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A National Atlas is a complex geographical atlas that comprises a synthesis of contemporary scientific knowledge in the field of physical and human geography of the country under consideration. It serves as a reference tool of very high added value for the Public Administration when implementing public policies, it provides a vast knowledge on the different territorial aspects for students in medium and high educational levels and it provides wide terms of reference on geography and cartography for the general public.

Five stages may be set in relation to the evolution of the National Atlas project, i.e. the Geographical and Statistical Review of Spain (1880-1912), the Geographical Statistical Atlas (1930), the National Atlas of Spain from 1965, the National Atlas of Spain from 1986-2008 and the current National Atlas of Spain (2008-nowadays).

The Geographical and Statistical Review of Spain (1880-1912)

Map of Spain at a scale of 1:1,500,000 drawn up by Ibáñez de Ibero on the basis of the territorial division into military areas.
Map of Spain at a scale of 1:1,500,000 drawn up by Ibáñez de Ibero on the basis of the territorial division into military areas.

The first experience for creating a national atlas was the Geographical and Statistical Review of Spain that dates back to 1880, when General Ibáñez e Ibáñez de Ibero, Director of the Geographical and Statistical Institute (as it was called in those days), launched this project. The aim was to update it every year. It was a major issue as it needed to be carried out “with the indispensable collaboration of other leading organisations, as well as with the collaboration of authorities from all levels, including the prelates and some other scientific bodies”, as Ibáñez de Ibero pointed out in the prologue.

The work was published in 1888 and consisted of twenty-three articles and a single geographical map of the Iberian Peninsula and the Balearic Islands.

The map is the only drawing in the publication, it was accomplished at a scale of 1:1,500,000 and it was drawn by Ibáñez de Ibero himself for the division of the territory into military areas. It was published in black and sienna colours and was reprinted in 1902. The editing work was carried out at the press of the Institute.

The work is therefore not a national atlas strictly speaking, as it only includes one map. However, it may be considered as a predecessor of a national atlas, as it was a synthesis of the statistical data available at the time on the geography of the country, and it prepared the way for their cartographic representation.

Despite the intention to update and reprint every year, it took almost a quarter of a century for a new Geographical and Statistical Review to be published in three volumes in 1912, at the beginning of 1913 and at the end of 1914. The great innovation of this edition was the inclusion of some thematic cartographic sheets, statistical graphs and topographical profiles. This was possible, amongst other factors, due to the fact that the increase in resources at the Institute allowed creating the Graphic Arts Section, which did not exist when the first edition of the Review was produced back in 1888. Background: Geographical and Statistical Reviews

The Geographical Statistical Atlas (1930)

A Royal Order was issued in 1930 pointing out the need to publish the Geographical Statistical Atlas of Spain on an annual basis. This task was assigned to the Permanent Commission for the Economic Map of Spain which belonged to the Higher Geographical Council of the Spanish Geographical and Cadastral Institute (as it was called in those days). After the change of the political system from a monarchy to a republic in 1931, the Higher Geographical Council disappeared and the Inter-Ministry Commission for Cartography and Economic Geography was set up with the aim of producing the Economic Map and the Economic Geographic Yearbook in Spain. This Economic Map could not be carried out due to some issues in relation to the working groups, the difficulties in obtaining data, a shortage of technical resources and the outbreak of the civil war in 1936.

The first National Atlas (1955-1985)

The need to have works on the national geography had encouraged several countries in the first half of the 20th century to elaborate their own national atlas. In order to unify criteria and thus make the work in different countries comparable, the International Geographical Union (IGU) set up a working group on national atlases in 1956, which would later give way to the Commission on National Atlas. These atlases were then defined as "fundamental and complex geographical atlases of specific countries, containing a summary and generalisation of contemporary scientific knowledge in the field of physical, economic and political geography of the country concerned".

In accordance with these ideas, a Commission on National Atlas was set up at the Spanish Geographic and Cadastral Institute (as it was called in those dates) with the aim of tackling the creation of the National Atlas of Spain. This Commission, made up of a group of renowned geographers with a good knowledge on cartographic language, tried to replace the old concept of written text with the modern concept of the map as a graphic image. By 1965, the national atlases of Finland, France, Canada, Egypt, Czechoslovakia, USSR, Italy, Australia, Tanganyika (now Tanzania), Belgium, UK and Israel had been published, and those of Sweden, Denmark and Switzerland were being delivered as a loose-leaf collection. The latter was the model adopted by the Spanish Commission on National Atlas.

The cartographic techniques used for this edition contributed to the learning and practice of a new working methodology, different from the one that had been used until then, obtaining a considerable improvement in the quality of the final product.

Map from sheet 40 showing the average annual sunshine hours at a scale of 1:4,000,000
: Map on sheet 87 showing the commercial areas and the main shopping centres at a scale of 1:2,000,000

The technique, engraved glass, was used in very few countries at that time and it was necessary to import the patent from Switzerland. The team gained considerable experience and quality in their work. A further advance was the use of the stabilene technique. For the first time, a 1:500,000 scale representation of the entire national territory was achieved. The data were obtained from the National Topographic Map at a scale of 1:50,000, which was completed prior to this work.

Despite the many difficulties that hindered completing this project, the 28 geographical sheets and 24 -out of the initially 72 proposed- thematic sheets were published in 1965. A Geographical Review of 227 pages and a Toponymic Index comprising 176 pages and approximately 40,000 toponyms were published later. The last updates of some of the (non-thematic) geographical sheets were produced in the 1980s. Although the Atlas remained unfinished due to circumstances beyond the control of the work team, and the tools used for drawing up the maps were considerably improved, the scientific approach with which this work was promoted was well conceived and even ahead of its time. For the first time in Spain, there was a work that synthesised through cartographic language the physical and human geography of the country, essential material for the governmental management of the territory, amongst other aspects. National Atlas of Spain 1955-1985

The second National Atlas (1986-2008)

Thematic structure of the National Atlas of Spain from 1986

The National Geographic Institute of Spain considered in 1986 the possibility of producing a new National Atlas to complete and update the previous publication. Thus, with the approval of the Council of Ministers on 13 June 1986, the National Atlas project was prepared and structured, drawing up a general index that covered the different aspects and topics to be dealt with.

This multidisciplinary project was launched in 1987. It was organised into thirteen sections comprising 48 working groups in which all aspects of the physical and human geography of our country were dealt with through mapping. Different ministries and bodies of the National Administration, the Regional Authorities and different specialists provided the needed information for preparing the thematic mapping and took part in creating this second National Atlas.

The work was made up of 13 thematic sections which were in turn divided into groups. The groups were published both in 45 independent fascicles and grouped in large format volumes (5 volumes plus 1 volume that included the toponymic index, with over 2,200 pages and more than 4,500 maps in total), which covered all geographical aspects of the Spanish territory. The first group on Environmental Issues, was published in 1991. The first edition of this work was completed in 1997. The thematic structure and format of this Atlas meant a renovation with respect to the unfinished Atlas from 1965. A large-scale work was achieved, and this meant a huge qualitative and quantitative leap with respect to previous stages.

Grupos temáticos.jpg National Atlas of Spain 1986-2008