Review of NGS Atlas of the World (10th edition) in Cartographic Perspectives #81

I am pleased to have my review of the National Geographic Atlas of the World (Tenth Edition) (henceforth, the Atlas) included in the forthcoming issue of Cartographic Perspectives (Vol. 81), the journal of the North American Cartographic Information Society (NACIS). Due to space constraints in the print edition of the journal, the editors have kindly included some footnotes in the published version of my review which direct readers of the journal to an extended review and supplementary information found on this blog. (These supplementary materials include extensive metadata for the Atlas and are the first major open educational resource to be included in a cartographic metadata repository being created using the domain missingmaps.net.)

The supplementary materials include a cross-referenced list of all projections used in the Atlas available as a ZIP download. This raw data includes either the provided scale, or a calculated scale for those maps where only a scale bar is provided; as well as projections, plate names and numbers of all maps found in this landmark publication. The supplementary materials also include a hyperlinked index of all the sources listed in the Atlas also available as ZIP download.

Generating these supplementary materials has been a non-trivial endeavor that I have chosen to complete as an exercise towards developing a working methodology that could be described as a “close reading” of a geographic reference work. I anticipate having much more to say on this subject in the future but I want to provide some context for this effort now.

Preparing these supplementary materials serves several purposes. I will share of them six of them with you. First, as a researcher I genuinely enjoy rummaging and sleuthing information and this Atlas includes quite a trove of resources in its “Acknowledgments.”  It seemed like an excellent auto-didactic exercise to consider them in some detail. As becomes a proponent of Connectivism (see Siemens and Downes), I decided that one of the best ways of doing this is the painstaking, tedious work of re-creating them in a digital format that I can use instead of peruse. (I chose to connect with them.) I come away from this experience with a much better understanding of how the NGS team do their research and a confirmed sense that large, printed reference works of this kind cannot be sustained without a digital companion. They are full-color, glossy contradictions: both glorious and clumsy.

Second, these supplementary digital materials bring into relief the taken-for-granted shortcomings of printed metadata, which of course require a reader to have access to a printed volume in the first place  and if so entailing the repeated search and retrieval of the metadata either within the volume or online.

Third, by deriving the scale for each and every terrestrial map in the Atlas, measured to 1/64th of an inch when possible, the hegemonic role of the printed page becomes clear in making design decisions. Most of the scales are not easily calculated and if provided they are rounded to a single decimal place. At small scales this likely results in an unnecessary loss of accuracy were one to use these maps for anything other than armchair exploration.

This is not to say that the editors exerted no agency of their own, evidenced by the oversight of an accurate index listing for the controversial Bikini Atoll which is best viewed in the inset map of the Marshall Islands at C2 on plate 109 rather than the small scale representation in the J9 bingo box to which readers are directed.

Fourth, these materials serve as a ready-to-use, active reference for anyone working on a map and desiring to know the projection, scale, and sources used in this Atlas for the purpose of making design decisions for their own work. The editors and publishers at NGS would be well served to embrace the fact that their customers are increasingly cartographic users and developers rather than passive readers.

Fifth, these digital assets allow users to sort the maps in the Atlas by scale and thereby discover which areas of the world this major cartographic reference emphasizes and those which it does not.

Finally, because these prepared list of source materials can be sorted or filtered they will hopefully save time for cartographers ready to explore the same vendors and geospatial repositories used by the NGS cartographers to create the maps found in this Atlas.