Posts Tagged ‘atlases’

Print or screen?

June 11, 2015

One of the things about the world of books that has changed faster than anything, I think, is the rapid obsolescence of reference books of almost all kinds. I have no idea why every year we have a new phone directory and yellow pages delivered: they are never opened, and I don’t understand why we haven’t introduced the German system, whereby you take an old one to exchange for a new one if you want it, ensuring no unnecessary waste, and certain recycling. But that was the first example that sprang to mind…

With access to the internet, looking for information has been transformed over the last decade. I use the OED online, free, via my local library, when I need a definition. Similarly, I use word reference, or my.dict for translations for French, German or Spanish words. Paper dictionaries get very little use, since, while I’m reading my tablet is next to me, far lighter than the alternative. I turn to a ‘real’ dictionary when I’m wrestling with a crossword and need to search for words, or if the online French dictionary lacks the words I need.

Encyclopaedias that I used to consult regularly now gather dust or have gone to charity shops. The Encyclopaedia Britannica, which used to be the gold standard, has, for me, paled into insignificance alongside wikipedia, which scores by virtue not only of its incredible scope, but also for its numerous further references and links.

I like to have my Bach reference books alongside me as I listen to the cantatas, because they are easier to use and cross-reference on paper than on a tablet, even though there are now some stunningly comprehensive websites out there.

But I suppose my major exception to the world of internet reference is with maps and atlases: I still rely on my vast and unwieldy Times Comprehensive Atlas of the World, and will probably replace it with another print copy when it is outdated, and I also have some map sheets of particular areas: the small area visible on a laptop or tablet screen just doesn’t lend itself to the kind of things I need from a map, although sometimes Google Earth is a useful complement.

Habits are clearly changing very rapidly; I’ve heard report that school students say that they don’t need to learn facts and information because they can look them up instantly; I like that I can have access to the latest information rather than relying on a possibly out-of-date book. I do think it’s important to discriminate, though – some texts obviously go out of date much more rapidly than others, and I also find that there are times when paper is much more user-friendly than screen text, for instance when I’m flipping back from page to page in a book, with my thumb in one place, or quickly scanning an index or table of contents and grazing a section.

I think all this is wonderful; my bookshelves are rather lighter than they might otherwise be (and I can justify some of the gadgets I’ve acquired). And, because so much information is at my fingertips, I can wander much more widely through the world of knowledge than I ever could before, and I have come across wonders that I might otherwise never have known the existence of.


Maps and Atlases

October 8, 2014

9780007551408Readers of this blog who are interested in my posts about travel writing won’t be surprised to learn how much I love atlases and maps: visually attractive, often beautiful, they allow me to explore from the comfort of the sofa, and follow the travels of a host of writers. You will understand why I so often complain about the poor quality of maps attached to travel books nowadays – penny-pinching by publishers, or decisions by editors who have no real feel for what they are preparing for publication, and the needs of those who will actually buy and read the book. I can gaze for hours at the curious shapes of continents and countries, the locations of settlements and the countryside that surrounds them; I can appreciate the vastness of the world, in these days when it’s possible to reach remote places very quickly.

I especially like maps from the past: they are like a time capsule or time machine into a world that doesn’t exist any more. John Speed’s seventeenth century maps of Great Britain, for example, show older names for places, how difficult it was to travel from place to place in those days, places that were important then and are now faded into insignificance, and one notices the absence of some places which have grown up in the intervening years and did not exist, or merit a place on a map way back then. Johann Blaeu‘s stunning Atlas Major from the 1660s, now available again, albeit in an abridged version thanks to those wonderful publishers Taschen, allows one to look at the approximations of places when Westerners hadn’t fully explored and mapped everywhere: there are real blank areas on maps, although often filled up with drawings of (sometimes mythical) flora and fauna – nobody likes a blank space – there are places where only the coastline is known or partially known; there are places just not on the maps… And don’t get me started on wonders like the Mappa Mundi, of which I have a very faded reproduction, and its allegorical representation of the world.

For today’s world, I’ve yet to find anything to better the Times Atlas – I’m on my second copy, since the first was rendered rather less useful by the disappearance of the Soviet Union, the emergence of new countries and the renaming of so many places. The scale and level of detail is marvellous, only the size is a limitation: it doesn’t sit easily or comfortably on my lap while I’m reading. When there’s not enough detail in it, I tend to buy a one-off specialist map, so I have huge maps of the Sahara, the Silk Route countries and so on. I once saw, in a secondhand bookshop, a copy of the Soviet-era Atlas Mira (Atlas of the World), and it was huge: it made the Times Atlas look small. I didn’t buy it, but often wish I had. I do have a smaller Atlas of the USSR, which is very useful when reading about travels in Russia, and especially Siberia. I also have a fascinating road atlas of the Soviet Union from the 1980s. This is fascinating partly because of the large areas that don’t figure in it at all – why would they, when there are no road there? – and also because of the roads which travel 400, 500, 600, even 700 km into the depths of the continent and then just stop. There are no side turnings to right or left. So when you’ve got there, the only way out is to do all that journey over again. It boggles my mind.

I have Google Earth on my computer. Occasionally it’s really useful. I can pinpoint the clearing in the forest deep in Belarus where my father’s home village (hamlet, really: only four houses) used to be. But it remains a curiosity, whereas I would be lost (literally) without my collection of maps and atlases.

The death of reference books

September 23, 2014

It’s autumn, and so in our house, the annual clearout begins. This includes pruning the library, and I’m getting rid of a lot of old reference books. This had me thinking about how the internet has changed the way I look things up.

I still use dictionaries, (well, I would, being an ex-English teacher and crossword fan: it’s far easier with a book in your lap) so the faithful Chambers is on the shelves – our third copy, I think – though I often find myself using the OED online, as I have free access via our local library log-in. But paper encyclopaedias and gazetteers are now useless, I find, because the information available on the web is much more up-to-date, and easily accessible. Paper atlases and maps, however, I still find immensely useful when reading all the travel writing I consume: the detail, the clarity and the ability to relate one area to another is far easier than on something like Google Maps; the only time when online maps come into their own, I find, is when very small detail is needed.

General encyclopaedias pale into insignificance next to wikipedia. And who consults the Encyclopedia Britannica any more? Apparently, it’s hard to give away old printed sets, and it’s no longer the default source for detailed knowledge on the web either. Thanks to an excellent librarian at the school where I used to work, we were all trained in how to set up useful searches, and how to evaluate web sources for reliability and truthfulness, so why wouldn’t I start my quest for further knowledge on the web?

When it comes to more specific or specialised information, then I still think paper reference books have a place. I have a couple of sets of encyclopaedias of world literature which are still getting ever more well-worn, and I have not switched to using exclusively online information when travelling and touring; I would still much rather have a detailed guidebook and supplement this with latest online information as and when I need it. I need a paper map to find my way around unfamiliar towns and cities.

It is astonishing, though, how in a decade or so, our access to and use of information, has been revolutionised. I resent the waste of paper when a new – admittedly thinner – phone directory or yellow pages drops through the letterbox, as I can’t remember when I last used either. Instant, quality information on anything is at my fingertips, and, what I probably find most amazing of all, information I never knew I could have is there, courtesy of being able to surf and browse. People sometimes complain that the web is being taken over by huge corporations who only want to mine data, spy on us and sell us crap: this is undoubtedly true, and yet there is also such a tremendous resource of useful material, offered free, out there, and I’m immensely grateful to organisations like Project Gutenberg and Librivox, for example, who have revolutionised some aspects of my life…

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