A Portrait of America in Maps

December 2, 2010

When I was a kid, I was fascinated by geography.  I liked to pore over the maps of the various continents, with their bright colors and exotic place names. Later, as a history major, I was even more taken with historical maps – those that showed countries that arose, changed their boundaries, or sometimes vanished altogether. I guess it’s a sort of progression from the simple to the complex, but now I’m often drawn to maps that reveal the social and economic makeup of a state, a region, or a nation. I’m more verbal than visual, but an image does make these intangible influences on our world more concrete for me.

That brings me to the Census Bureau’s Census Atlas of the United States. Through my work at GPO, I had an inside view of the various stages of development that converted raw data from the 2000 census of population into the really incredible profusion of maps that fill this huge (about 12.25 x 15.25 inches), colorful, (I know from personal experience the diligence and talent that went into producing these huge full-color maps) and (dare I say it?) unique publication.

It’s unique because this atlas, more than any publication I can think of, visually portrays the key trends in American life at the turn of the century – age and sex, ethnicity, work life, education, income and poverty, housing – that comprise everyday reality for all of us in this country. For example, I’m Scottish on my father’s side and Polish on my mother’s side. I can look at the Ancestry section, see maps depicting the distribution of those Americans who self-identify as either, and learn that there are a lot of both in the Northeast. It also tells me where in the country I’m more likely to find kielbasa or mince and tatties if I get a craving (experts say that when self-conscious ethnicity fades, food is the last thing to go!)

Seriously, though, the Atlas covers virtually every longer-term social and economic trend you can call to mind, all illustrated by maps that make it easier to grasp those trends. You can look at this outstanding book here, get a personal copy here, or find it in a library. Meanwhile, I’ll be planning my ethnic food trip…

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