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Issues in Science and Technology Librarianship
Summer 2009

Tips from the Experts

Soil Surveys -- They're Not Just for Farmers

Lorraine J. Pellack
Head, Science & Technology Department
Parks Library
Iowa State University
Ames, Iowa

Copyright 2009, Lorraine J. Pellack. Used with permission.


Soil surveys may sound boring and useful only to farmers; however, nothing could be further from the truth. Soil surveys do contain inventories of the soils of an area; however, they also contain a wealth of tabular data that help interpret whether a location is suitable for a given use, such as a playground, a golf course, or a highway. This guide will describe soil surveys, their uses, and uniqueness. It will also cover information on the variety of ways they can be cataloged and shelved in libraries and provide search tips for locating them both online and in library collections. While the guide is mainly focused on U.S. soil surveys, there is also some information provided on locating non-U.S. soil surveys. The guide is aimed at the novice librarian, or researcher, as well as librarians starting work at a new library.

What Are Soil Surveys?

Soil survey reports are comprehensive inventories of the soils of an area; they describe the soil resources in exhaustive detail. Soil surveys contain maps that delineate the areas occupied by different soils. They also contain a tremendous amount of tabular data that gives information on specific soil properties and interpretations on whether a soil is suitable for a given use such as a septic tank field. Soil data is used for many applications including placing roads, establishing parks, and planning runoff controls and land use. "People in both rural and urban areas use soil surveys" (Schneider 2002). The first soil survey in the United States was completed in 1899. Over time, soil surveys have evolved as new methods and techniques have developed to collect the information. Soil surveys usually represent one or more counties and the contents vary slightly depending on the area. Utah and Nevada soil surveys, for example, are based on broad geographic regions instead of particular counties like the soil surveys published for Texas and Oklahoma. Most, but not all, U.S. soil surveys were published by the U.S. Department of Agriculture (USDA). While most soil survey guides cover U.S. resources, other countries also publish soil surveys or related material. The frequency of surveying is based on economic importance of the area and likelihood of soil changes. As a result, some geographic regions have had multiple soil surveys conducted while others have only been surveyed once (if at all). For a good overview of the history of soil surveys see Bracke (1997) and also the introduction to the Soil Survey Manual (1993). The Manual also provides in-depth descriptions and interpretations of the various sections of the soil surveys.

Why Are Soil Surveys Useful?

"The information assembled in a soil survey may be used to predict or estimate the potentials and limitations of soils for many specific uses" (Soil Survey Manual 1993). Traditionally, soil surveys have been most heavily utilized for agricultural purposes; however, soil surveys are useful for chemists, geologists, urban planners, landscape architects, ecologists, highway planners, golf course designers, engineers prior to building on a given location, and home buyers. Some researchers just want the newest data while others want to compare data from older soil surveys to current ones to see how the area might have changed over the years.

The earlier U.S. soil surveys consisted of mostly text (with accompanying maps) and contained only three sections: Climate, Agriculture, Soils. Small amounts of data related to non-agricultural uses were included, but required reading the entire report to ferret it out. In the 1950s, the content was expanded to include much more information relevant to non-agricultural uses, especially road construction. Starting in 1963, U.S. soil surveys became more table-oriented. They still included text and maps, but the bulk of the reports were tabular data including the following: historical temperature and precipitation data, growing season, freeze dates in spring and fall, yields per acre of crops and pasture, recreational development (suitability for playgrounds, golf fairways, camp areas, etc.), wildlife habitat potentials (grasses, trees, wetlands, etc.), building site development information (dwellings, commercial buildings, roads, lawns, etc.), sanitary facilities (such as daily cover for landfills, septic tank absorption fields, etc.), water management information (for embankments, drainage, grassed waterways, etc.), and physical/chemical properties of soils (soil types in the area, soil water capacity, shrink-swell potential, soil depth, etc.).

Why Do Soil Surveys Present Unique Problems?

Most, but not all, U.S. soil surveys were distributed to libraries who participated in the U.S. Federal Depository Library Program (either as selective or full depositories). With few exceptions, all congressional districts and territories of the United States have at least one Federal depository library and a number of other selective depositories. The selective depositories can choose which publications they wish to receive and can chose to dispose of them, as opposed to the full depositories, which were required to keep all of the publications. Additional U.S. soil surveys were distributed to agricultural libraries and institutions outside the U.S.

A handful of U.S. soil surveys were published by state agencies (in Illinois, South Dakota, and Wisconsin) and may be harder to find, because they were not issued as part of the Federal Depository Library Program. Some libraries have partial collections of soil surveys because they have chosen to keep only the most current soil surveys or only those covering nearby regions. It can often be almost impossible (short of a trip into the relevant shelving areas or asking a more experienced librarian) to tell which editions or volumes a given library may or may not have available in its collection. These publications can be difficult to locate in library catalogs, for both librarians and researchers, -- if the publications were ever included in the catalog. Some libraries have them in a separate area of government documents that are not cataloged or they have a separate catalog of their government publications. Even experienced librarians who begin a job at a new library can have difficulty locating them as how they are treated varies from library to library.

There are often a number of similar titles to choose between -- e.g., Soil Survey of Iowa Report (published from 1917-1942), Soil Survey (Washington, D.C.), and Field Operations of the Bureau of Soils. Soil surveys for Iowa counties can be found in all three of these series.

The three main titles that were published at the federal level are:

Field Operations of the Division of Soils -- covers 1899-1900
Field Operations of the Bureau of Soils -- covers 1901-1922
Soil Survey (Washington, D.C.) -- covers 1923 to the present

To the outsider, soil surveys appear to have been published in a somewhat haphazard fashion over the years, without much pattern in the frequency of publication. The majority of them cover an entire county, but in some geographic areas they have been modified to cover a significant region(or regions) instead of a county. The List of Soil Surveys by State shows which regions have been published and the dates of publication for each of the surveys.

History of How Libraries Have Dealt with Soil Surveys

Depending on the library, soil surveys have been treated in a number of different ways:

Libraries that have shelved them by SuDoc number also have variation in where they are shelved:

How to Find Soil Surveys in Your "Local" Setting?

If you have government documents in your library collection, try looking for soil surveys in your collection in a number of different ways. (Pretend you are a researcher that is new to your library and see which method(s) are the most/least effective at locating specific soil survey volumes.) This includes using variations in search terms such as "soil survey report" or "soil survey reports" or "soil survey of...(fill in county, state)" or "soil survey of...(fill in the state)"

Method of last resort: title keyword searching for "soil survey" and browsing down through the list to locate the specific serial entries or volume of interest. This method will likely pull up a lot of entries and take some time to peruse.

Go to the shelf and actually look at the set to verify which volumes your library owns and compare them to what typical researchers might be able to find in your local library catalog. If there are incomplete or confusing records, work with your cataloging staff to modify them where possible to be easier for researchers to use the soil surveys. This process will be especially valuable for researchers planning to visit your library to use this part of your collection and it can save researchers time and librarian embarrassment to know what really is available and where the documents are located.

Search Tips or Locating Tips

The USDA is in the process of making soil surveys available free on the web as part of the List of Soil Surveys by State. If a particular county soil survey is available online, it will be hotlinked. The online version of some survey reports can be quite large and take considerable time to download. Be patient. The advantage is you can then search within the text for specific words to jump directly to the section you wish to use. The disadvantage is that in the online environment, it can be difficult to compare the table needed with the section of table definitions and explanations in the front of the volume. New surveys are being completed and published online; however, there does not appear to be any effort going into providing older U.S. soil surveys in electronic format. The USDA has also created an interactive Web Soil Survey which will allow researchers to look for current soil information, based off of published soil surveys. It will also allow researchers to mark a small geographic area (10,000 acres maximum) on a map and have it pull up soil survey information on just that small area. This application is ideal for researchers looking for soil information on a specific building site.

If you want to locate hard copy of specific surveys, and you do not have U.S. government documents in your collection, use the Federal Depository Library Directory to find the nearest depository library: or look for them at the nearest library affiliated with an agricultural program. Visit the library physically, or visit its web site and look for information on which soil surveys are available in the collection. Do not assume the library has all volumes in the series, even if it appears to be a complete set in the library catalog or finding aid.

Using the List of Soil Surveys by State, after you click on the specific state you are interested in, locate the county. If it says "(state)" behind the county name, it means that particular soil survey was published by a state agency and will not be available as part of depository library collections. For example, Illinois has a number of these that were published as part of a different series called "Soil Report" published by the University of Illinois, Agricultural Experiment Station. These can be located by searching university libraries with agricultural programs in the state being researched. In the case of Illinois, they can be found in the library catalog of the University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign by using advanced search for "(county name) and Illinois and soil."

If you are looking for U.S. soil surveys issued from 1923-1962 use the Index to Publications of the United States Department of Agriculture to figure out which number you need for a given year. For example, if you are looking for the "Soil Survey of Worcester County, Maryland" published in 1924 you could either flip through all issue numbers for 1924 or look in the Index to Publications (look up the state name and then the subheading for soil surveys), which should tell you that you need number 11.

If your library has most of the newer U.S. soil surveys in print, it probably also has the older ones. Be persistent in tracking them down and make sure your researchers are able to easily find the surveys they need.

Soil surveys covering areas outside the U.S. can be found by searching the library catalog for "soil or soils" and the applicable country or region -- e.g., (soil or soils) and (Nigeria or Africa). It is not common for U.S. libraries to own many soil surveys for other countries, so do not be surprised if you do not find anything in the library catalog. Also, the Rossiter compendium mentioned below contains links to soil surveys published worldwide that are available online.

Information on a specific type of soil can be easily found by using Official Soil Series Descriptions instead of using soil surveys. The online version has a handy Soil Series Name Search.

If you are unfamiliar with soil surveys, the following exercises should help in tracking down these elusive resources and learning more about them.


  1. Look for the Muscatine County, Iowa, soil survey from 1914. What was the actual name of the soil survey series in which it was published? Also, is it available in your library? If not, where is the nearest library that owns it?

  2. What is the average daily temperature during February in Reno County, Kansas?

  3. Are Bohicket soils good for golf fairways?

  4. Look for soil surveys covering your favorite U.S. county. Find one published pre-1923, another one published from 1923-62, and a third from post-1962. Compare text content, format, length, and library location for surveys issued during each of these time periods. [hint: Maryland and New York are two that have numerous counties that have been surveyed three to four times during these time periods.]

Exercise Answers

  1. Field Operations of the U.S. Bureau of Soils. Where answer found: Index to Publications of the United States Department of Agriculture. The nearest library can be located a number of ways. Use the Federal Depository Library Directory or check WorldCat. Or, look in the library catalog of the nearest university with an agricultural program.

  2. 34.9 degrees Fahrenheit. Where found: online soil survey published in 2002, table 1

  3. Official Soil Series Descriptions will give you information about which geographic regions contain this type of soil, but it will not provide information about "uses." It should tell you Bohicket soil is found in the eastern U.S. along the Atlantic Ocean. Then, look for a soil survey in one of those counties to find information about recreational uses. Soil surveys will not specifically state whether or not it is recommended for golf fairways. The soil survey will tell you that Bohicket soils are areas along the ocean that are flooded twice a day with salt water and that have very poor drainage. In the "recreational" section in the column labeled "golf fairways" it will say "severe: excess salt, excess sulfur." Theoretically, a landscape architect could design a golf fairway for this area as long as there is a way to mitigate the severe soil conditions.

  4. If unable to find one on your own, take a peek at Maryland counties in the List of Soil Surveys by State. Several have had three or more surveys done.


Bracke, M.S. 1997. The dirt under your feet: a brief history and future of soil surveys. Bulletin (Special Libraries Association. Geography and Map Division) 186: 36-40.

Index to Publications of the United States Department of Agriculture. USDA. Washington: U.S. Government Printing Office. Published in increments: 1901-25, 1926-30, 1931-35, 1936-40.

List of Soil Surveys by State. 2007. USDA Natural Resources Conservation Service. [Online]. Available: [Accessed 10 May 2009].

Official Soil Series Descriptions. Soil Survey Staff, Natural Resources Conservation Service, USDA. [Online]. Available: [Accessed 10 May 2009].

Rossiter, D.G. 2008. A Compendium of On-Line Soil Survey Information. [Online]. Available at: [Accessed 10 May 2009].

Schneider, S. 2002. Soil maps and soil surveys." Information Bulletin (Western Association of Map Libraries) 33(2): 86-92.

Soil survey manual. 1993. USDA Soil Conservation Service. Agriculture Handbook no.18. [Online]. Available: [Accessed 10 May 2009].

Web Soil Survey. Soil Survey Staff, Natural Resources Conservation Service, USDA. Available: [Accessed 29 June 2009].

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