Historic Atlas Evaluation

For class this week, we’ve been asked to write a Historical Atlas evaluation, based on six sources–two books and four websites.

The first book, “Maps and History: Constructing Images of the Past” by Jeremy Black, is a history of historical atlases rather than being a historical atlas itself. Given that this book is a general survey covering a period of two centuries over the entire globe (the first chapter briefly covers historical mapmaking prior to 1800) in under 250 pages, it cannot help but be somewhat perfunctory in its coverage. Yet while the book might not break any new ground for specialists in the field, for the general reader this is a fantastic introduction not only to the genre but to the issues one must consider when reading a historical atlas–from basic mastery of both cartographic and historic information by the creator, to the ideological purposes of an atlas, and so on. The chapters are both chronologically and thematically structured, giving the reader a sense of the historic atlas as an evolving tool of the state (the link between map-making and state-building, already discussed in this class, is strong) and other national institutions. Whether considering medieval cadastral maps or the atlases produced in the Soviet Union, Black does a respectable job of keeping the reader focused on the subtext in every historical atlas under consideration.

After reading, Black’s brief, sometimes terse, but always clear-eyed survey, Derek Hayes’ “Historical Atlas of the United States” comes across as more than a little naive and simplistic. There is no arguing with the book as far as it’s physical presentation–it’s a very handsome volume, very much designed as a “coffee-table” book for browsing by general readers. The text font is readable and the pages have a light yellow color which keeps the illustrations (of which there are hundreds in full color) from contrasting too starkly with the text portions of the pages. The illustrations are nearly all maps from the entire sweep of American history, and they fill this volume–there isn’t a single page with no map on it.

But many of the maps are only reproduced in part, and while the chapters are brief and straightforward (too straightforward, as noted below), Hayes uses the maps as illustrations for the simplistic narrative he tells. Very rarely does he examine the subtext or ideological assumptions behind these maps; rather, he is interested in technical detail and historic edification. Although this book is an atlas, and even though the maps take up the bulk of the page space, it functions essentially as a straightforward account of American history which avoids controversy or any lengthy discussion of any problematic issues which the maps themselves might raise. Ultimately, this book functions as a very basic, but very lavishly illustrated, American history primer. As a historic atlas, it falls short.

The first of the four websites we are considering is from the David Rumsey collection–an 1830 Historical Atlas by an Edward Quin. Rumsey’s interface is decently user-friendly for a digitized version of a printed book. And what a book it is–while most of the pages consist of text, there are several color maps, and these maps are absolutely dripping with Euro-centric bias. The book purports to be a history of the world, and each map is scaled the same, so that a full map of the world will fill the page. But Quin only shows the area that during any particular historical period covers what was known to Western civilization. But rather than zoom in to that region, or show the rest of the world blank, literally blacks out the rest of the globe, meaning that many of these map pages are largely made up of black space. Framing the “known world” portion of the otherwise dark globe is a drawing of thick banks of clouds, or perhaps fog. If you ever wondered what a Eurocentric view of global history would look like in map for, this atlas has the answer in spades.

Having recently blogged that I find the Library of Congress website interface to be pretty robust and user friendly, I need to admit that as far as digital collections go, most of my time in “American Memory” has been spent with photographs rather than books or manuscripts. The next historical atlas under consideration, “Scribner’s statistical atlas of the United States, showing by graphic methods their present condition and their political, social and industrial development by Fletcher W. Hewes and Henry Gannett”, from 1880, is available through LOC and I have to say that while the interface isn’t terrible, and the readability of individual pages is quite good, interface makes perusing an individual volume a lot more work than would be ideal. Which is too bad, because this is a pretty handsome volume even in digitized form. It certainly reflects the growing importance of statistical data in the late 19th century, as the growth of the Federal Government during the Civil War and the nationalizing effect of Presidential politics during the period led to an increasingly national scope of consideration for policy making.

The “Historical Atlas of Maine” site actually features select digitized plates from an upcoming print atlas. There will presumably be a more complete selection of maps once the project is completed, but based on the sample already available, the atlas will feature a collection of clean, uncluttered maps heavily slanted towards demographic and economic information.

The “Historical Atlas of Canada” site is also dedicated to select pages from an upcoming print project, but in this case the project seems to be much larger and much more of it is already available online. The site is subtitled “Online Learning Project” and the interface is designed to allow users–many of whom would presumably be students–to dig in and manipulate the data. Maps include layers which can be activated so that, for instance, the user can cross-reference the geographic spread and location of 17th-century Indian tribes with modern cities and political boundaries. This limited ability to control the data being displayed encourages the user to explore aspects other than the original query. However, the site is still incomplete, and it seems that some of the maps are hampered by incomplete information perhaps due to inconsistent access to information.

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