Oxford's Ever-Changing 'Atlas of the World' With the Polar Ice Cap melting and geopolitical boundaries still shifting, map-making is an painfully ephemeral undertaking. Undeterred, the cartographers at the Oxford Press have produced a new edition of the Atlas of the World.
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Oxford's Ever-Changing 'Atlas of the World'

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Oxford's Ever-Changing 'Atlas of the World'

Oxford's Ever-Changing 'Atlas of the World'

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From NPR News, this is WEEKEND EDITION. I'm John Ydstie.

With the polar ice cap melting and geopolitical boundaries occasionally shifting, cartography is an ephemeral undertaking. Undeterred, the map makers at the Oxford Press have produced a new edition of the "Atlas of the World." And at least from afar, the world is a beautiful place. The 560-plus-page atlas has all the usual maps of continents and countries, states and cities, even perspectives on the universe. But perhaps the most striking pages are expansive photographs from space of deserts, metropolitan areas and great expanses of water.

But in this age of the Internet, atlas making seems to be a fading art. The Oxford Atlas is the only one still updated annually. Ben Keene is the editor of the Oxford Atlas program, and he joins us from our New York bureau.

Welcome to the program, Mr. Keene.

Mr. BEN KEENE (Editor, Oxford Atlas): Thank you.

YDSTIE: So what's new in the world that you put in this edition of the Oxford Atlas?

Mr. KEENE: In the deluxe edition, a couple of things that might stand out to people who are looking carefully would be the Aral Sea in Uzbekistan and in Kazakhstan, which has been shrinking and is now about half the size that it used to be. Another example that springs to mind are name changes in South Africa. Pretoria, for example, is now Ishwane. These are sorts of things that occur on a regular basis, whether or not most people are aware of them, and we try to catch as many as we can, obviously.

YDSTIE: Mm-hmm. I really found the maps at the very beginning of the atlas just astounding, as you look at the satellite images from space and the different colors of the cities.

Mr. KEENE: Mm-hmm.

YDSTIE: New York looks the color of concrete. And Vancouver has all these deep greens and deep blues and snow-white mountain peaks. It's just an amazing thing. And you have more full-page satellite images, I believe, in this edition. Is that right?

Mr. KEENE: That's correct. It's actually a feature that many customers have responded very favorably to. And as the satellite technology has become more and more sophisticated, we felt that this was something that we really needed to beef up in this edition. And I think that an atlas, in addition to being an extremely useful tool, is actually kind of a work of art. And so I think those illustrations sort of serve that purpose, as well.

YDSTIE: Mm-hmm. Speaking of an atlas as a tool, I wonder how the Internet has affected atlas making, the advent of things like MapQuest and Google Maps and the ability to go online and get your own personal full-color image of your neighborhood.

Mr. KEENE: An atlas, I think, is a little bit different, particularly this edition of the "Atlas of the World," because it's actually showing you contexts for things and relationships between environments and societies. And it gives you more information than a map alone in that we also like to think of our books as sort of an almanac of the world--an encyclopedia, a fact book--so that it serves many purposes simultaneously. I think what makes an atlas unique and still a valuable product is that you can learn about change over time. For instance, we map the extent of the polar ice in the summer and winter months, so you can use an atlas to track climate change, for example, and the movement of people, the distribution of resources and other things like that. So while the Internet is certainly becoming more and more of a place that people turn to for geographic information, I don't think that it completely makes an atlas such as this one obsolete.

YDSTIE: Mm-hmm. I wonder how you think people use this book. I mean, has it become less of a reference tool that sits in a library somewhere or in someone's office and gets pulled off the shelf, and more of a kind of a coffee-table book just because of the spectacular pictures and, you know, the pleasure of just browsing through it?

Mr. KEENE: I think so, in part. Again, the sort of reference component of the atlas is still there. And in this edition, there are a number of features that I think are actually going to be things where you might want to pull it off the shelf and quickly refer to, for instance, a page that we call Regions in the News, which gives you a snapshot of what's happening in a number of hot spots. So in this edition, we'll show you the map of the Indian Ocean and the tsunami, or Sudan and its cultural geography. But I think that's--you know, this is a deluxe edition, and implicit in that subtitle, I think, is its beauty and its sort of role as, as you say, a coffee-table book, something to browse through, something to kind of leaf through as your thinking about places in the world you might want to travel to.

YDSTIE: It's also a very big book. You could almost use it for a coffee table all by itself if you...

Mr. KEENE: Yeah, it's about 12 pounds, and I've been working out with it, actually, lately. It's really a great toning sort of device, as well.

YDSTIE: We've been talking with Ben Keene about a new edition of the "Atlas of the World" from Oxford Press. Mr. Keene is editor of the Oxford Atlas Program, and he joined us from our studio in New York.

Thank you very much.

Mr. KEENE: Thank you very much.

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