Atlases & Almanacs as Sources of Geographic Information

Instructor: Kevin Newton

Kevin has edited encyclopedias, taught middle and high school history, and has a master's degree in Islamic law.

Just like any other profession, geographers have specialized tools to help them. While they also rely on technologies like satellite imagery and advanced surveying tools, many geographers also use almanacs and atlases in their daily work.

What are Atlases and Almanacs?

Every field has its specialized tools, and geography is no exception. Sure, you may not be using a calculator as much as if you were an engineer or a chisel as much if you were a sculptor, but that doesn't mean that you are left without help. Instead, while studying geography, you have two different important resources that are of great utility, atlases and almanacs. The use of an atlas is fairly obvious to a geographer - after all, there are collections of various maps, ranging from road atlases to topographical atlases. Since much of geography deals with physical terrain, having a group of maps to help with that is obviously very important. But what about almanacs? If you're like me, you probably think of a bunch of old men around a country general store when you hear the word 'almanac.' However, these books are so much more than a guide to the best fishing and planting days.

Different Types of Atlases

Several different types of atlases exist, to go along with the several types of maps that atlases contain. For most non-specialists, the most ubiquitous is the road atlas, which shows different roads and streets through a given region. However, these can be useful to geographers as well, as they show settlement patterns, population behaviors, and population densities. However, while the average weekend warrior may stop at using only a road atlas, geographers have many more such books at their disposal. Political atlases, collections of maps that show the status of boundary lines between states and other political jurisdictions, help answer crucial questions as well. In fact, competing maps can help to highlight disputes between jurisdictions. However, the maps in an atlas don't have to be the subject of human interaction with the land in order to be useful. In fact, topographical maps, showing changes in elevation, help geographers determine best routes for civil engineers. In fact, even atlases showing different landforms across a given region can help geographers assisting to plan land-use policy, ranging from urban expansion to additional farmland.

Early Road Atlas
Early Road Atlas

Using Almanacs

On the surface, almanacs are much less useful than atlases. At its core, an almanac is a collection of generalized weather forecasts and planting advice localized for a region. After all, these texts are not books of maps, but instead books of charts, graphs, calendars, and symbols. However, assuming that geography is just the study of landforms is the same as saying that the study of math is confined only to algebra. Most obviously, geographers have to possess an understanding of the climate of a region. One of the best sources in determining the climate of a region is through examining successive almanacs. Through looking at these, we can gain quite a bit of understanding about not only the tendencies of the climate in a given region, but also detect any long-range changes in climate.

An Almanac from the Middle Ages
Almanac Middle Ages

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