The world of 'De Bosatlas' between 1877 and 1939

The highest point in the Netherlands? Mount Ubachs (‘Ubachsberg’) in the Dutch province of Limburg according to the first edition of De Bosatlas from 1877, that – together with all other prewar editions – can be admired now digitally. In the next edition of this Dutch school atlas the same mountain, which was then thought to be 240 metres high, was renamed Mount Krikelen (‘Krikelenberg’). For lack of accurate levelling Mount Krikelen would take the credit for a long time. Only in the 12th edition from 1896 Mount Vaals (‘Vaalserberg’) appeared in De Bosatlas, formerly estimated 200 metres high, now measuring over 300 metres!

Go to the digital exhibition of digitised editions of the 'Bosatlas'
Krikelenberg vs Vaalserberg in de Bosatlassen van 1877 en 1896

Keeping in touch with current affairs

This example of the highest point in the Netherlands is typical for the way in which the several editors of De Bosatlas acted in the course of time: they tried to keep in touch with current affairs and adjusted the map imagery if necessary. In addition they changed the representation of the world by applying new techniques and views in the field of visualization or by specific interpretations of geographical changes. Now we have a splendid chance to follow these kind of developments having taken place between 1877 and 1939, because Utrecht University Library has digitized all prewar editions of De Bosatlas and has made them available on the internet.

'The' schoolatlas of the Netherlands?

Portret P.R. Bos

The year 2017 sees the 140th anniversary of the first edition of the famous Bosatlas. Nothing indicated that the Schoolatlas der geheele aarde (‘School atlas of the entire earth’) as the atlas was then called would grow into the instructional atlas of the Netherlands. Editor Pieter Roelf Bos (1847-1902) had to compete against as many as twelve atlases in those days! As far as arrangement and subject matter were concerned the atlas was not innovative at all and followed the example of German atlases. Also the map material initially proved to have its flaws: the 64 maps on the 27 map leaves of the first edition are partly black and white and partly coloured, have no legends and are not always based on the most recent sources.

A household name in the Netherlands!

Nevertheless the atlas turned out to fill an obvious educational gap and soon the editions, by now characterized by permanent innovation, followed each other in quick succession. Already in 1891 the tenth edition was published, the twentieth appeared in 1912 and the thirtieth in 1925. Now we have the 55th edition which came on the market at the end of 2016 and was followed in 2017 by a matching electronic version. In other words: it is impossible to imagine education today without De Bosatlas, a household name in the Netherlands!

Britse Eilanden, 6de editie Bosatlas, 1884

Into the limelight

So there is every reason to bring De Bosatlas into the limelight, to be more specific the digital limelight. Because of its 140th anniversary and because of the large number of editions in its collection Utrecht University Library digitized all prewar editions and put them online. Scholarly explanations are included, and each separate edition is put in a historical context. Next the editorial changes for each map, for instance adjustments to the visualization, the additions of toponyms, border corrections, are explained from edition to edition. The commentaries on the editions and separate maps are made by emeritus professor and expert on De Bosatlas, Ferjan Ormeling jr.

Development of 'De Bosatlas'

Against the backdrop of a changing society De Bosatlas has been through quite some developments. In the various editions many physical changes can be detected, including the construction of infrastructure, city expansions and new aviation routes. In addition, the editors had different views on applying certain visualization techniques and on the teaching in geography.

Havengebieden Amsterdam en Rotterdam, 25ste editie Bosatlas, 1919

Changes and interpretations

The project on De Bosatlas aims at showing the reader what had changed in the world, or how the representation of the world had changed, or maybe how the atlas editors thought how the representation of the world should change. For the demonstrable differences between the consecutive maps have something to say about both the factual changes on earth and their interpretation by the atlas editors which in their turn were influenced by the public opinion.

Digitizing the prewar editions

As said before, the project first provided in digitizing all prewar editions of the school atlas. It involves a total of 36 separate editions in 37 volumes from the period between 1877 and 1939. The choice for this period was deliberate, taking into account feasibility, copyright issues and a fundamental change in the structure of the atlas after the Second World War. Speaking of the latter: in the course of the second half of the 20th century the atlas grew from a reference atlas to a thematic school atlas. Approximately 75% of De Bosatlas nowadays consists of thematic map material, as opposed to the approximately 10% of the prewar period.

Loan from Amsterdam

Digitizing the Bosatlases took place in narrow collaboration with the Amsterdam University Library. In the Utrecht collection some early editions were missing and a loan from Amsterdam solved this problem. All editions, including the Amsterdam ones, were scanned at Utrecht University Library and made available online via the Special Collections website. Each edition of De Bosatlas can be viewed in detail, browsed, has been provided with a matching title description and is available as PDF download.

Digital exhibition of Bosatlases

To add insight as well as a well arranged overview to the already digitized Bosatlases a digital exhibition was put up on the website of the Special Collections of Utrecht University Library. On the website the separate editions are arranged chronologically. All these editions link to the digitized versions in the digital Special Collections.

Backgrounds of the project, editions, and maps

Via ‘Read more about the backgrounds of this exhibition’ you can read more about the project and about the history of De Bosatlas. The editions ‘on display’ are each accompanied by a usually extensive explanation – still in Dutch – in which light is shed on the editorial choices, the historical perspective, the compilation of the atlas and the national changes. If there are specific differences with the former editions, the differences per map are also commented upon. Finally, at the end of each explanation the complete content is listed according to the index.

Natuurkundige kaart van Afrika in de Bosatlas

Didactic means

The explanations at the digitized editions of De Bosatlas make it clear that the school atlas has always been designed on the basis of didactic principles. Already from the start of Bos’ time the atlas was not meant as a reference work to look up places and areas, but as a didactic means to tell geographical stories. It was done with the help of ‘empty looking maps’ which offered pupils the possibility to observe spatial connections. In the history of De Bosatlas the character of the geographical stories has changed, but the function of teaching tool and the simplicity of the maps remained a central theme.

Comparing map imagery

To simplify the comparing of the maps and the interpretation of the editorial changes, Utrecht University Library has developed a ‘synchronisation viewer’ or comparison viewer. This viewer shows two related map images from consecutive editions of De Bosatlas. If applicable the matching explanation on the bottom right for a particular map image can be clicked on. This explanation is the same as the one in the digital exhibition. As said before the differences with former editions are viewed. With the exception of the first edition, the annotated edition of De Bosatlas is always to be found in the right hand portal of the comparison viewer and the previous edition in the left hand portal. Both map images can be zoomed in on synchronically. This is an excellent way to determine if and how the map imagery changed in relation to the previous edition.

Vergelijkingsviewer met kaart van Zuid-Nederland uit twee opeenvolgende edities van de Bosatlas

Navigating the viewer

In addition to the detailed comparison of relevant atlas maps, the comparison viewer also offers the possibility to browse a Bosatlas. Moreover, users can navigate from one edition to the next, giving them a good impression of the development of a specific map or a political situation. Finally the comparison viewer links to the digitized versions in the digital Special Collections and to the digital exhibition of the Bosatlases. It is also the other way around: each separate map in the digital exhibition has a link to the viewer, in the case of a changed and annotated map image.

A new kind of online historical atlas has been created

By digitizing and annotating all prewar editions of De Bosatlas and by offering the possibility to browse these editions and the maps belonging to them, a new kind of online historical atlas has been created as it were. Because a new edition was published every two years in the period between 1877 and 1939, the school atlas may be a source for longitudinal historical research. The annotated application of Utrecht University Library introduces users to the way in which Dutch citizens in general and atlas editors in particular viewed the world. And it also gives an insight into the way their attitude changed, reflected in the selected map contents and structure of the atlas.

Geographical stories

The comparison viewer illustrates the function of De Bosatlas as a teaching tool for telling geographical stories. Possible subjects, which have a direct URL to the right position in the viewer, are for example:

Target groups

De Bosatlas application can be used by a wide variety of target groups. The general public, who sees De Bosatlas as national heritage, will be able to identify with several atlas maps of, for instance, the Dutch provinces and the overseas territories. More in detail the historical geographers can immerse themselves in the spatial developments such as shown in the large-scale town plans of Rotterdam and Amsterdam. For researchers of the history of visualization and design techniques the various editions of De Bosatlas offer many leads. Especially chief editor Bos experimented to his heart’s content with all kinds of colour schemes in the initial period!

Secondary school pupils

One of the major target groups are the secondary school pupils. This is no surprise, because De Bosatlas is meant to be used in the geography lessons in secondary schools. By comparing the atlas editions and atlas maps the pupils gain insight into the development of the knowledge about the world and into the political and physical development of the world. From an educational point of view the application can be used in several ways in secondary schools. Based on consecutive maps from De Bosatlas pupils can describe and analyze the evolution of a particular area. Also changes in the relationships with neighbouring countries are visible, as can be seen from border changes. Another aspect worth researching which emerges from the series of Bosatlases deals with the history of explorative expeditions in specific areas, including the Congo basin.


To learn the answers to such research questions, the pupils need to understand the editorial process of De Bosatlas. Why have changes been made to the maps? Why are certain maps included? How did society look upon certain events? To find the answers De Bosatlas application can be of use to secondary school pupils. In doing so, they must keep in mind that atlases – and there is also no escape for De Bosatlas – always suffer from a certain kind of bias. This bias is often expressed in a too nationalistic or Eurocentric perspective. For instance in the colonial period we see that in representing buildings on town plans of the overseas territories the major buildings of the indigenous people are practically ignored, as well as the representation of indigenous states on geographical overview maps!

Hoogtekaart van Nederland, 31ste editie Bosatlas, 1927


Summarizing it may be said that Utrecht University Library by digitizing and putting online all prewar editions of De Bosatlas, has made a remarkable part of Dutch heritage available to the general public. By comparing consecutive editions and map imagery in a synchronization viewer the former developments in the world and interpretations of the world come to light. Users of De Bosatlas application gain insight into the history of the exploratory voyages, the physical changes, the human-geographical changes, the political changes and the changes in the attitude of the editors. So a lot of changes, but some things remained the same in De Bosatlas. For instance, Mount Vaals upheld its position after 1896 as the highest Dutch point in the atlas, up to the most recent 55th edition. And the mountain will most probably be in the lead in all future editions of De Bosatlas!



Thematische wereldkaarten, 8ste editie Bosatlas, 1887