From ice age to digital age, ‘Historical Atlas of Maine’ complete after 15 years of work

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After 15 years, the creation of nearly 100 maps, countless hours spent pouring over old documents and lots of careful editing, the “Historical Atlas of Maine,” a colorful, fact-packed tome detailing 15,000 years of Maine history, has finally been published by the University of Maine Press.

The atlas provides an in-depth look into the many cultural, economic, environmental and geological elements that have shaped Maine’s history, from the earliest evidence of human population right up to today. It was edited by geography and Canadian studies professor Stephen Hornsby and history professor Richard Judd, with maps by cartographic designer Michael Hermann.

It originally was the idea of Burton Hatlen, professor of English and much-loved UMaine scholar, who died in 2008. Other states have their own historical atlases, but Maine never had one — until now.

“He thought something like this would be a nice legacy for a land grant university. It would be a gift to the people of Maine,” Judd said. “[Hatlen] put together that initial committee back in the late 1990s, and we’ve been plugging away at it ever since.”

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Hornsby and Judd found themselves working on the atlas in their spare time — hence the decade and a half it took to complete the project, from inception to publication. Though the book draws from many disciplines — history, geography, geology, anthropology, art history, economics and many more — it manages to provide a cohesive and engaging overview that sheds light on why Maine is the way it is.

“We had thrashed out a chronology and an outline of just what this was going to look like before we even hired a cartographer,” Hornsby said. “We originally wanted more than 100 [maps], and we ended up with 76. There was a natural winnowing process. We had to be realistic about just what we could and could not include.”

Although every map, photograph, paragraph and caption in the book has been carefully vetted by a team of academics and graduate students, the atlas is far from being a dry, scholastic textbook. It’s easy to pick it up, open it to a random page and jump right in.

“Right from the beginning we wanted something that was accessible to the people of Maine,” Hornsby said. “This was not going to be just for academics. This had to be something that would appeal to a wider audience. And particularly, as we got public funding and a state appropriations grant for it that became even more important.”

To that end, each page is laid out in bold, graphical style, illustrated by historical photographs and paintings. Hermann’s maps are easy to read and illustrate a huge array of topics and historical periods — everything from population changes in Maine in the years following the American Revolution to maritime trade routes in and out of Maine in the 19th century to the old streetcars lines in Bangor in the 1920s and 30s.

“The atlas is beautiful, and that’s important,” said Hermann, founder of cartography firm Purple Lizard Maps, who worked on the atlas project for 14 years. “A lot of atlases are dry and use a cookie-cutter shape of a state throughout. We wanted to get away from that format. People are going to be impressed by [its] accessibility. It is scholarly research presented in a beautiful, interesting, readable way that calls you to turn to the next page.”

For history buffs, be they interested in Maine history specifically or in New England history in general, the atlas is a must-buy. The book is available for pre-order on the University of Maine Press website. It will be available for purchase in independent bookstores across the state as well as on Amazon and other online booksellers in mid-December. Judd and Hornsby hope to eventually make the full book available to read and study online.

Hornsby and Judd will give a talk during two book launch events. One is set for 6 p.m. Dec. 10 in the Osher Map Library at the University of Southern Maine in Portland. The other is set for 3:30 p.m. Dec. 11 at the Buchanan Alumni House on the UMaine campus in Orono. Judd will also give a talk about the Atlas at the Maine Historical Society in Portland at noon Dec. 9.

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