Politics on Paper: Mapping a Changing World, January 2012

Oxford University Press (OUP) has just published the 18th edition of its Atlas of the World, edited by Maxwell Sinsheimer. LJ‘s atlas reviewer Edward K. Werner spoke to David Gaylard, chief cartographer at Philip’s, the company that produced the maps for the work, about the effect of geopolitics on atlas production, the difficulty of obtaining information for the work, and the past and future of cartography.

Congratulations on the publication. It’s stunning in appearance and enormity of achievement. Librarians will be pleased to know that this atlas incorporates the latest changes to the countries of the world, showing, for example, South Sudan as an independent country. What is the turnaround time for Philip’s to implement geopolitical changes in the maps used in your atlases?

The map pages for the Atlas of the World are due at the printer in early summer for publication in October, so we have to finalize content before that. As long as they are not too extensive, major changes that are confirmed near these cutoff dates can usually be incorporated into maps and any consequent amendments made to the index and statistical tables.

A complex event, such as the breakup of the Soviet Union, would obviously involve far more work than, say, showing the independence of East Timor. To assist us in predicting these changes, the editors collect information widely‚ from newspapers, periodicals such as the Economist, and specialist websites‚ to ensure there are no surprises and that we can make the best, informed choices.

South Sudan became an independent country on July 9, 2011, but it had been an autonomous region since the 2005 peace agreement that ended the civil war. OUP atlases delineate even de facto states such as Somaliland and Abkhazia, but, until this edition, along with other major atlas publishers, you did not indicate the region that finally achieved independence in July. Why was the autonomous region never demarcated?

The depiction of autonomous or disputed territories is not straightforward, and each case has to be carefully considered. We name them where practicable, so, for example, within the Somali Republic, although Somaliland and Puntland have both declared themselves independent, neither is internationally recognized or has internationally recognized borders. On our largest-scale map of Somalia, we do name both of them as regions. Abkhazia, an autonomous republic with a clearly defined boundary, but one that is recognized by only a few countries, is shown on the largest-scale map in capital letters, but not in country type.

We decided to show South Sudan as a separate country in February of last year, shortly after the results of the referendum were announced. Even then, it still wasn’t certain that it would gain international recognition or what the new country would be called. However, we knew the boundary ran along existing province boundaries, that Juba would be the capital city, and that the region of Abyei was disputed. When independence was announced on July 9, widespread international recognition rapidly followed, just before we approved map plotters from the printer, which is the last step before the print run commences.

Each of your annual atlases highlights certain cities in its Images of Earth satellite photograph section‚ this time you’re featuring places as diverse as Rome, Kinshasa, and Las Vegas. How do you decide which cities to include? And has it ever been difficult to obtain satellite images of certain zones?

The satellite images are chosen because the place is in the news or because the image reveals a perspective that is not normally seen and is of geographical interest. There is generally no problem obtaining the images themselves, only of obtaining cloud-free shots. Also, the use of views clearly depicting an object on the ground that is 0.5 square meters or smaller in size is restricted. This is to safeguard privacy but also because the detail shown in images with that resolution is primarily used by the U.S. military and intelligence agencies. The images are available, but they are downgraded to 0.5 meters squared resolution. In 2014 it is planned to launch a satellite with 0.3 meters squared resolution and that will be entirely for military use.

In 1586, Oxford University lent ¬£100 to bookseller Joseph Barnes to set up a press, and he produced Capt. John Smith’s 1612 map of Virginia. It’s easy to see how cartography has changed since the time of Smith, who could not have dreamed of satellite imagery or Google Earth, But can you tell us what part of map and atlas production remains the same?

Although the changes in cartographic production techniques have been huge in the last 400 years, some things don’t change. Any mapmaker is faced with editorial choices of which features to include and which not to include so that the resultant map is as clear as possible.

Smith would have had few sources, so his choices for inclusion were very limited. The modern cartographer has so much source data available that he or she has to make sure that the maps aren’t overloaded with information and consequently difficult to read. However, the choices to be made regarding scale, color palette, typography, and overall design are as important today as they were 400 years ago.Edward K. Werner

Edward K. Werner is Head of Information Systems at St. Lucie County Library System, FL



  1. Ahmed Mohamed says:

    I am here to thank you Mr Werner for informing us, readers, how maping changes are determined and it seems fair. I would also clearify to you that, in the case of Somalia, unlike Puntland the Somaliland Map had existed as separate country under the name of British Somaliland Protectorate before it achieved independence from UK in 26 June 1960. It was Somaliland Republic and was recognized by the UN as such for 5 days before it entered with unratified union with Italian Colony of Somalia(Somalia) which obtained the independence from Italy on same day of the union, 1st July in 1960. Somaliland declared that it revoked the union with Somalia on 18 May 1991 while Puntland to this date claims autonomous state within Somalia in 1998.