Stories & Lies: What an Atlas Reveals

June 24, 2020

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If you’re inside, you may as well look at a few maps.” Such is the wisdom of Caitlin Snaring, the winner of National Geographic’s 2007 Geography Bee. Caitlin was a high school sophomore at the time, and was never without a map in her lap as she studied. Her journey is detailed in Ken Jenning’s wonderful book, “Maphead.” Every geography geek needs to read it. In today’s column, I want to delve into what Ken calls the “Wide Weird World of Geography Wonks.”

Last week I had the opportunity to attend the GeoEd conference. (The GeoTech team did a fantastic job of pivoting the conference to a virtual format, while we geography teachers are hunkering down in Kentucky, California, Pennsylvania, Oregon, New York, Idaho and many other places.) During our virtual happy hour, we discussed the value of cartographic education. That will be the topic of a future article, but it led me, again, to my atlas collection. Atlases are fantastic tools for teaching and learning about cartography, and they graphically illustrate the complexity of cartographic messaging.

But, what makes an atlas?

In some atlases, maps are supplementary to the narrative. Similar to National Geographic’s “Into the Unknown,” “The Atlas of Holy Places & Sacred Sites” begins each chapter with a full-spread map, but the remaining pages of each chapter are all rich text, illustrations and beautiful photographs. In contrast, some atlases have almost no narrative at all—the map is the story.

Rand McNally has guided my adventures for over 30 years. I have the dog-eared edition my grandparents gave me for a graduation present (along with a cooler—they knew I was going to be a wanderer) and a shiny new edition in each vehicle. Aside from a few blurbs about scenic routes and the metadata about each state, there is no narrative; the meticulously drawn maps are the story. When my beloved in-laws get annoyed with my pacing as they discuss dinner plans, they hand me one of these. I’ll actually sit still, sucked into all of the places I’ve been, want to go, and may never go.

Page pairs: Open up the book

Most of my atlases are hybrids of these two models. Page pairs are arguably the most effective format for blending narrative and cartography. With two facing pages, a self-contained story is told; then each page pair becomes a building block in the epic of the atlas itself.

Of course, this format has many variations. The “Atlas of Oregon,” second edition, and the “Atlas of Yellowstone,” both from the University of Oregon’s InfoGraphics Lab, are rich in color and infographics, with charts, tables and text, as is the “Maya Atlas.” The latter has hand-drawn maps of dozens of villages, with information on language, demographics and economics.

Other atlases deliver information with stark yet complex cartography. An exceptional example is the “Historical Atlas of the American West,” published by the University of Oklahoma Press. It is entirely black and white, and most maps are of the same scale, showing the same area. On the left page is a map, with the explanatory text on the right, with topics as varied as Cheyenne and Nez Perce Evasion Treks, Stagecoach Routes and Fur Bearing Animals.

Some atlases take an entirely different approach. In a very different “Historical Atlas of the American West,” Derek Hayes weaves over 600 maps into a powerful saga that spans centuries and takes us from Alaska to Mexico. Stories cross many pages, leading the reader to explore further.

It’s only three inches from Beatty to Las Vegas, and from Colbrook to Nashua

 Effective as they are for telling stories, page pairs can be unintentionally deceptive. In Rand McNally, Nevada is on the left and New Hampshire is on the right, each taking up a whole page. Why do they appear the same size, even though Nevada is ten times the size of New Hampshire? Three inches in Nevada is 140 miles; in New Hampshire, it’s 50 miles.

Well, they weren’t meant to be page pairs. That’s their alphabetical order, and the atlas was designed for navigation. Each state map stands alone as a navigational aid. Given that New Hampshire has far more roads per square mile and a higher population density then Nevada, this kind of cartography makes sense.

However, scale and projections can change our perceptions of the world. Most of us know the fallacy of the ubiquitous Mercator projection, where Greenland appears larger than Africa. Arno Peters’ “Peters Atlas of the World” was “based on a new principle: that of equality in scale and area.” He invented a new map projection that preserved area at the expense of distorting shape. The higher latitudes, including Greenland and Europe, look squashed.

Unlike any other atlas I’ve ever seen, “Michelin's North America Road Atlas” displays roads in an equal-area projection. Like Rand McNally, it also keeps the message simple but complex, with only four colors. Some atlases use a rich palette of colors, while others seek simplicity, like Jacquetta Hawkes’s “Atlas of Ancient Archaeology,” featuring “350 two colour maps, plans and drawings,” and “The West Point Atlas of War” in multiple volumes.

“I work with space and time, and I’m not a physicist.”

I wish I could remember who said that; she is a contemporary geographer. Atlases not only tell stories through time and space, they also take time to build, from months to years. Mrs. Fisher’s class at Sage School mapped the three acres of school grounds in a semester, with colored pencils, air photos and the knowledge of elders who lived there.

Using similar techniques, children, adults and elders from the Toledo Maya in southern Belize mapped over a dozen villages. I don’t know how long it took to make the hand-drawn maps and publish the atlas, but in a way, it took hundreds of years. As the forward says, “The Maya know geography because that knowledge has sustained them for centuries.”

Susan Shulten built “A History of America in 100 Maps” in just over two years, working alone. She advised me, “I had an advantage in having written a few prior books […], [but] the real challenge was in going back to the fifteenth century and then forward to the present day [….]”

From an idea to an atlas

The “Atlas of Yellowstone,” on the other hand, took nine years, with collaboration between cartographers from the University of Oregon and scientists from the National Park Service, involving extensive travel and rigorous data analysis.

The second edition of the “Atlas of Oregon” took only two years, but it required an “all hands on deck” effort. This atlas commemorated the 125th anniversary of the University of Oregon, but it led to much more. With lottery funds, the InfoGraphics Lab was built in 1995 specifically to make the second edition. After several fits and starts, this endeavor created enormous capacity that now supports research, instruction, and public service, both for the university and the greater community, from local cycling maps to comprehensive regional atlases.

The same flour can make different bread

Along with the technical textbook in my spatial analysis course at the University of Washington, I had my students explore a different cookbook: Mark Monmonier’s brilliant (and often irreverent) “How to Lie with Maps.” These students were accomplished professionals—engineers, teachers, city planners—but few had taken geography courses. They were joining me to learn technical skills they could use in their careers.

Sections in this insightful book include “How to seduce the town board” and “[…] Making nonsense of the census.” The students had to digest and analyze massive amounts of data for their exercises, and with this book hopefully, I made them realize that all data can be manipulated in many different ways.

The thrill of geography is taking the same ingredients and turning them into different loaves. We have the data, but how do we bake it? How do we turn a bowl of numbers and a cupful of lines into something meaningful, how do we tell a story with these data? And most of all, what story do we want to tell?

Right now, in June 2020, geographical awareness is more important than ever. Surely, everyone has seen the Johns Hopkins’ dashboard of Covid 19 cases. My greatest takeaway from the GeoEd virtual conference was that as geographers, we have the power, and thus, the duty to shine light upon the darkness. We can make the world better…one map at a time.


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