The structure feature types that volunteers are currently collecting include schools, colleges and universities, fire and EMS stations, law enforcement, prisons and correctional facilities, hospitals, ambulance services, cemeteries, and post offices. Volunteers can collect and update the 10 different structure feature types in all 50 states, as well as in Puerto Rico and the U.S. Virgin Islands.
See our structure list for a quick summary of what these points entail. Click on the links below for additional information on each structure type.
What is a school?
Schools are typically divided into three separate categories based on grade levels offered: Elementary, Middle, and High school. We also include a fourth category (i.e., General School) for those schools whose grade levels do not fall into one of these categories. This is most often the case for schools that combine two or more categories into one organization, such as K-12 schools.
It is important to note that there is no ultimate black-and-white definition for what category a school falls in. Each school district structures their schools in a unique way, and this structure is the ultimate deciding factor of what category a school falls into.
Here are some general guidelines for what each school category entails:
Elementary School: A school for the beginning years of a child's education, often including kindergarten. Does not include combined elementary and middle schools (e.g., K-8 schools), K-12 schools, or any schools where kindergarten is the highest (or only) level offered. Schools covering grades K-8 or grades K-12 should be categorized as a General School. Schools offering PreK-K or K-only are considered preschools and should be deleted.
Middle School: A school between elementary school and high school; levels generally include grades 6th through 8th. However, grades 5th through 8th or 6th through 9th may occur in some states. Does not include schools extending beyond the 8th grade or schools serving 5th grade and below (e.g., PreK-5, K-5, K-12, or 6-12). Schools covering K-12 or 6-12 should be categorized as a General School.
High School: A secondary school attended after middle school that usually goes through grade 12. A high school diploma is offered upon graduation from this type of school. Does not include schools that include 8th grade or lower (e.g., K-7), or schools that include grades in addition to the traditional high school grades (e.g., K-12 or 6-12). Schools covering K-12 or 6-12 should be categorized as a General School.
General School: A building or building complex that offers education for children in grades kindergarten through high school. Includes schools that do not fall into a specific category, such as K-8, K-12, or 6-12 schools.
EXAMPLE: If a school does not self-identify, the table below provides a few scenarios that you might encounter:
School District A
School District B
School District C
Many schools, especially rural schools, have multiple institutions all in one building. Should these be depicted as one school, or multiple schools (elementary school, middle school, high school)? This generally is decided based on information from the school website or the state department of education website. If these websites list separate schools at the same address, then add one point for each school, with each point placed within the footprint of the building. Our March 2019 Newsletter contains an article titled “Rare Find: 4 High Schools in One!” that walks users through this very scenario.
The best place to find information about a school is on a dedicated school and/or district website. These websites are the first to reflect any changes in pertinent information (e.g., name, address, etc.) and therefore are typically the most accurate. If a dedicated school and/or district website cannot be found (as may be the case for smaller, rural, and/or private schools), there are many secondary sources that compile information from authoritative sources into an aggregate list. Examples of secondary sources include:
State department of education websites: These typically include all of the licensed public schools in the state. They may also include private schools, but in general they should not be considered a comprehensive list of private schools because they may only include schools whose school administrators have requested to be on the list.
The National Center for Education Statistics (NCES) maintains a database of public and private schools. This database is a result of a voluntary survey results for the Department of Education. Public schools are surveyed every year. Private schools are surveyed every 2 years. The NCES website allows a search for private or public schools by city, county, or state.
The National Association of Independent Schools has an online searchable database.
The National Parochial Schools Association lists parochial schools by state.
Insiders Tip: Many schools have websites or official Facebook pages that include a news section or event calendar. Before assuming all the information is valid, check to see if recent posts have been made to the page’s news or events section. There are scenarios where a school may have recently closed but its website is still online. Checking the news or events sections for recent updates helps to verify if the school is still in operation.
Check out our Authoritative Sources List for more on the types of sources that are acceptable.
What is a College/University?
The Guidelines definition of College/University is quite specific, and the key factor is that an institution must grant a degree; there are 4 types of degrees: Associate, Bachelor, Master, and Doctoral.
Degree-granting generally is regulated by the States, and so each State has a Higher Education Agency which oversees degree-granting institutions. The US Department of Education has a list of these State Higher Education Agencies. These agencies often maintain lists of the degree-granting institutions in their State (refer to the Data Sources pages on this website for each State to find out where to find these lists).
For the most part, this degree-granting requirement leaves out vocational schools (also called trade schools, career schools, or technical schools), which generally grant certificates but not degrees. An exception is technical colleges which do grant degrees.
A separate issue is accreditation. There are many accreditation organizations which generally are private professional organizations. Each State Higher Education Agency may determine which accreditation organizations have recognized authority within that State. Usually an institution may not grant a degree unless it has been accredited; however there are exceptions to this rule – some States allow religious colleges to grant degrees even if they are not accredited. Conversely, there may be schools that are accredited but do not give out degrees (only certificates).A second, less obvious stipulation in the definition of College/University, is that there be a building used as an institution of higher learning. This leaves out online universities, unless they teach classes in their buildings as well as online.
Where do I place a College/University structure point?
In general, each college/university campus should be represented by a single structure point placed on the administrative building for that college/university. If one does not have firsthand knowledge of the location of the administration building, it can usually be gleaned from a brief examination of the school's web page. If it cannot be determined where the administration building is located, then place the structure point on a building at the center of the main cluster of buildings on the campus.
A University campus may contain several colleges or schools (ie College of Arts, College of Sciences, School of Business, School of Medicine), but so long as these are units of the same University and located on the same campus, then they should be represented by a single point. However in some cases, separate institutions may share the same campus (for example, the Auraria campus in Denver, Colorado is home to Metropolitan State University of Denver, the University of Colorado at Denver, and the Community College of Denver) – in this case each separate institution should be represented by a point.
Some Colleges, especially in an urban environment, may have multiple campuses or widely dispersed buildings. This is somewhat of a grey area, but in general a separate campus should be represented by its own structure point. However, if a dispersed college location consists of a single building, or a few rooms in a single building, then you will have to use your own judgment as to whether it is important enough to be considered a campus and therefore justify a new structure point.
Medical Schools that are co-located with Hospitals should be represented by a college/university structure point only if the medical school is large enough to have at least one building separate from the Hospital; if so, the associated Hospital would also be represented as a Hospital structure type.
Where can I find authoritative lists of Fire Stations?
Try to find out the official name of the station; it often has the format: <fire-department-name> <station-name>. For example "Denver Fire Department Station 1". Official station names sometimes have either a "-" or a "/" in the station name, and while the Attribute Guidelines say that special characters should be avoided, they can be used if necessary to document an official fire station name.
It seems surprising that there are no authoritative lists of fire/EMS stations, but this is because historically it has been felt that it is more important that they can find you, rather than for you to find them. They can find you through the 911 system. The 911 system generally is maintained at the county level, where 911 calls are routed to the nearest Public Safety Answering Point (PSAP). While you are talking to a 911 operator at a PSAP, various manual and automated systems are used to pinpoint the location of the call, to find the nearest fire/EMS (or police) station, and to get directions for how to drive to the scene of the call.
Where can I find authoritative lists of Law Enforcement structures?
How should I name Law Enforcement structures?
A Prison/Correctional Facility consists of federal and state prisons and juvenile detention facilities. It is important to note that city and county jails are not included.
Where can I find authoritative lists of Prison/Correctional Facilities?
State Licensed and Medicare Certified Hospitals; common hospital types are critical access, general, long-term care, psychiatric and rehabilitation.
Where can I find authoritative lists of Hospital/Medical Centers?
The US Department of Veterans Affairs maintains an authoritative list of their facilities. Only VA Health Care System and VA Medical Centers should be included.
Where should I place a Hospital/Medical Center facility structure point?
Hospital locations should be placed at the center of the primary building in the medical complex.
An ambulance service facility is a building that houses a service to transport emergency patients and administer emergency medical treatment but does not include ambulances operated by fire departments.
For-profit ambulance services generally have their own facilities, which should be captured as ambulance service structure points.
Where can I find authoritative lists of Ambulance Services?
Do we include air ambulance (helicopters and fixed-wing aircraft) locations as Ambulance Service locations?
Air ambulances are included as Ambulance Service locations; however it may be difficult to determine where helicopters and fixed-wing aircraft are stationed. Most hospitals have helipads, but these are not home stations for air ambulances. The home stations for air ambulances generally are at airports. State Health Departments may maintain lists of air ambulance services operated within their State.
US Geological Survey topographic maps were produced from about 1879 to 1992 using a combination of aerial photographs and on-the-ground surveys and inventories. In addition to large more-modern cemeteries, many small cemeteries of historical significance were mapped, and these are included in our database. If you are viewing a listed cemetery location in the Aerial Imagery view of the Potlatch editor, and there doesn't seem to be anything visible there, try switching over from aerial imagery to USGS Topos, and then you often will see the notation of a cemetery on the topographic map.
- The Find A Grave website has a quite comprehensive list; you can search for cemeteries by name or county. The website gives latitude and longitude for most cemeteries.
- The Internment.net has a smaller list which can be searched by county.
- The BillionGraves website has coordinates for cemeteries in its database, and shows the location of the cemetery on aerial imagery. You can search their database by county.
- The USGenWeb Project archives list cemeteries by State and County. It also has cemetery lists as part of its Tombstone Transcription Project.
- The Churches and Cemeteries website lists cemeteries by State and County.
- Check the Data Sources page for your State on this website -- there may be local resources with cemetery locations.
What Address should be given for rural cemeteries?
- Locate the cemetery on Google Maps™ Classic.
- Right-click on the road at the cemetery entrance and select "What's Here?"
- In the search box, Google Maps™ will show the latitude/longitude of the point where you clicked.
- In the left pane of the map window, Google™ will show the best mailing address it could come up with using its reverse-geocoding service. If it cannot come up with an address, it still will show the name of the nearest street, and the city and zipcode of the location.
- If there is a road intersection nearby, put in the road names, for example, "County Road 10 and US Highway 20".
- If there is only a single road nearby, use only the name of the nearest road, for example, "County Road 10".
- If no road is nearby, leave the Address blank, and fill in only the nearest city (and zipcode, if you know it).
Why do we collect information about cemeteries?
"...as a lifelong genealogist, I have been frustrated with the gap between local information about cemeteries and what is easily available in a consistent, reliable, national format. I have benefited from hundreds of thousands of hours of work by others and this is the way I am giving back."
There are quite a few types of Location Types you can choose from, but the USGS guidelines stipulate that only official USPS facilities should be included in the National Structures dataset: this translates to the Post office, Village Post office, and Contract Postal Units location types. To do a search for these three types, select “Post Offices and Approved Postal Providers” from the Location Types list and then click on the Refine search link, and then make sure that only Post Offices, Village Post offices, and Contract Postal Units are checked.
This restricted definition means that many locations that sell stamps or have only automated postal centers or only participate in the PO Box Online program, such as markets, banks, and office and mailing supply stores, do not qualify as Post Offices for the National Structures dataset.
The guidelines stipulate that the correct way to name a post office is: <name> Post Office, for example “Pueblo Post Office”. Also, to naming the Contract Postal Unit, the correct way is: Name+Contract Postal Unit or Name+CPU. The name is the name that is shown in the USPS website. Occasionally, you will see a Post Office on the USPS website that has a name like “Westminster (Harris Park)”; in this case, name the post office as: "Westminster Post Office Harris Park Station”. .
Editing/Reviewing Post Offices for a city or county:
You might want to review all of the Post Offices for a city or county. To do this, go to the USPS Find Locations web page; restrict the search to Post Offices and Village Post Offices, and Contract Postal Units; type in the city of interest; and select a reasonable search radius. Then go through all of the locations and make sure they are in the Structures database. If you are working on a county, then successively type in the names of various cities in that county with a reasonable search radius for each so that when each of your search results are combined you get complete results for the whole county. NOTE: there is a USPS web page for searching for Post Offices within a county, but this search uses an out-of-date-database, so it is recommended not to rely on this county search.
What is a City Hall / Town Hall?
A City Hall or Town Hall is the primary administrative building of a township or municipal government. This may include buildings called City Hall, Town Hall, Village Hall, Municipal Building, Municipal Center, City Building or other name variations. City and Town halls are usually associated with Incorporated Places in the U.S. Incorporated places are a legally defined entity and may be called city, borough, town, village (depends on the state). There are over 19,000 incorporated places in the U.S. as per the Census Bureau's Boundary and Annexation Survey (BAS). There are no incorporated places in Hawaii or Puerto Rico.
Characteristics of a City Hall / Town Hall may include the building being open to the public, the city or town mayor and council operating out of that building, as well as assorted departments and employees of local governments.
Please note that this feature class does not include county, state or federal level administration buildings.
Where can I find authoritative lists of City Hall / Town Hall structures?
There are no authoritative lists of City Hall / Town Hall structures. The best way to confirm a City Hall / Town Hall feature point is to research the official website of the city or township.
The closest thing to a national list may be a list of cities and townships on Wikipedia.com, however these only include a small portion of the country’s cities and townships. When using lists like these, it is important that users verify each City Hall / Town Hall with an authoritative source.
Where do I place a City Hall / Town Hall structure point?
Most municipalities or townships have one central building. If this is the case, place the point at the center of the building.
Some municipalities may have a municipal “campus” of buildings with administrative offices; others may have individual buildings that are geographically distributed throughout the city. It is important to note that we are not collecting the location of individual city departments. We are only collecting the primary city/town hall; typically the building that houses the city council and/or mayor’s office. Place the point at the center of this building.
How do I name a City Hall / Town Hall?
Similar to courthouses, try to determine the name of the building when editing City Hall / Town Hall structures. Contact information on government websites usually includes the building name with the address. Examples include Denver’s City Council located in the City and County Building, or Cedar Rapids’s Manager’s Office in the City Hall: