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History of national atlases

Most countries around the world (and nearly all the European countries) have published national atlases. Such atlases are considered to be major national symbols. Often they were first published shortly before or after national independence. National atlases have tended to be revised every two or three decades.

The first national atlas was published in Finland in 18991 (and Finland also published the world's third national atlas in 1910). At the time the country was seeking freedom from Russian control. Canada was second to prepare a national atlas (1906), when the country wished to leave the British Empire. These atlases were published as one large volume, and the physical geographical content was dominant. They still bore marks of the general geographical and statistical character of 19th century atlases.2 After World War I, several countries published national atlases to demonstrate their independence and political-economic power, such as Egypt (1928), Czechoslovakia (1935) and Italy (1940).3 At this time (in 1931), France began work on its first national atlas, but it was only completed in 1946, in the aftermath of World War II. Alongside the political goals, the French atlas demonstrated for the first time that national atlases can also play an outstanding role in research and higher education.4

The majority of atlases prepared between 1918 and 1945 were published in one volume, but they differed in size (generally they were rather large), and their methodology was sometimes disordered. Although their content still concentrated on physical geography, the role of maps on the economy was increasing.5

Several developed countries (including Denmark , France , Australia and Sweden ) began to prepare first or revised editions of their national atlases in the decade after World War II (particularly in 1949–1953). Their clear aim was to support regional planning and development.6 For the first time the atlases were not always published in one bulky volume; rather they took the form of a series of map sheets, issued individually or in groups and placed in a slipcase. In this way, the publication of an atlas took place over a long period (e.g., Belgium 1950–1972, Sweden 1953–1971).

Reflecting the growing interest in national atlases, the International Geographical Union (IGU) formed a Commission on National Atlases at its congress held in Rio de Janeiro in 1956. The chairman was the Soviet citizen K. A. Sališčev, for whom the most important tasks of a national atlas included fostering the exploration of natural resources, demonstrating the optimal spatial arrangement of productive forces, and facilitating regional planning.7 The commission established the following requirements for national atlases:8

  comprehensive content aiming at completeness,

  series of uniform, comparable and complementary maps of high scientific quality,


  useful for the general public,

  five major topics (nature, population, economy, culture and politics),

  a manageable size (max. 40–50 cm x 60–70 cm),

  uniform scales to enable comparison,

  explanatory texts to enhance understanding of the maps, possibly with graphics.

In consequence of the work of the above-mentioned commission and the process of decolonisation from the end of the 1950s, a growing number of countries presented their “identity card in maps”. Despite efforts to standardize national atlases, countries increasingly developed their own standards. Alongside the monumental volumes and individual (and group) map sheets, more and more atlases were published gradually in several volumes or on changeable map sheets. Their size gradually became smaller and they focused on different topics. This was a natural reaction to the evident challenge that a single large volume, containing all topics and prepared over a period of years, could already be out of date at the time of printing. This applied in particular to chapters on the economy and society.

In this period, the socialist countries published – partly for propaganda reasons – large, scientifically based, scholarly one-volume national atlases (Czechoslovakia 19669, Hungary 1967, 1989, Bulgaria 1973, Poland 1978, Romania 1979, GDR 1981). After the publication of the Great Soviet World Atlas in 1937 and 1940, the Soviet Union also considered preparing a new national atlas in the late 1950s. At the time, however, Soviet geographers and cartographers were assisting the allied countries in creating atlases that served as national symbols (Cuba 1970, Vietnam 1985, Mongolia 1990).10

In the period 1945–1980, national atlases mainly served to facilitate governmental regional planning. These atlases were characterized by an emphasis on economic-demographic topics, systematic methodology, problem-orientation, remarkable comprehensiveness, a decrease in scale, and a decrease in the share of explanatory texts and illustrations.11

From the 1980s, mainly for marketing reasons, national atlases entered a new era. As the production costs of quality atlases increased, market demand fell. In order to broaden the market base, publishers issued several smaller-size volumes, targeting the more prosperous and educated middle class and people involved in public and higher education. In view of this change in function, the atlases now had to be easy to understand and include popular topics. For marketing reasons, the ratio of maps in the atlases was decreased, and the ratio of explanatory texts, photos and various graphics was increased. Further, the maps were often simple, and emphasis was given to those topics (economy, demography, sociology and ecology) that were of greatest interest to readers.12 Whereas in earlier decades a national atlas had been considered the “business card” of a nation, presenting essentially only the positive sides of a country, from this time onwards atlases increasingly presented the challenges facing nations.13 The contents of atlases reflected not only scientific research, but also the interests of potential readers. These modern atlases were sometimes published in dozens of parts,14 and alongside the conventional printed copies, their electronic versions 15 were also issued from the end of the 1980s.

The appearance of personal computers and their increasing use around the world revolutionized the science of cartography, including atlas cartography.16 Owing to major changes in recent decades in production techniques and information technology, modern atlases can now meet the requirements of various functions (multifunctional national atlases). The emphasis given to these functions had varied over the past century. The first electronic atlases to appear on the market were CD-ROM versions of printed atlases.17 The first national atlas to be placed on the World Wide Web (web atlas) was published by Canada.18 Following the Canadian example, the United States published an online national atlas in 1997.

Electronic atlases can be divided into three basic types:19

view-only atlases:
users can view raster-based maps and graphics; users cannot modify the maps, and have to be satisfied with the functions of zooming, panning and searching,

interactive atlases: users are able to modify the colours of the image and change the grouping (limits of value categories) of the specific information content of mostly vector-based maps,

analytic atlases: users have considerable freedom; they can display and evaluate combinations of attributes at will and select and display topics on one single map according to choice.

Following substantial changes in the demands of users over the past two decades, printed national atlases have been somewhat obscured by the new electronic versions. The latter contain an almost unlimited quantity of multimedia elements (e.g., photos, videos, animations, hyper-references). However, paper-based atlases, as significant documents of a country's geographic environment, have not disappeared and “operate even in case of a power-supply failure”. Spurred on by the competition from electronic mass communication, they have been spectacularly renewed: they have become more interesting, and they are gradually developing representation, publicity and marketing functions. Meanwhile, electronic atlases have become one of the primary sources and tools of regional information acquisition and analysis.20 Those web atlases that are available on the net are attractive because they can be easily accessed and they are up-to-date. The atlases published on CD-ROMs are popular because their data and map-storing capacity seems inexhaustible.21 However, it should be noted that the role of CDs and CD-ROMs as data carriers is declining, and so these forms of representation are losing their importance. In recent years, several national atlases have been published as combined paper, CD-based and web versions. In this regard, the national atlases published by Switzerland, Germany, Ukraine, Russia and the Netherlands have received international recognition.


1 The National Atlas of Finland, presented at the Berlin congress of the IGU in 1899, is considered by cartographers to be the first national atlas. However, the Americans regard their “Statistical Atlas of the United States Based on the Results of the Ninth Census 1870” as the first national atlas; it was published in the 100th year of the establishment (1874) of the USA.

2 Statistical Atlas of the US…1874, Andree, R. – Peschel, O. 1878. Physikalisch-Statistischer Atlas des Deutschen Reichs, Velhagen-Klasing, Bielefeld-Leipzig, Chavanne, J. 1887. Physikalisch-statistischer Hand-Atlas von Oesterreich-Ungarn, Hölzel, Wien.

3 Салищев, К. А. 1976. Картоведение, МГУ, Москва, p. 241.

4 Papp-Váry, Á. 1983. A nemzeti és körzeti (regionális) atlaszok. In: Klinghammer I. – Papp-Váry Á. Földünk tükre a térkép, Gondolat, Budapest, p. 306.

5 Witschel, Ch. 2000. Nationalatlanten – Entwicklungsgeschichte und Ausblick. Kartographische Nachrichten 50. 6. pp. 275, 277.

6 Witschel, Ch. 1998. Nationalatlanten – Entwicklung, Konzeption, Gestaltung, Funktion. Von Loga, Köln, pp. 59-61.

7 Sališčev, K. 1960. p. 79., Жуковский, В.Е. 2008-2009. Ibid., Papp-Váry Á. 1983. Ibid. 304. At the same time, Sališčev noted that national atlases also have a special role in culture and education, and they strengthen patriotism and national pride.

8 Sališčev, K. 1960. p. 79., Witschel, Ch. 1998. Ibid. pp. 73-74.

9 During the socialist decades, Slovakia managed to publish the first national atlas of Slovakia in 1980, though Slovakia was then an integral part of Czechoslovakia.

10 Жуковский, В.Е. 2008-2009. Что такое Национальный атлас? История Национального атласа.

11 Witschel, Ch. 2000. Ibid. p. 277.

12 Ormeling, F. 1994. Neue Formen, Konzepte und Strukturen von Nationalatlanten. Kartographische Nachrichten 46. 6. p. 220-221., Witschel, Ch. 2000. Ibid. p. 276-277. This change in the function is easily observable when comparing the first and second editions of the Swedish and Dutch national atlases. (National Atlas of Sweden, first edition 1953–1971, second edition 1990–1997, Atlas of the Netherlands, first edition 1963–1978, second edition 1989–1995). The contemporary national atlases of Spain , Italy , Japan , Canada and Finland are also good examples.

13 Ormeling, F. 2009. Moderne Atlaskartographie im Spiegel von National- und Regionalatlanten – Bestandaufnahme und Entwicklungslinien. Kartographische Nachrichten 59. p. 16.

14 The second edition of the Swedish atlas was published in 17 volumes, that of the Dutch in 20 volumes, and the fifth edition of the Finnish atlas in 26 parts.

15 Sixth edition of the Canadian atlas (1980–1993), second edition of the Swedish atlas (1990–1997). Witschel, Ch. 2000. Ibid. p. 276.

16 Zentai L. 2000. Számítógépes térképészet, ELTE Eötvös Kiadó, Budapest.

17 Ormeling, F. 1994. Ibid. p. 222. In this sense, the atlases of Sweden , France and Spain were pioneers.

18 Siekierska, E, Williams, D. 1996. National Atlas of Canada on the Internet and schoolnet. In: Köbben, B, Ormeling, F, Trainor, T (eds.) Seminar on electronic atlases II, Prague, ICA Commission on National and Regional Atlases, pp. 19-23.

19 Ormeling, F. 1994. Ibid. 225.p. According to other classifications, online atlases can be classed on the basis of their origin as static (pre-built) or dynamic (to be built at will). They can then be further divided into the above-mentioned view-only and interactive categories. The latter category also includes the analytical atlases, in addition to which there is a predetermined group too, where the user can modify the image and the characteristics of the map, but can choose only from among the options set by the author. Kraak, M. J, Brown, A (eds.) 2001. Web Cartography: developments and prospects. Taylor &Francis, London , New York , p. 3.

20 Ormeling, F. 1994. Ibid. p. 224.

21 Ormeling, F. 2009. Ibid. pp. 13-14.