Atlases have traditionally been bound into book form, but today many atlases are in multimedia formats. In addition to presenting geographic features and political boundaries, many atlases often feature geopolitical, social, religious and economic statistics. They also have information about the map and places in it.
The concept and genre of atlas, in its modern sense, was the brainchild and one of the pioneering contributions of early modern Netherlandish cartographers, geographers and cosmographers; most notably Gerardus Mercator (who first used the term 'atlas' for a collection of maps) and Abraham Ortelius (who often recognized as the creator of the first true atlas in the modern sense). The use of the word "atlas" in a geographical context dates from 1595 when the German-Flemish geographer Gerardus Mercator published Atlas Sive Cosmographicae Meditationes de Fabrica Mundi et Fabricati Figura (Atlas or cosmographical meditations upon the creation of the universe, and the universe as created). This title provides Mercator's definition of the word as a description of the creation and form of the whole universe, not simply as a collection of maps. The volume that was published posthumously one year after his death is a wide-ranging text but, as the editions evolved, it became simply a collection of maps and it is in that sense that the word was used from the middle of the seventeenth century. The neologism coined by Mercator was a mark of his respect for the Titan, Atlas, the "King of Mauretania", whom he considered to be the first great geographer.
The first work that contained systematically arranged maps of uniform size representing the first modern atlas was prepared by Italian cartographer Pietro Coppo in early 16th century, however it wasn't published at the time so is conventionally not considered the first atlas. Rather, this title is awarded to the collection of maps Theatrum Orbis Terrarum by the Brabantian cartographer Abraham Ortelius printed in 1570. There is, however, quite a difference in the way atlases were published in the 16th-19th centuries and nowadays. Unlike now most atlases were not bound and ready for the customer to buy, but their possible components were shelved separately. The client could change the contents to their liking, have the maps coloured/gilded or not and after publisher and customer agreed the atlas was bound. Therefore it is possible that early printed atlases with the same title page can be different in contents.
A travel atlas is made for easy use during travel, and often has spiral bindings so it may be folded flat (for example Geographers' A-Z Map Company famous A-Z atlases). It has maps at a large zoom so the maps can be reviewed easily. A travel atlas may also be referred to as a road map.
A desk atlas is made similar to a reference book. It may be in hardback or paperback form.
Some cartographically or commercially important atlases include the following: