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A Very Special Ben’s Place of The Week:
How To Choose an Atlas

People like to ask me why they should bother with paper maps in our digital information age. I suppose that’s fair, reference information has been moving online with increasing rapidity. Well, call me old-fashioned, but my initial response is usually to point out that some basic map-reading skills can be quite handy, whether you’re a bibliophile or a tech junkie.  As we’ve learned, implicitly trusting GPS technology can lead to some rather unfortunate consequences. The other question I get now and again is a little easier to answer: What makes an atlas worth owning in the first place? For the benefit of anyone who might be wondering about this, I thought I’d compile some simple guidelines.

  • Two can be better than one
    Know what you plan to use the atlas for—most of them are designed to deliver different types of geographical information. A US road atlas is essential if you’re on your way to the in-law’s for the first time, but less helpful if you’re trying to locate the principal wine-growing areas of the Eastern Mediterranean. That said, if you’re planning to drive around the Commandaria region on Cyprus, you might want to consult two atlases before booking a flight to Nicosia. In other words, consider using more than one atlas. If you’re currently atlas-less however, I’d start with a volume that maps all seven continents.
  • Currency is key
    You don’t have to be a demographer or an urban planner to know that the world changes every day. But with that attitude in mind, I recommend flipping to the copyright page right off the bat. Make sure the book you buy was published in the last five years. You should also read the fine print to find out when any statistical data in the atlas was last updated. Then leaf through it to see if recent major geo-political events are represented. Kosovo for example, declared its independence from Serbia this year, thus becoming the most recent nation to emerge from Yugoslavia’s dissolution. Oh, and if you find a page spread for South Asia with labels like “Hindoostan” and “Siam” on it, congratulations, you’re holding a rare book. However, unless you’re a collector, I’d say keep shopping.
  • Count the maps (and pay attention to scale)
    With all of the powerful online resources like Google Earth, a reference book is only as good as the sum of its parts—the more maps a book includes, the more useful it will be when you’re wondering how many autonomous republics Georgia has (it’s two). So take a minute and get a rough sense of the total number of maps. Is it 50 or 150? And don’t settle for a bunch of large-scale maps covering giant swathes of territory-be sure there is plenty of detailed cartography showing countries and cities too.  By choosing carefully, you’ll end up with an atlas that isn’t just heavier and more expensive, but also more likely to have what you’re looking for. Really, if you’re going to fork over the money for a hefty new contribution to your library, you should get the most maps for your buck.
  • Legibility counts
    Good cartographers don’t try to cram every page with place names, relief contours, and dozens of tiny symbols. Maps are necessarily selective and a reader needs to be able to make sense of what they’re looking at. Color is important too. As Mark Monmonier writes in his excellent work How to Lie with Maps, “Persons unaware of the appropriate use of color in cartography are easily impressed and might accept as useful a poor map that merely looks pretty.”  A few years ago a friend gave me a historical atlas that could have been great. Instead, upon browsing its contents I was confronted with one disappointing page after another: shading so bold it obscured the map features, clashing fonts, place names lost in gutters, and so on. Make sure your atlas isn’t just pretty.
  • Don’t be sold on “fluffy features” alone
    Oftentimes, atlases that have less in the way of comprehensive coverage mask this fact with an abundance of stock photography, geographic trivia, and slick design elements. Now personally, I appreciate a volume that can tell me Suriname’s GDP while also plotting the Trans-Alaska Pipeline, but let’s not forget that what we are after is quality cartography. Many atlas publishers now include fact books or gazetteers offering short summaries of countries and territories, but these features shouldn’t be the main attraction. And remember, a page cluttered with images leaves less space for the maps themselves.
  • Consult the index
    Last but not least, turn to the index. In essence, this element is basically the search engine for any work of reference. The more entries your atlas’s index has, the more layers of geographic information you’ll find on each page. And (bearing in mind my earlier point about legibility) that’s a good thing. Start by checking for a place that’s been in the news or has left you stumped lately. Is it there? How about historical names? If you didn’t know that—popular brands of gin aside—we’re calling Bombay Mumbai these days, would you still be able to find it in the index? And for those of you who want to use your new atlas in tandem with your favorite web mapping application, think about purchasing a book that lists latitude and longitude along with letter figure grid references in its index.

Ben Keene is the editor of Oxford Atlas of the World. Check out some of his previous places of the week.

Recent Comments

  1. Brian

    DO not buy any atlas that does not have some kind of asterisk with Kosovo because it is not a country it is a province of Serbia. That is just a UN fact. Atlas with an independent Kosovo are just simplistic crap that do not reflect reality at all.

  2. Ben

    Thank you for posting a comment Brian. You may be interested to learn that according to the UN’s own Department of Public Information, “The recognition of a new State or Government is an act that only States and Governments may grant or withhold. The United Nations is neither and, therefore, does not possess any authority
    to recognize a State or a Government.” Our decision to include Kosovo in the 15th Edition Atlas of the World was based on its recognition by both Britain and the United States.

  3. Thomas

    I have an atlas that has maps that cross both pages of the book. Drives me crazy, because everything I am looking for is always in the crease. So make sure when you get an atlas, that you can actually use the book

  4. Chris

    Thanks for the tips, Ben. But how can I apply them to your company’s big new Comprehensive Atlas of the World (ISBN 0195374797) when the OUP website provides so little information about it? Do you expect people to pay $250 for it without seeing so much as a single sample map?

  5. Ben

    We’re working to get some sample pages posted online Chris. Thanks for your feedback.

  6. Andrew

    Yours is almost word for word the advice I have given out.
    Family budgets being what they are, I add to the Two Can Be Better than One theme:
    Those for whom a 3 digit price tag is out of the question should shop used for the large detailed atlas with beautiful cartography. Then for $20.00 every year or so, buy a more or less disposable supplementary atlas with the newest countries and recent statistics.

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