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What Is an Atlas?

An atlas is a collection of geographical maps or charts bound together in a volume. Atlas is also term applied to volumes that contain charts, illustrations, and other material in the form of tables (OED, 1989; Encyclopedia Americana, 2005) An atlas is composed primarily of maps, which are defined as cartographic representations of spatial information transmitted through symbolic images. The common form of a map is a visual map, but other varieties may be maps in a broader sense of maps being any description of spatial information (Mayhew, 2004). An atlas also commonly includes a gazetteer, which is a list of names of the places depicted on the maps in the atlas.


The term “atlas” is probably derived from the common use of a picture of Atlas from Greek mythology holding the earth on his shoulders (Oxford English Dictionary, 1989). This custom started in the 16th century books of maps printed by Gerardus Mercator, entitled Atlas, or a Geographc Description of the World, by Gerard Mercator and John Hondt (Encyclopedia Britannica, 1975; Oxford English Dictionary, 1989). According to the myth, Atlas, a titan, was punished by Zeus for his involvement in the war against Uranus. His punishment was to hold up the sky. In art history, Atlas has been depicted as holding the earth on his shoulders (Encyclopedia Americana, 2005).


The first printed atlas was Ptolemaic, which means it included maps based on the ancient geographical work of Greek philosopher Ptolemy. Called the Cosmographia, they were printed in Bologna, Italy, in 1470 (The development of the printed atlas, 2006). Two copies are in existence, and one copy sold in auction in London for £2,136,000 on October 10, 2006 (Old atlas breaks auction record, 2006). The first modern atlas was published in Antwerp, Belgium, by Abraham Ortelius in 1570, and was entitled Theatrum Orbis Terrarium. It was not based on Ptolemy, but rather all of the maps it included were based on then modern geographical knowledge (The development of the printed atlas, 2006).



The Atlas as a Reference Book

An atlas is a basic reference source for answering questions about geography. It is interesting to note that the Guide to Reference Books does not list atlases in the “General Reference Works” section, but rather in the Social and Behavioral Science section, under the heading Geography, with the subheading “Maps and Atlases” (Balay, 1986).


How to Evaluate Atlases

According to the Reference Books Bulletin Editorial Board Manual (ALA, 1985) from the American Library Association, atlases should be judged based on the following criteria:

“I. Atlas as a whole” (p. 39) (for example, authority, scope, arrangement of maps)

“II. Range and Quality of Individual Maps” (p. 39) (for example, authority, date of publication, types of maps, use of color)

“III. Index/Gazetteer” (p. 41)

“IV. Supplementary Material, e.g., Bibliographies, Descriptive Text, Charts, Tables and Other Features” (p. 41)

Fundamental Reference Sources (Sweetland, 2001) also offers evaluative criteria, helping librarians to know what to look for when choosing atlases and maps.


The Best General World Atlas

According to Sweetland (2001), The Time Atlas of the World, published by Times Books in London (latest edition: 1992), is widely regarded as the best general world atlas available. Some of the positive qualities listed include the fact that it lays flat, maps have arrows to adjoining maps, and the most complete gazetteer available. Minuses include that it is large, heavy, and lacks sources for its information.


Some Examples of Atlases

A sample of atlas titles indicates the wide range of topics that they can cover. Let’s look at three to get an idea of the types of information that can be contained in these reference works. These examples are meant to show the different intentions and various types of knowledge that atlases can convey.


The Cassell Atlas of the Medieval World: AD 600 to 1492 tells the story of the world history during this time period, geographically charting the major historical developments and events of that time period, be they political, military, religious, exploratory, or health-related (Hayward, 1998).


The Atlas of American Indian Affairs aims graphically display statistical data about American Indians. It includes such data as historical population centers, population distribution over time, land ownership and cessions over time, locations of Government Indian schools in 1919, and locations of Indian Health facilities in 1985 (Prucha, 1990).


The History Atlas of Africa spans the entire history of life on the continent, from maps of the locations of among the archaeological findings of the earliest humans, to a map of the continent in 1998 noting the membership of each country in selected international organizations. Part of the purpose of this atlas is to help readers to understand current issues in Africa in light of the previous issues that are evidenced in the maps, foremost of which is the ways in which the current national borders came to be and the way they frequently clash with pre-colonial political issues (Kasule, 1998).



Online Resources for Atlas and Map Collections

United States Geological Survey Home Page: (Online maps)

Geography and Map Division, Library of Congress

Map Division, New York Public Library

Map Collections, British Library

The Yale Map Collection, Yale University

David Rumsey Map Collection (images online from his antique atlas holdings)

American Geographical Society Library (housed at the University of Wisconsin-Milwaukee):


Online Mapping Resources


“National Atlas of the United States” is an online atlas provided by the U.S. Department of the Interior. The site allows you to make your own maps, print maps, order maps, assemble different layers on existing maps; basically, it is an online interactive atlas of the United States.



Mapquest (

Yahoo Maps (

Google Maps (




ALA. (1985) Reference books bulletin editorial board manual. Chicago: American Library Association.


Balay, R., Editor. (1996) Guide to reference books. 11th Edition. Chicago: American Library Association.


The development of the printed atlas, part II: Ptolemaic atlases. (2006). Retrieved November 21, 2006 from


Encyclopedia Americana. (2006). Atlas. In Encyclopedia americana, international edition, 1. Danbury, CT: Scholastic Library Publishing.


Encyclopedia Britannica. (1975). Atlas. In The new encyclopedia britannica, micropaedia, 1. 15th ed. Chicago: Encyclopedia Britannica.


Hayward, J. (1998). The Cassell atlas of the medieval world: AD 600-1492. Oxford: Andromeda Oxford Ltd.


Kasule, S. (1998). The history atlas of Africa. New York: MacMillan.


Old atlas breaks auction record. (2006). Retrieved November 21, 2006, from


Oxford English Dictionary. (1989) Atlas. In The Oxford english dictionary. 2nd ed. Oxford: Oxford University Press.


Prucha, F.P. (1990). Atlas of American Indian affairs. Lincoln, NE, and London: University of Nebraska Press.


Sweetland, J.H. (2001). Fundamental reference sources (pp. 445-533). Chicago: American Library Association.