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Editions >> Atlas >> Introduction by Lauren Coats

In short, it >is the atlas as a whole rather than the individual maps contained therein that motivates this digital publication of the Ameri[c]an Atlas. To explain why this artifact is interesting as an atlas requires some further historical explanation. Atlases have been around for centuries. The term "atlas"was first used by Gerardus Mercator in 1595 in his Atlas sive Cosmographicae Meditationes de Fabrica Mundi et Fabricati Figura.[2][Mary Pedley, ed., The Map Trade in the Late Eighteenth Century: Letters to the London Map Sellers Jefferys and Faden (Oxford: Voltaire Foundation, 2000), 10.] Most cartographic historians date the first atlas to 1570 when Abraham Ortelius put together a "published set of maps with a title page and table of contents indicating a standard package;"[3][David Woodward, "The Techniques of Atlas Making,"The Map Collector 18 (1982): 2.] if Ortelius didn't use the name "atlas,"he produced the object that we now call an atlas. Yet, a fuller history of the atlas shows that the object predates 1570. Before the Dutch cartographic innovators like Ortelius and Mercator, Antonio Lafreri in the late sixteenth century had compiled an atlas factice, which is a collection, either loose-leaf or bound, of previously issued maps that that were printed and sold individually. Lafreri gathered together extant printed maps for his Italian patrons. The gathering together of cartographic information into a volume – what we call an atlas – can be traced back to the atlas factice. The atlas factice as precursor to the atlas we know today, however, has become an afterthought in cartographic studies. Cartographic scholarship tends to focus on atlases proper, especially those by famous geographers, and has little to say about the atlas factice as a unique set of maps compiled at the request of the user, or perhaps chosen by the bookseller or printer, and bound together. Certainly scholars have studied some of the more famous atlases factices in great detail (such Jeanette Black's study of the Blathwayt Atlas, a collection of maps from the late seventeenth century bound together for William Blathwayt, then secretary to the Lords of Trades and Plantations and as such integral to the formation of the British Empire).[4][Woodward, "The Techniques of Atlas Making,"4. See also James R. Akerman, "From Books with Maps to Books as Maps: The Editor in the Creation of the Atlas Idea,"in Editing Early and Historical Atlases, ed. Joan Winearls (Toronto: University of Toronto Press, 1995), 7.] For the most part, though, the atlas factice has failed to interest scholars who have tended to focus on extraordinary works made by and for major figures – not ordinary works owned by anonymous users.

That the atlas factice consists of maps, each of which is seen as an individual item, is perhaps one reason why the atlas factice has been studied so little, as cartographic scholars have worked hard to elucidate the significance of individual and especially exemplary maps. Studying a set of maps put together after their publication by an unknown person seems to pale in significance compared to studying a history of great cartographic firsts. What does it matter that someone, somewhere, decided to bind this particular collection of maps together in a group, if we already know about the individual maps and their maker(s)? Yet we might learn something from considering the compilation of the atlas factice. One thing the atlas factice helps us study is the status of the original. Peter van der Krogt writes that "an ideal copy of an edition [of early atlases] does not exist, because such a concept implies that all copies of all the same edition will include exactly the same maps."[5][Jeanette Black, The Blathwayt Atlas, 2 Vols. (Providence, RI: Brown University Press, 1970-1975).] He maintains that the inevitable variation in copies of early atlases – especially due to early methods of printing and binding – makes it impossible to identify any one as the ideal copy against which all others will be compared. Thus, pushed to its logical extreme, there are only variants even in the case of a proper atlas. In short, Krogt allows us to think of all atlases as a kind of atlas factice. For the atlas factice, this variation is foundational: not only does the selection of maps usually differ, but variation is virtually guaranteed because even two atlases factices with the same selection of maps might have different bindings, a different handwritten table of contents, or other differences in their accompanying materials. This variety impedes the empirical eye of most historic cartographic studies, especially as so many of these atlases factice have been disassembled (to maximize profit by selling the individual maps) or have disappeared into private collections and library special collections. No wonder, then, that this cartographic phenomenon has eluded extended scrutiny. Publishing the Ameri[c]an Atlas provides the opportunity to study the phenomenon of atlas factice as a way of putting together geographical knowledge that is always unique and variable.

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