Behind the New National Geographic Family Atlas

Anna Brendle
for National Geographic News
December 6, 2002
Did you know that Chinese (Mandarin) is the widest-spoken language, with
885 million speakers? Or that the KVLY TV tower near Fargo, North
Dakota, is 2,063 feet tall (629 meters) and is the world's tallest
manmade structure? National Geographic's new Family Reference
is packed with this kind of information in addition to more
than 500 maps, illustrations, and photographs.

Showcasing the world's 192 countries, the atlas reveals economic, social, political, and cultural information about each nation and its region. The National Geographic Family Reference Atlas includes a geographic timeline spanning 4.5 billion years, maps of the ocean floor, a section on space, and a map of the worldwide distribution of Internet resources.

National Geographic News interviewed Bill Stoehr, President of National Geographic Maps, to find out what's new in this atlas and what the Society hopes to achieve by publishing it.

What makes the new Family Reference Atlas different from a traditional atlas of the world?

The layout of this atlas is completely different than anything we've done before. Imagine a traditional atlas—a book of maps—combined with National Geographic photographs, illustrations and stories. Plus it's smaller and easy for everyone to use.

This is the most up-to-date atlas available today. With any map or atlas, the day it's published is also the day that it becomes out of date because so many things are changing in the world. What's nice today is the ability to have a beautiful volume like the Family Reference Atlas and combine it with the Internet so that users of this book can go to National Geographic's Web site for updates on political boundaries and other changes that occur.

What is the book's strongest feature?

The book has a very large thematic map section, which depicts a wide range of topics such as world population, major religions and languages of the world as well as environmental issues. The idea is to present a wealth of information to people in a way that both engages them and motivates them to learn more about a particular subject.

More than 250 people contributed to this book over this past a year. The acknowledgements includes organizations such as the CIA, World Wildlife Fund and the United Nations. The Family Reference Atlas includes a full range of physical and political maps of the world, and its continents, as well as detailed regional maps. There is also a large section devoted to our oceans and space.

What makes this atlas more family-oriented than National Geographic's traditional atlas of the world?

It's easy to use, starting with the very first page of the atlas where it quickly directs you to your area of interest. It is more than a book of maps. The Family Reference Atlas combines colorful maps with stunning photographs and illustrations. It presents a lot of information all in one place without overwhelming readers. For instance, if you turn to one of the political maps of a particular region, you will see that it is surrounded by detailed maps as well as information specific to that region and the countries in it. This book was designed to appeal to middle school students and grandparents alike. It is truly a family product designed to stimulate the imagination.

National Geographic recently released the Roper survey of geographic literacy which illustrated Americans' poor knowledge of geography. National Geographic Society president John Fahey said it is a cultural crisis that Americans are so unfamiliar with the world around them. What is your reaction to the survey?

I was stunned by the results. It is surprising and sad to realize that less than 20 percent of our young people can locate such in-the-news countries like Iraq, Afghanistan and Israel.

Hopefully people will put the Family Reference Atlas on their coffee table rather than on their bookshelf. When Iraq is discussed on the evening news, they just might open the book and see where Iraq is located in the world.

Why do you think we should learn about geography, particularly maps and our place in the world?

Learning about a region and beginning to understand—it starts with the simple knowledge of where it is located. Understanding the political boundaries and seeing the physical features (that in many cases define those boundaries) starts the questioning and learning process. It all starts with the map. A map is a gateway to information and further learning.

If you look at Iraq, in the atlas, you will start to get general information about the country and the surrounding area. You will begin to learn about its population, the language, and the literacy rate. When you start to learn about this country, you may begin to understand more about the events that are currently in the news.

The thematic maps in this atlas address environmental stresses. The cumulative effect of population growth and density, waste and chemicals, overuse of limited resources and the burning of fossil fuel are impacting the world as never before. Young people everywhere must understand the issues that threaten the earth and the consequences of not responding.

Geography might be the most important subject taught in school. I think that our best chance to retain our quality of life is through education. Our voting population must be geographically literate. What better way to start that process than with an atlas.

What advice would you give to families who would like to improve their knowledge of geography and encourage their children to learn about the world?

Along with an atlas, people should have a map of the world on their wall. One project we've been working on is the publication of various sizes and styles of wall maps. These wall maps can be displayed easily in any home, office, or child's bedroom. We have world maps that are large enough to cover an entire wall or small enough to fit on a bulletin board. Everyone should have a map of the world.

I travel a lot with work. On a trip to a remote village in Alaska, I went into a subsistence hunter's home—it was a cabin, and the ceiling was so low that I couldn't stand up in it. He had four children living in this cabin with him, and his ceiling was completely covered with National Geographic maps. That's how he taught his children geography.

Some of his maps were quite old and worn, so I sent him a whole new set of laminated maps for his ceiling. What a wonderful example and creative way for him to teach his children. If he had an atlas, it would have been in a prominent, easy to access place. If he can have National Geographic maps on his ceiling, why shouldn't every home in the United States have a map of the world on their wall?

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