Certain tools are indispensable to the historian. I staged the image below by way of illustration. We could play one of those memory games where you look at the image for a little minute and then I whisk it away and hide it under a dish towel and you make a list of everything you remember, but we all know that could be a depressing experience, so I have another game. Make a list of all the tools you recognize** and then tell which one is 50 years old.
If you guessed the Odyssey World Atlas you are right. In fact, if you guessed “the big gray book with the ratty spine” you’re right.
I love that Atlas, and I use it all the time, even though it is badly out of date and falling apart. I use online maps and atlases all the time, too, but the old gray book is always at hand. When a URL changes, or the internet is down, or the power is out I can still look something up by the light of an oil lamp. You’d be surprised how often that happens Around Here.
Of course if the internet or power is gone and what I want to look up has anything to do with the current boundaries of a number of African nations, or of the European or Asian nations which were once part of the Union of Soviet Socialist Republics, or the very existence of the European Union, I am out of luck–unless I can remember where I put the newer Atlas that I picked up at a library sale for just these little emergencies.
My good old Atlas has some excellent qualities. It tells me as much as I want to know about projections, has maps of physical features and political boundaries, and shows the designs of national flags. Best of all, it has nice big maps of individual Canadian provinces and American states complete with county boundaries and rivers and mountain ranges. Wisconsin and Michigan are on facing pages, which is very convenient for me.
It also betrays some deeply flawed notions of race and religion and is clearly focused on the northern hemisphere, particularly Canada and the U.S. It is not a perfect Atlas.
Nevertheless, it has served me well, and I am used to its quirks, the way a person becomes used to the peculiarities of a beloved elderly relative. These days I often use that magnifying glass to peer at the tiny print where rivers converge. I put sticky notes all over the pages when I’m tracing family members or beloved Civil War veterans. I can’t imagine taking the Atlas to the recycling center.
Happy 50th Anniversary, old friend. Here’s to many more.
**For those of you who want to know how many right answers you got on the tools list, here’s the whole thing: modem, laptop charger, telephone, Antrim County map with section lines (I love that map), old gray Odyssey World Atlas, green journalist’s notebook for recording interview notes, magnifying glass, black Moleskine notebook for recording important stuff, USB drive with fancy ribbon attached so I can always find it in the bottom of my purse, black external hard drive (surgically removed from my old laptop and put in a handy new case), pad of sticky notes, black spring clip for holding important stuff together, little camera for making pictures of important stuff, old-fashioned cardboard vertical file for holding old-fashioned printed research materials, current laptop. You know what’s missing? A pen and a pencil. I lose those all the time.