The complete state, county, and courthouse locator. Tempe, AZ: BRB Publications.


Brunvand, A. (1991). Mental maps and collection development: A view from Colorado. Western Association of Map Librarians Information Bulletin, 23(1), 35-41.

Cwikiel, W. (1996). Living with Michigan's wetlands: A landowner's guide. Conway, MI: Tip of the Mitt Watershed Council.

Decker, T. S., Horn, W. A., Longworth, G. N., & Powsner, E. M. (1999). Land use law update in Michigan. Eau Claire, WI: National Business Institute.

Fluharty, M. (1996). Toward integrated land use planning : Report to the Michigan Natural Resources Commission. Lansing, MI: Environmental Administration Division, Michigan Dept. of Management and Budget.

Gaddie, R. & Regens, J. (2000). Regulating wetlands protection: Environmental federalism and the states. Albany, NY: State University of New York Press.

Johnson, A.T. (1989). Intergovernmental influences on local land use decision making. Washington, D.C.: National League of Cities.

Larsgaard, M. (1998). Map librarianship: An introduction (3rd ed.). Englewood, CO: Libraries Unlimited.

Lathrop, A. (1980). The provenance and preservation of architectural records. The American Archivist, 43(3), 325-338.

Leeuwenburg, J. (1982). Map reference work in an academic library. Globe, 18, 9-18.

McGlamery, T. P. (2000). The impermanence of maps in the digital age [Presented at the 1999 International Federation of Library Associations Conference]. INSPEL, 34(1), 52-9.

Michigan Compiled Laws. §324.3108 (2001).

Moore, J. & Moore, D. (1989). The Army Corps of Engineers and the evolution of federal flood plain management policy. Boulder CO: Institute of Behavioral Science, University of Colorado.

New York Document Conservation Advisory Council. (1988). Our memory at risk: Preserving New York's unique research resources. Albany, NY: New York State Education Dept.

Thompson, M. M. (1988). Maps for America (3rd ed.). Reston, VA: U.S. Department of the Interior, Geological Survey.

VerBurg, K. (Ed.). (1998). Michigan laws relating to planning. East Lansing, MI: Department of Resource Development, College of Agricultural and Natural Resources, Michigan State University.

Yegyazarian, A. (2001). Fight photo fade-out. PC World Magazine, 19(7), 48.


1 30% of Michigan's lands are estimated to be wetlands (Gaddie & Regens, 2000, p. 58). Back to article
2 For shocking descriptions and photographs of information storage methods at some local governments, see New York Document Conservation Advisory Council's Our Memory at Risk, 1988. Back to article
3 With support from the MSU Agriculture Experiment Station, MSU Extension, and MSU Libraries, Computing and Technology. Back to article