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Library of Congress Geography & Maps: An Illustrated Guide


A scholar who never travels but stays at home is not worthy to be accounted a scholar. From my youth on I had the ambition to travel, but could not afford to wander over the three hundred counties of Korea, much less the whole world. So, carrying out an ancient practise, I drew a geographical atlas. And while gazing at it for long stretches at a time I feel as though I was carrying out my ambition . . . Morning and evening while bending over my small study table, I meditate on it and play with it and there in one vast panorama are the districts, the prefectures and the four seas, and endless stretches of thousands of miles.

—WON HAK-SAENG, Korean Student
Preface to his untitled manuscript atlas of China during the Ming Dynasty, dated 1721.

Martin Waldseemüller's 1513 edition of Ptolemy, depicting for the first time in an atlas format the newly discovered continents of North and South America connected by a coastline.
Martin Waldseemüller. Ptolemy's Geographia. 1513. Library of Congress Geography and Map Division.

Martin Waldseemüller's 1513 edition of Ptolemy, was a landmark work that contributed to major advances in both Renaissance geography and map printing. Published by Johann Schott in Strassburg, it depicts for the first time in an atlas format the newly discovered continents of North and South America connected by a coastline.

The Geography and Map Division holds more than 53,000 atlases, the largest and most comprehensive collection in the world. Additional rare atlases are found in the Rare Book and Special Collections Division. Geographical coverage of the atlas collection is heavily weighted toward the United States (47 percent), world (19 percent), and Europe (16 percent).

The earliest atlases in the Library are associated with Claudius Ptolemy, an Alexandrian scholar who recorded and systematized classical Greek geographical knowledge during the second century. His Geographia was the first and most popular cartographic publication to be printed from movable type in the fifteenth and early sixteenth centuries. The Library holds forty-seven of the fifty-six known copies of Ptolemy's Geogaphia dating from 1475 to 1883, plus five variants and thirty-four duplicates, including rare copies of the 1482 Ulm edition, the 1490 Rome edition, the 1507 Rome edition with Johann Ruysch's world map incorporating the exploration of the New World by John Cabot, and the 1513 Strassburg edition with twenty supplemental maps including two new maps showing America.

Starting from these Ptolemaic atlases, the Library's collections cover the developments of cartography toward modern landownership and thematic atlases. See the tabs on the side to explore other facets of the atlases in the Geography and Map Division's collection.