Atlas Evaluations

The effectiveness of an atlas seems to be subject to quite a few competing pressures. They are both aesthetic and functional works, the competing pressures of which combine with the need to limit costs (As pointed out by Jeremy Black in Maps In History) to dictate the layout and richness of an atlas. An atlas’s character is dictated by these pressures and the available content. An atlas that is primarily intended for use as a reference work, such as Hewes’ Scribner’s Statistical Atlas of the United States does not need to focus on the aesthetic factor, and is set up on a strict grid system of rectangular text and maps. It uses the absolute minimum of color in order to convey its information.

from Scribner's statistical atlas of the United States

Everything is rectangular, and arranged in columns. The absolute minimum color is used.

By way of contrast, Derek Hayes’ Historical Atlas of the United States is an aesthetic object. It is a functional work describing the history of America and the process of cartographic evolution in America. The combination of many different styles of maps, along with variation in scale and color and a willingness to break from a strictly rectangular grid create an atlas with a much higher aesthetic value. One good example of this is the section “Voyages to the Northwest.” Because some of the maps used in the section depict the coastline but have large volumes of empty or irrelevant space, the passage uses that space rather than leave portions of the page blank, as can be seen in the example below.

from the Historical Atlas of the United States

Use of otherwise dead space in a rectangular layout.

There are two important facets of this willingness to go beyond a strictly measured grid pattern in the layout. The first is that it enlivens the atlas, and the second is that the text always remains organized in columns and the main text is almost always arranged so that it has a vertical left edge, an important allowance for readability. Hayes’ atlas is a large, full color, heavy, and expensive volume, but it has two things going for it. First, the way it examines cartography alongside history allows it to use already-existing maps rather than creating maps exclusively for the atlas, reducing costs. Second, because it is an aesthetic work rather than simply functional, it has value beyond the information printed on its pages. While Scribner’s atlas could be replaced by a database of charts and associated analysis, Hayes’ volume has a collective value, which leads me to think that it represents the future course of atlas creation, if one exists.

Returning to a study of the specifics of an individual atlas article, the interactions between the text and the maps (and occasional other illustrations) is immediately apparent as the source of an atlas’s value as a distinct work. A single topic generally varies between 750 and 1500 words per page devoted to it, including the footnotes associated with individual maps. The maps are directly illustrative of the text, not simply for direction but intimately connected to the text by either analysis or direct reference. The footnotes are smaller and in a different font than the main text, to separate them from it. In the Hayes atlas, the background color is chosen to complement or contrast with the maps, as shown in the examples below.

From the Historical Atlas of the United States

Use of contrasting pink and green.

From the Historical Atlas of the United States

Use of complimentary green colors

Making a stand-out and successful modern atlas, then, involves balancing three parts on the creator(s). One part is the part of the historian and analyst, crafting the framework that conveys the intent of the atlas. The next part is cartographic understanding, both in support of the first part and in order to chose or create the appropriate maps in order to illustrate and create the structure of that framework. The final part is that of the artist, blending the aesthetics of text, graphics, and layout to create a harmonious final product that must, in order to excel as a stand-alone work, be more than the simple sum of its component parts.

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