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What is an Atlas?

Mary Elizabeth
By
Updated May 23, 2024
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An atlas is a collection of maps in book form. Atlases are made for different regions and areas, and are prepared for desk use or travel use. A travel atlas is usually packaged for easy use during a trip, often with spiral bindings so it can be folded flat, and with maps at a large zoom so that they can be easily consulted on the go. A desk atlas features sizes and bindings that are typical for reference books: usually a paperback or hardcover format.

Desk atlases are made for a wide variety of purposes. A popular type of up-to-date atlas shows the current state of the world, with new versions produced fairly frequently to keep up with changing boundaries, name changes, and other important new information. Maps in this sort of atlas usually show the lines of latitude and longitude to help readers pinpoint locations. Further aides to help the reader orient him- or herself are a compass rose to show north, and an indication of the scale used, for example 1” = 1 mile (2.54 cm = 1.61 km). Legends are included as necessary to reveal the meaning of any special symbols.

A desk atlas can also feature a variety of different maps of the same place. For example, to reveal more about a particular place, the atlas might include maps showing population, political boundaries, natural resources, topography, religious affiliation, political affiliation, important products, and natural features. A historical atlas may show these topics as they were many years ago or as they change over time. Related material may appear in charts, essays, timelines, or chronologies.

Since the latitude and longitude indications for places on road trips would be lengthy and complex to keep track of, travel atlases usually show a graphic overlay with letters on the side and numbers along the bottom so that locations can be exactly pinpointed. In addition, locations for each page are listed alphabetically by map and cross referenced to the location in an index, which may also show the population.

Road atlases usually show a combination of natural and built features. It would not be surprising to find universities, airports, national forests, rivers, and highways, as well as cities, towns, villages, and hamlets. A road atlas will often feature a map of the whole country, and then a more detailed map of each of the major political divisions, which in the United States would be the 50 states, with blown up insets of major cities. Neighboring locales are often shown—in the US, that would be Canada and Mexico.

A road atlas may also have features to point out sight-seeing possibilities, including in the US our National Parks and Recreation Areas, as well as other sites that show the beauty of nature, historic sites, and other tourist attractions. Charts of driving distances augment the system of mileage display besides the roads to help you compute travel time and make choices about the best route.

Historical Index is dedicated to providing accurate and trustworthy information. We carefully select reputable sources and employ a rigorous fact-checking process to maintain the highest standards. To learn more about our commitment to accuracy, read our editorial process.
Mary Elizabeth
By Mary Elizabeth
Passionate about reading, writing, and research, Mary Elizabeth is dedicated to correcting misinformation on the Internet. In addition to writing articles on art, literature, and music for Historical Index, Mary works as a teacher, composer, and author who has written books, study guides, and teaching materials. Mary has also created music composition content for Sibelius Software. She earned her B.A. from University of Chicago's writing program and an M.A. from the University of Vermont.
Discussion Comments
By anon187284 — On Jun 17, 2011

Wow! it is very interesting to read that kind of reference. It helps my mind become sharp.

By Princess17 — On Apr 07, 2011

@FernValley. Yes, GPS devices do have their faults -- I've been taken to the wrong place on several occasions, and it seems like everybody who has one has at least one story of ending up in the middle of nowhere because of weird directions. That's why I try to have a map handy just to compare routes.

By Valencia — On Apr 05, 2011

@princess17 - I couldn't agree more. I do worry though that the skills involved in map reading are being lost to the younger generations. There's a certain kind of pleasure and satisfaction involved when a road trip is navigated the old fashioned way!

By aaaCookie — On Apr 05, 2011

I find it helpful to use an atlas in addition to a GPS. That way, if one does not get you there, you have a backup support to find a new way.

By FernValley — On Apr 05, 2011

I wish people still trusted maps and atlases as much as they used to. While a GPS system can be a great thing, it can also lead you to places that don't exist and not account for things; meanwhile, unlike with an atlas, you might use it without being able to check where you actually are along your path.

By Teach88 — On Apr 04, 2011

Long are the days when you have to look in a book in order to view a map. Thanks to technology we now have maps available to us on GPS devices and cell phones. It's amazing how technology changes things -- I know this totally dates me, but I still remember my parents keeping a huge atlas in the car whenever we went on road trips. I have to say, I still do the same, even though I have a GPS equipped car. It's just more of a security thing, I think, especially since GPS machines are not always reliable.

Mary Elizabeth
Mary Elizabeth
Passionate about reading, writing, and research, Mary Elizabeth is dedicated to correcting misinformation on the...
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