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It’s Christmas in January! Awesome animated atlas makes great gift

If a gift is given two weeks after December 25th, is it just a little late or incredibly early?

I’m not really clear on the Christmas gifting protocol so let’s just call the animated Atlas of the Historical Geography of the United States a New Year’s surprise.

You all know my love of a good map. A recent purchase was a 1945 Collier’s World Atlas and Gazetteer that easily occupied several hours of my time. There’s just something about a good map that grabs hold and sucks me in – I start measuring distances and looking for old images online and browsing contemporary StreetViews and thinking about ways to use the maps with kids and . . . well, you’ve heard this all before.

One of my favorite map quotes is from Miles Harvey, author of The Island of Lost Maps:

Sometimes a map speaks in terms of physical geography, but just as often it muses on the jagged terrain of the heart, the distant vistas of memory or the fantastic landscape of dreams.

That is why the animated Atlas of the Historical Geography of the United States is so incredibly cool. Originally published in 1932, the Atlas contained almost 700 maps – and not just normal maps. Editor Charles O. Paullin included an incredible amount of historical information such as the Military History 1689-1919 chapter.

1932 atlas military history

When it was published, reviewers praised the maps for the imaginative ways they showed change over time. But as cool as the finished product was,  Paullin and his John K. Wright knew that that atlas could better. In their introduction, Wright states:

The ideal historical atlas might well be a collection of motion-picture maps, if these could be displayed on the pages of a book without the paraphernalia of projector, reel and screen.

The problem, of course, was that the technology to create this sort of “motion-picture” atlas didn’t exist. The solution was 80 years in the making. Thanks to the University of Richmond’s Digital Scholarship Lab, Paullin’s dream of an animated atlas has been fulfilled. The DSL has taken the data and maps from the 1932 version and added animation, zooming capabilities, textual information, and interactivity. Exactly the kind of “motion-picture” capabilities the original creators were hoping for.

Perhaps one of the most powerful experiences that you and your students can get from using the updated version of the atlas is the sense of change and continuity over time.

“We live in history the way fish live in water,” said Edward L. Ayers, the founder of the Digital Scholarship Lab and a senior consultant on the project. “It’s invisible to us, but a historical atlas can give us a sense of coherence of the larger pattern.”

You can easily see sources of European Immigration shift from the 1800s to the early 1900s or the percentage of foreign-born population from 1860 to 1900. And watching American explorations during the early 1800s as an animation is just too cool.

Yes. I’m a map nerd.

But even if you’re not, this is an very sweet tool for teaching and learning. And it ties directly into state and national social studies standards. (I’m busy creating a new set of C4 Framework cards and will be sure to include the Atlas.)

Play an animation part way, have students predict what might happen next. Ask kids to graph or chart the data contained within the maps. Use the maps and the included explanatory text as writing prompts. Use the animations as hook activities at the beginning of a lesson. Have students create their own animated maps that look at more recent data and events.

There just seems like a ton of stuff you and your kids can pull out of this.

So Merry Christmas! Or Happy New Year. Either way, the animated Atlas is a great gift. Enjoy!

(Be sure to check out all of the Digital Scholarship Lab’s very cool mapping projects.)

2 Comments Post a comment
  1. Fantastic. Thanks for posting and giving me a great excuse for not doing what I should be doing this morning!

    January 7, 2014
    • glennw #


      My goal is to get everyone off task today. Glad you’ve jumped on board! Have fun!


      January 7, 2014

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