Posts Tagged ‘The Times Atlas’

Throwing out the encyclopaedias or, accessing information today

June 22, 2016

I used to collect reference books, so that I could easily access information, and have it at my fingertips whenever I needed it. Now they gather dust on my shelves and I’m gradually getting rid of them all. Yes, the internet has rendered most of them obsolete, and I found myself thinking about the enormous change that has taken place in the accessing of information in the last twenty years or so.

I grew up needing to use libraries to find things out – the public library, the library at school; they had the reference books, the encyclopaedias, the directories. Gradually, as I could afford them, and became clearer about what would be useful, I began to acquire my own copies of selected works. I’ve worn out a couple of copies of Chambers English Dictionary, one of the Shorter Oxford, and a couple of editions of the Times Atlas… I have reference books on language, literature, Bach, travel and exploration, to name a few. There is something different about using reference books: as well as searching for specific information, one can enjoy browsing, and one can be side-tracked down interesting back alleys whilst searching. The web doesn’t facilitate this.

Pretty nearly every reference book is supplanted by what’s available online, in a much more up-to-date form – apart from a good atlas: Google Earth is no substitute for a good printed map, though it can, of course, do many things that my trusty atlas can’t.

Now, on my desktop, my laptop, my tablet or my phone, I can find out what I’m looking for in seconds, and the information is (usually) current. Wikipedia is a marvel (who uses the Britannica now? how many people have even heard of what used to be the gold standard in print, hawked to unsuspecting parents by doorstep salesmen for years? Twenty-four, and then thirty-two volumes of high quality knowledge, that you can’t give away now. Not only can I go straight to what I want, but the printed information is enhanced by illustrations, diagrams and filmclips. Instead of trawling through pages of information or a huge index to track down a single nugget, if my search terms are carefully-enough worded, it’s there, instantly. And yet, as I noted earlier, it’s not the same as the physical search through a printed book, where we may serendipitously come across something far more interesting.

I would have said that books were probably better for more detailed information, but I think the web now wins here, too: there are some astonishingly detailed articles, some wonderful, lovingly developed and maintained websites (I’m particularly thinking of the superb Bach Cantatas website) that far surpass weighty printed volumes. And then there are the links, which we take for granted, expect to find, that can take us far beyond the scope of that initial website, in an instant. Knowledge isn’t a walled garden any more: it’s no longer only in this book, if you know the book exists and can get your hands on a copy…

I know I’ve expressed reservations about some aspects of electronic media in previous posts; there are things I do feel very wary of. I am beginning to think there are two internets out there, the trashier social media/ entertainment/ shopping one, and the wonderful world of knowledge which far fewer people are interested in, and which never ceases to amaze me. And there are two attitudes to knowledge, too: I come from a generation where we learned and remembered things, squirrelling facts away on our own personal hard drives and able to recall them when we needed to; today’s younger people, it seems to me, are quite happy not so much to know facts as to know where to find out things if and when they need to; that’s quite a change too, and I don’t think we fully understand the implications of that…

Joan Blaeu’s Atlas Maior

November 23, 2015

41dl+3ku-+L._AA160_If you’re a regular reader, you will know of my fascination with maps and atlases. I aksed for an atlas for Christmas when I was seven, and haven’t looked back; as soon as I could afford one, I had a copy of the massive Times Atlas. But I have been going back in time with Joan Blaeu’s Atlas Major.

Holland was the centre of the cartographical world in the seventeenth century, when exploration of the world was is full swing, and a number of very detailed and extremely beautiful atlases were produced there. Taschen reproduced a selection in this huge tome which I had to buy…

Maps from that time are quite different from those we know today. They are very colourful, decorated with engravings of all kinds: native costumes, coats of arms of local rulers, impressive buildings in local towns, flora and fauna adorn the edges of most of the maps. Great attention is paid to delineation of borders: whose land is it? Mountains, rivers – and obviously bridges – are marked, as are placenames; totally absent is what we probably find most important and useful nowadays, the transport infrastructure, because there wasn’t one. Not even roads are marked; I suppose the assumption was that there would be roads between places and if you were actually in a place, then you’d find the necessary road.

The level of detail varies considerably according to where the map depicts; Europe and the Mediterranean does pretty well, but the rest of the world is rather variable, and there are no maps that even hint at Australia or Antarctica. The still-to-be explored lands are probably the most interesting, for a number of reasons. For Africa and the Americas, there is plenty of coastal detail, because that’s how the discoveries and maps were made; the hinterlands are blank – Brazil is almost completely empty. In the Americas there are vague annotations in places along the lines of ‘gold is to be found in these mountains’ and the like. Interesting, for Africa and the Americas, is the fact that all places have indigenous names: we are in the pre-colonisation days, before Europeans took overand placed our settlements with familar names, that still endure in many parts of the world. Pictures of the local fauna also abound, as a way of filling up some of the blank space on the maps, so that buyers felt they were getting something for their money…

I always get a sense of how enormous the world must have seemed to travellers and explorers in those days, and the dangers that they ran in their journeys in days before longitude could be accurately determined, meaning that they often didn’t know where they were – literally. There is something wonderful about our species’ urge to know and to discover, even though it often gets us into a mess…

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