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Research Guides

Maps & Cartographic Information: Geographic Information Systems (GIS)

Search tips for finding maps, atlases, aerial photos, GIS, and other cartographic materials.

GIS & the Collection

Map Collection staff can:

  • Provide access to GIS and desktop mapping software. The University of Washington has a site license with ESRI which governs who can install the software and how it can be used.
  • Identify, acquire, and provide access to digital geospatial and statistical data for use in GIS.
  • Help you determine your data needs and assist with locating the data to suit those needs.
  • Help you incorporate data into your GIS projects.

Map Collection staff cannot:

  • create maps for you; we can help you find data and integrate it into your existing GIS projects or refer you to technical support.
  • teach you how to use GIS software; we do provide manuals and access to online tutorials.

The Map Collection has collections of digital geospatial data on CD-ROM and on servers for research and educational use. Our collection focuses on the Puget Sound and State of Washington areas, but we also have national and international datasets.

Examples of our data include digital orthophotos of the Seattle area, U.S. Census data, digital line graphs (DLGs) and digital raster graphics (DRGs), as well as datasets from the City of Seattle, King County, and Snohomish County. Information in these datasets includes street layers, bike paths, critical areas (e.g., potential slide areas), building outlines, and much more.

To see some of the digital data that the Map Collection offers online, look at the Geospatial Data Resources Guide (formerly WAGDA). Use of selected datasets is restricted to UW students, faculty and staff due to license agreements with the data creator/provider.

GIS Assistance and Lab

GIS assistance is available from


UW Libraries provides access to a variety of software packages, including TopoUSA, Microsoft Encarta, MapPoint 2000, Census data extraction software, and several applications available through the university-wide ESRI site license.


Data Files

Introduction to GIS

A Geographic Information System (GIS) is a database management system for the display and analysis of digital geospatial data. GIS combines mapping capabilities, databases of geographic and feature information, and spatial analysis to allow users to look at an area in relation to other areas, in relation to changes over time, and in relation to various other factors.

"Simply put, a GIS combines layers of information about a place to give you a better understanding of that place. What layers of information you combine depends on your purpose—finding the best location for a new store, analyzing environmental damage, viewing similar crimes in a city to detect a pattern, and so on." (ESRI, What Is GIS?.)

The Ordnance Survey's GIS Zone provides an interactive introduction to GIS.

Search Tips

Clarify your data needs with this Needs Assessment prior to contacting us for assistance.

Search Tips for Data Provided by Organizations/Agencies

Ask yourself which organization might have produced the data you need:

  • a city, county, or state government?
  • the United States Federal government?
  • another country's government?
  • an international government organization such as the United Nations or the European Union?
  • a nonprofit organization?

Search for their website using a general search engine or try

Can I Buy GIS Data?

GIS data can be expensive. If you are considering buying GIS data for a University of Washington project, please contact us first. We may already own data that would be helpful to you or may be able to help you locate what you are looking for.