3 mins

The Times World Atlas: Behind the Scenes

It's big. It's heavy. And it's controversial. Publishing manager Jethro Lennox tells Peter Moore why The Times Comprehensive Atlas of the World still matters

Jethro Lennox - The Times Comprehensive Atlas of the World

Sir Ranulph Fiennes says it is, "the ultimate starting point for planning any adventure or expedition."

Paul Theroux says it has been an essential part of his travelling life for many years. And it recently caused an almighty controversy with its depiction of Greenland's shrinking ice cap.

It's The Times Comprehensive Atlas of the World, a six-kilogram bruiser of a book that maps the world in the most intimate of detail. Publishing manager Jethro Lennox tells Peter Moore why it still matters.

What is the role of an atlas like this? Who do you think uses it and why?

It is used throughout the world by a variety of people with geographical interests, from government organisations to scientists and students to people who have a general interest in the world. It’s an excellent reference resource and a good place for finding where places are in the world. Now that we’re in the 13th edition of the atlas, every year we’ve been trying to put more features in and more detail and it has really built up into a fantastic resource.

It’s also a great lifetime gift. A lot of people buy it as a wedding present or a retirement gift. It’s amazing the number of people who like an atlas. You don’t have to be a map geek.

The atlas is more than just maps. What are some of the other areas that it covers?

There are three parts of the atlas. There’s a thematic section up the front covering things like earthquakes, volcanoes, population, economy and climate, as well as wild extremes like the highest mountains and largest islands.

Then the maps – they speak for themselves.

Then you’ve got the index section with over 220,000 place names, which includes the actual names on the map, but we’ve also got alternative names. Former names that people might know – you’ll get a country like Rhodesia, which is now Zimbabwe, or cities like Bombay, which is now Mumbai – that have changed their names, we’ll still have some of the former names in the index.

How many people are involved in putting this atlas together?

There are around 30 cartographers, and work on the actual physical atlas starts about a year before publication. But to be honest, it’s a continual process. We’ve got a database team who are constantly updating our geographical information system database. There’s a newsroom team scouring journals and other sources looking for changes. It really is a continual process.

How often does a new edition come out?

We publish a new edition of The Times Comprehensive Atlas every four years, but we’ll reprint it once a year. Any major changes, maybe a new country, or a big new road or a big new feature, we’ll do at reprint. But every four years we’ll overhaul everything in the atlas.

How has technology changed the way you create these atlases?

It’s all digital now. It’s been digital since the Millennium Edition, the 10th edition, published in 1999.

Gathering information is done much more online these days. Before we’d have piles and piles of paper sent in, manuals and so on. Nowadays you just subscribe to a lot of different resources. The United Nations puts all their population statistics online. Most censuses are online. It’s much more a case of gathering all the information together electronically.

We still source a lot of paper maps from around the world, especially for the actual mapping. But for things like population figures, data, it’s all online. In some ways, this makes it a harder task. Where do you stop? There’s so much information at your finger tips, you could go on forever.

What’s the biggest challenge of putting together an atlas like this?

Making sure everything is right. We’ve got a policy committee that approves how we show countries and areas. We look to people like the United Nations. But it’s a challenge. It’s not easy to show a world that everyone agrees with.

Which brings us naturally to the controversy of the depiction of Greenland ice cap in this edition.

We tried to use what we thought was the latest data. We were trying to be as up-to-date as possible and maybe we didn’t show it as accurately as we could. But the scientists have now corrected us and we’re now looking to do an inset to fix it.

I think the controversy about the Greenland Ice Cap shows how much maps matter to people.

Can you clarify what the problem was?

At the scale of map shown we show the ice sheet extent. The scientists highlight that there is more permanent ice than that.

So there is more ice there than is represented on the map?


Why weren’t you working with these scientists originally?

Some of them were involved, but not on this edition. We took the Greenland data from a trusted source. It was just how we interpreted that data.

You also talk about other effects of climate change on the atlas. Shrinking seas and redrawing river courses. Are these changes getting more noticeable?

The information we’re gathering is more accurate. Things like satellite imagery. It’s hard to say whether the changes now are bigger than they were 50 years ago or whether it’s the fact that we are able to map them more accurately.

There’s certainly more things happening out there. That’s why we’re showing the outline from previous mapping of the Aral Sea and what it looks like now. Basically we try to show the world as accurately as possible.

Some of these changes aren’t necessarily climate change, but are still man-made. Dams are built and rivers diverted...

Exactly. For example they built a dam to restore a northern part of the former extensive Aral Sea, which is now filling up again. They’ve started fishing in the northern half of the Aral Sea. So we mapped that. The northern half of the Aral Sea has got more water this edition than in the previous edition.

These are environmental and physical changes that are happening and we represent them on the map.

What sort of research goes into defining the boundaries of a new country like South Sudan?

The creation of South Sudan was pretty straightforward. There was a peace agreement and it was fairly obvious it was going to be an official country. The boundaries actually followed the old administrative areas. So when it was announced, the information team here did a lot of research into it. They looked at releases from both the United Nations and the South Sudan government about what areas the country would cover. There was a lot of checking about that. And then when we’re happy, that’s how it’s represented.

One of the biggest changes from edition to edition are name changes. Are some countries more prone to changing names than others?

China, partly because when a new administrative capital is chosen it gets named after the division and the former capital reverts to its former name. It’s a complex system they’ve got and we’ve seen a lot of name changes there because they’ve just changed their administrative system. They change the names in Chinese, then you’ve got to Romanise them to show on the maps.

Russia has also seen a lot of changes. Again, it’s partly because of the Romanisation of some of the place names and being a bit more accurate now that there’s a bit more accessibility to some of the mapping from the former Soviet Union. The information flow is a lot freer now than it has been previously.

You’re looking at a few changes in countries like Canada and South Africa as places change back to their traditional names. Inuit names in Canada. Tribal names in South Africa.

A lot of the time it’s a long process. You hear talk of name changes, but you have to verify that it’s actually happening.

At what point do you decide a name has changed?

In most instances a government will have a place names committee and they will submit their list of changes to the United Nations Group of Experts on Geographical Names. 

We have somebody who sits on our editorial policy committee, a neutral chap who also sits on the United Nations Board, who keeps us updated with what’s happening. He often knows which countries are submitting a lot of place name changes.

But we won’t just say, “They’re changing the name, it’s definitely changing.’ We wait and see if it’s actually being used on the ground, especially with big places. Are signs being changed, for example.

What’s does the future hold for the atlas? Is it going to become an interactive app? Or will there always be a place for a big-lump of an book for people to flick through?

I think there will always be a place for an atlas of this size. We’re obviously looking at other digital things. All I can say is, “Watch this space!”

We’re looking at ways of replicating the experience you get by buying The Times Comprehensive Atlas in a digital space, with it still being such a great reference tool.

Personally, I think there are people who still want to buy that large, coffee table book. I can’t see it disappearing in the near future. Everyone who gets it just loves flicking through the pages.

And from a practical point of view, it’s still just as quick to look up Svalbard in the atlas and say, “Oh there it is. It’s in Northern Europe” than it is to go online. Online it zooms right in on it. You have to zoom out to get any kind of perspective.

So there certainly is still a place for the printed product. I can’t see it working as an ebook just as it is. It’s such an illustrative product.

The Times AtlasWanderlust is giving you the chance to win a copy of The Times Comprehensive Atlas of the World (Including the controversial map of Greenland so it's bound to become a collector's item). Visit our competitions page for more details. Or if you can't wait, order your copy from Amazon here.

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