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The whole world in our hands

Ian Selmes looks at the enduring appeal of atlases for all ages. Family Reference Atlas of the World (2003) National Geographic Society, Washington DC pound;45. Concise Atlas of the World Dorling Kindersley pound;25. Children's World Atlas. Dorling Kindersley pound;14.99.

In our secular and post-classical society every family may no longer want a copy of the Bible and Shakespeare, but publishers still feel they want an atlas.

These new editions are not static collections of maps or coffee-table tomes, they are attractively presented and readily accessible collections of information about places, people and processes; about relative location and the agents of global change.

All three atlases reflect the fact that we live in the early 21st century.

All the maps contain a scale and key, many indicate the map projection employed, but latitude and longitude are not mentioned. Location finding in each index is by row, column number and letter. There are graticules on each regional spread but no use is made of them. Who will mourn their loss?

The National Geographic Society's mission is to increase global understanding and promote conservation of our planet, which its new atlas does with remarkable detail and clarity. Each region is introduced by spectacular images and an extensive text covering physical geography, history, culture and economy. Physical, political and thematic maps (of climate, population, land use and industry) are supported by statistical inserts for each country. For the US, each state is given similar coverage.

Perhaps the more fascinating aspects of this atlas are the inviting world thematic sections that encompass everything from plate tectonics (past, present and future) to trade and environmental stress.

There are bathymetric maps of each ocean, moon and solar system maps, and 87 pages of appendices. This atlas is a contemporary encyclopedia of the world that will meet the needs of the most demanding research project of any family.

Interestingly, the Dorling Kindersley concise atlas includes an extra country. The one hundred and ninety-third independent nation being Taiwan, which the National Geographic only recognises as of ambiguous political status. Although an English product, its market is international - the UK is shown on two pages while the US is allocated 26.

Each continent is introduced by its physical, political and resource aspects using thematic maps and short descriptive statements. Individual countries are illustrated within their region by a topographic map and short statements. The global thematic section is eye-catching but less thorough than in the National Geographic atlas. The nation summaries, geographical glossary and index are mines of information.

The nature of a children's atlas is that it is more accessible than adult versions. The Children's World Atlas is, therefore, brasher in style than its "adult" counterpart, with brighter colours, more pictures and short descriptive insets with fact-boxes.

It is also less detailed in its map content and the information about regions is broader. With much less in terms of global themes and a language level not dissimilar to the adult version, its value for education is less than that of the other two atlases.

Nonetheless, it's not as daunting and it does allow for web surfing, which will probably draw more teenagers into thinking and learning about their planet, and that is why atlases remain such important and intriguing books.

Ian Selmes teaches geography at Oakham School, Rutland

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