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What Is an Atlas?

"A collection of maps in a volume."

-from the Oxford English Dictionary Online

The idea of the geographical atlas has percolated for over five hundred years, predating the printing press and linked to the history of manuscript, nautical portolan charts.[1][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: Papers Given at the Twenty-Ninth Annual Conference on Editorial Problems, ed. Joan Winearls (Toronto: University of Toronto Press, 1995): 3-48.] The definition offered in the epigraph above is both simple and simplistic; yet it reflects the type of entry in most prominent English language dictionaries. This umbrella definition aims at inclusion and begs a more reflective consideration of the term. For some scholars, a geographical atlas was a book of maps with a title page.[2][M. Pastoureau, Les Atlas Français, XVIe-XVIIe Siècles: Répertoire Bibliographique et Etude (Paris: Bibliothèque Nationale de France, 1984), iii.] Others would be less restrictive, which raises the issue of the "composite atlas,"discussed below in the section pertaining to The North American Atlas…, published by William Faden. The average person looking at a modern geographic atlas likely has an "I know one when I see one"attitude.

The use of the word "atlas"to describe a book of maps first appeared in 1595 on the title page of the great Flemish polymath Gerardus Mercator's (Gheert Kremer) Atlas sive cosmographicae…, published shortly after Mercator's death.[3][R. W .Karrow, Jr., "Gerard Mercator—Kremer, de Cremere, Gheert Scellekens, Gerardo Rupelimontano,"in Mapmakers of the Sixteenth Century and Their Maps: Bio-Bibliographies of the Cartographers of Abraham Ortelius, 1570, ed. Karrow, 376-409(Chicago: Speculum Orbis Press, 1983).] The title page has a male figure thought to represent an ancient and wise Mauretian king holding and contemplating the world in his hands.[4][Akerman, 19.] This figure is to be distinguished from the mythical Titan, Atlas, condemned by Zeus to carry the heavens on his shoulders—an image appearing on the title pages of certain bound volumes of maps of the mid-sixteenth-century Italian engraver and publisher Antonio Laferi (Antoine Lafréry), who worked in partnership with Antonio Salamanca in Rome.[5][David Woodward, "Italian Composite Atlases of the Sixteenth Century,"in Images of the World: The Atlas through History, ed. John A. Wolter and Ronald E. Grim, 51-70 (Washington, DC: Library of Congress, 1997). Also see Woodward, "The Italian Map Trade, 1480-1773,"in Cartography in the European Renaissance: Part I, Vol. 3 of The History of Cartography, ed. David Woodward, 773-803 (Chicago: The University of Chicago Press, 2007). For a more detailed discussion of the legends of Atlas, see the entry in William Smith's nineteenth century, 3700 page Dictionary of Greek and Roman Mythology and Biography, which is available online at http://www.ancientlibrary.com/smith-bio/0415.html.]

The history of the atlas is quite complex and goes beyond the ancient practice of maps appearing in books. For many scholars of the history of cartography, an atlas is more than a random bound collection of maps or a group of maps appearing within the pages of a book formed predominantly of text. The most recent pair of volumes in The History of Cartography series, Cartography in the European Renaissance, has five separate index entries for the definition of "atlas."[6][David Woodward, ed., Cartography in the European Renaissance: Part 2, Vol. 3 of The History of Cartography, ed. Woodward (Chicago: The University of Chicago Press, 2007), 2066.] One carefully reasoned suggestion for defining the nature of the atlas includes three major components: the dominance of maps over text; some uniformity of map format, design, and presentation; and some standardization of one copy to another within an edition.[7][Akerman, 4.] This more nuanced conceptualization of the atlas implies the development of substantial editorial control. As with most definitions, this one poses some problems and must account for some exceptions.

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