Today, most encyclopedias contain just as many maps and just as much geographical information as a standard world atlas. New countries continue to be created, and the names of old ones continue to change, so it's important to check the most recent source you have when working on questions about these subjects. In your library this might be an atlas, an encyclopedia, or even an almanac. When answering a question over the phone it is always a good idea to tell the caller the name and date of the book you are reading from. Even if they don't have information that can't be found elsewhere, world atlases are useful to have because they gather a lot of geographical information In one place and because the maps are often larger and more detailed than those found in encyclopedias. In addition, atlases often contain thematic maps and graphs that give more information than just geographical locations.

Standard Features

Most world atlases have both political maps and relief maps. The former show national and other political boundaries, and cities, while the latter show the shape of the landscape. Coverage of the United States differs from atlas to atlas. In some, each state has a page to itself, while in others each map shows a region containing several states. Map coverage of the larger metropolitan areas of the world also differs. Some atlases have many maps of this sort for both American and foreign metropolitan areas. The number and detail of relief maps also varies, particularly in coverage of the ocean floor and the moon. Some atlases contain many beautiful satellite pictures of the earth.

Other Maps

Most atlases also contain maps which show the distribution of climates and rainfall, soil types, mineral deposits and so on. There are other maps for language, religion, agriculture and manufacturing, and population density. The number and variety of these maps depends on the atlas.


One of the most important parts of the atlas is the index to the maps. Some provide a guide to pronunciation. Some provide population figures for many of the places listed. Some mention the state or province of which many cities are a part. Some provide latitude and longitude. Few encyclopedias contain this last type of information but it's often possible to estimate latitude and longitude to the nearest degree by referring to the maps. If there is a page on "How to Use this Atlas," or if the index or gazetteer has instructions for use, it is helpful to be familiar with them too.

Other Features

The standard atlas usually contains some information about the solar system. This is likely to include pictures or artists' conceptions of the moon and the planets, as well as the diameter of each and its average distance from the sun. There is also information about different types of map projections and the advantages and disadvantages of each. Finally atlases often contain tables, sometimes tilled "World Comparisons," which show lengths of the longest rivers, size of the largest lakes, height of the tallest mountains, and so on. Sometimes these lists are arranged according to length, etc., and sometimes alphabetically.

An Example

You may have several general world atlases in your branch, many of which are valuable. One good title is GOODE'S WORLD ATLAS published by the Rand McNally Company. GOODE'S is revised every four years and is noted for its readable maps, balanced coverage, and clear map scales (the chart at the bottom of maps showing how distance on the map compares to the actual distance on the earth's surface).

road Atlases

World atlases are generally not useful in showing highways and roads because they are not detailed enough. A "road atlas" like the RAND MCNALLY ROAD ATLAS OF THE UNITED STATES, CANADA, AND MEXICO is the place to turn for this kind of information. Good road atlases often give details of streets in some major cities, too. Road atlases have many changes in each edition. The RAND MCNALLY ROAD ATLAS has as many as 20,000 changes in each edition! Think how many errors there are if your edition is only three years old! As with all reference books, be aware of the date of your edition and alert to possible errors from out-of-date material.

Historical Atlases

The world changes quickly these days, and it's important to use the most up-to-date maps you can find if you are looking for current information. Sometimes, however, you need maps of how the world used to be. Questions like "how much of the world did the British Empire cover?" or "I need a map of Paris in 1789" can be answered using an "historical atlas." These give maps of places and times which illustrate Important historical events.

Complete the Atlases Practice Questions.

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This page was last updated March 11, 2003.