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Editions >> Atlas >> What is an Atlas?

There is great difficulty in promoting the idea of a uniform "edition"with respect to the great seventeenth-century Dutch atlases. For many of the German editions, there were nearly universal variations in content from one set of volumes to the next, defying many of our modern notions of bibliography and the idea of the "ideal copy."[19][P. van der Krogt, "Amsterdam Atlas Production in the 1630s: A Bibliographer's Nightmare,"Imago Mundi 48 (1996): 149-160. For a discussion of the concept of "ideal copy,"see F. Bowers, Principles of Bibliographical Description (Newcastle, DE: Oak Knoll Press, 1994), 113-123. Bowers allowed himself an escape clause: "When absolutely necessary, an ideal copy may even be a purely hypothetical reconstruction."Still, the concept is problematic for many sixteenth- to eighteenth-century atlases. It is beyond the scope of this discussion to delve into the specific problems associated with cartobibliography.] Eighteenth-century atlases in many European publishing centers were not well-standardized and the buyer often influenced the selection of the maps.[20][Pedley, 84.]

A recent major cartobibliography, Maps in the Atlases of the British Library…, classifies any book with nine or more maps as worthy of inclusion. This was certainly an editorial decision, justified in the preface:

identifying an "atlas," very simply, as a work with a minimum number of maps (nine), rather than using some intellectually rigorous (and necessarily contentious) definition, … has also helped to dissolve some of the artificial barriers resulting from historical library practices. Whether the work is a printed book illustrated with maps (hence held in the rare books section of the Library), a manuscript atlas (usually held in the Department of Manuscripts but possibly to be found in the Map Library), or an oriental item that might well be in the Oriental and India Office of Collections or in the Map Library, the atlas collations bring all this material together onto one "virtual bookshelf."[21][R. Shirley, Maps in the Atlases of The British Library: A Descriptive Catalog c. AD 850-1800 (London: The British Library, 2004), vii. The preface was written by Tony Campbell, former Map Librarian of The British Library.]

We have, in a certain sense, returned to the beginning: an atlas is a collection of maps in a volume. Perhaps a major point, at least for the effort to define the idea of "atlas," is that attempts to be too restrictive create problems for developing an overview of the subject. From the perspective of historical study, more important questions include the when, where, why, how, by whom, and for what purpose a group of maps have been gathered together and presented as an apparent whole, reflecting the atlas as a social and cultural document. These considerations would also encompass those geographical atlases born and remaining digital.

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