"The urge to map is a basic, enduring human instinct." - Jerry Brotton, professor of renaissance studies at the University of London

"The urge to map is a basic, enduring human instinct." - Jerry Brotton, professor of renaissance studies at the University of London

Right now I am looking at plate 59 in the Times Comprehensive Atlas Of The World. "UK Scotland" it says along the side - still an accurate summary, it turns out, but when it went to press the publishers couldn't be sure - though in the left-hand corner Northern Ireland can be seen and bottom right there's the north-east of England. As my eyes pan and scan across this neatly detailed mass of green and blue I realise almost my entire life is contained in this double spread. Remove the first two years (born in Germany, moved to an army camp on Salisbury Plain) and the odd holiday, the sum of my years on the planet has been spent somewhere in these two pages. First - until I was 19 - in that patch of green on the bottom left, in Coleraine, and then most of the other 30-odd in central Scotland, apart from a couple spent in Durham (bottom right).

I look at the representation of Northern Ireland sneaking into the frame and I see words that summon bad memories - Greysteel and Ballykelly, place names that resonate all too terribly with the history of the country I grew up in - and others good ones. (My dad always threatened on drives out that he'd take us to Stranocum. The place name conjures up my childhood in the same way as a picture of George Best or the smell of Ulster fries.)

My eye moves up and to the right, to where the road system of central Scotland spreads like veins and arteries on the skin of the country. I take in all the place names that pepper the land around the Firth of Forth, from Stirling to Falkirk and beyond; the corner of the country south of the Ochils I call home and have done since I came to Scotland as a shy, spotty student at the start of the 1980s.

This is a map of memories in front of me. I see the word "Denny" and think of visiting my girlfriend's family the first time, during the worst winter for years; the taxi sliding and skittering on the ice down back roads from the train station at Larbert. This part of Scotland, new to me, framed by iced-up glass, glittering and dangerous in the dark. My eye slips right to Linlithgow and I think of my daughter on a small stage caught between embarrassment and exhilaration about the idea of performing in front of her parents.

This map, I am thinking, is a form of biography.

"From early childhood onwards, we make sense of ourselves in relation to the wider physical world by processing information spatially," Jerry Brotton writes in his book A History Of The World In 12 Maps. "Psychologists call this activity 'cognitive mapping', the mental device by which individuals acquire, order and recall information about their spatial environment, in the process of which they distinguish and define themselves spatially in relation to a vast, terrifying, unknowable world 'out there'."

Down the centuries we have quantified that information, found ways to represent it - the heights and depths of it, the solid and fluid - on paper. The cognitive leads to the cartographic. Today, I have come to the place where that mapping is done. An office in Bishopbriggs. An office like any other. Computers and scuff marks and family photos. And men and women making and remaking the world.

This is the home of Collins Bartholomew and the Times Atlas, now up to its 14th edition and weighing in at 5.9kg, a reference book that dates back to 1895, though its current incarnation started in 1967. Publisher Jethro Lennox - originally from Lanark - has been working here for 12 years. Mick Ashworth, consultant editor and Blackburn Rovers fan, arrived in 1996, after a career in mapping for the Ministry of Defence (which, of course, is a reminder of where systematic mapping began - with the military. Think of that bastion of British cartography, Ordnance Survey, and its origins in the years after the Jacobite Rebellion. "There's a clue in the name," as Ashworth says).

The Bartholomew has its own special place in cartographic history. John Bartholomew set up the family map engraving business in Edinburgh in 1826. The business took over the production of the Times Atlas in 1922, a role it has continued to the present day. "The style of the maps has changed and has become more modern," suggests Ashworth as we sit in a nondescript conference room, "but the overall style hasn't. We've been loyal to the Times and Bartholomew look."

He opens the book and indicates the atlas's colour spectrum. "This layered colouring is characteristic. It was virtually invented by John Bartholomew. We've retained that, whereas a lot of publishers will go for perspective views or 3D-generated hill shadings. But we've kept the look of the Times Atlas that was established way back when."

Not that there hasn't been change. In his time working on the atlas, Ashworth has seen it move from being a manually produced artefact, the result of thousands upon thousands of films printed in eight colours, "a very complex production", to an atlas created digitally.

"At the scales we're talking about it's probably got one of the most complete and comprehensive databases," says Lennox. "It's not necessarily as detailed as the Ordnance Survey master map but then that's just the UK. We've got the whole world. We also sell our data to customers around the world. That's quite a big part of the business as well."

The database is updated daily, while the last edition of the atlas appeared three years ago. What has changed in that time? Quite a lot, it seems. "There's about 12,000 updates that have been made to the atlas," says Lennox. "About 5,000 of them are place name changes." There have been no new countries since the last edition, but there have been changes in administrative divisions in India and Brazil, new refugee camps in the Middle East. And, Lennox says, China in particular is transforming rapidly in terms of rail and road development.

Then there is the politics of place. "We had to decide how we would show Crimea," Lennox points out, "and that went through our policy committee. We decided to show that as a disputed territory. We've shown it as still part of Ukraine but we've shown it with a dashed line and we've also added a note on the map saying 'administered by Russia'."

"The problem with a printed atlas is, if you look at somewhere like Israel, Palestine or Crimea, you've got to print something for people to try to understand it," adds Ashworth. "Google Maps have different editions in their servers in Russia as they do elsewhere to show Crimea. They can show two different stories. We can't. The principle of remaining neutral as far as you possibly can, the de facto situation as it is on the ground, still underlies everything we do."

Of course there is ultimately nothing neutral about maps. Every one is essentially a political document, even down to which way up you show the world. What they show and don't show is a reflection of a geopolitical reality. Are there any blank spaces on the map these days? "There are places that we don't know an awful lot about, I suppose," says Ashworth, "but satellite imagery is global now so you can construct a map.

"Certain countries are still very protective of their own mapping. You can't get good publicly available topographic maps within 200 miles of the Indian border, for example. Indonesia is still quite sensitive. China is still quite sensitive, but there are enough sources. For atlas scale we're generally OK."

"It's harder to find information about North Korea," adds Lennox, "but that doesn't mean it's not mapped."

And anyway, he says, some problems are less geopolitical than weather-related. "Lake Chad is reducing in size but a lot of the satellite imagery isn't great because it's often quite cloudy there. We would definitely like to know we're showing the right boundary, the right size of the lake. We're pretty confident what we've got is fairly good but it's things like that you're trying to verify as accurately as possible. At Lake Chad you don't have the Chad mapping association continually surveying it every few months as you would in Britain.

"You never know what might happen. There was a landslide at Mount Cook a few years ago and it got resurveyed by New Zealand's national mapping organisation and it lost 10 metres. Stuff like that can suddenly come in and you've got to make sure it gets into the atlas."

Look through the various editions of the Times Atlas and there is another story being told too, one of changing cultural obsessions. In the preliminary section of the 1967 edition - just two years before the Moon landing - there is a wealth of material about space exploration. In the current edition, though, it's more about climate change, biodiversity, urbanisation and the energy market. It's a 21st-century view of the world, a view coloured with worries about our future resources and global warming. Significantly, the scale of the Arctic map has been enlarged to better show the current land and seabed claims.

All this work, all this detail. Here's the question. Is it needed? Now that we live in a world of sat-navs and Google Maps, is there a place for atlases as grand and detailed as this? In 10 years' time will there still even be a Times Atlas? "I think there will," Lennox says bullishly. "It's a bit like when television came along people thought radio was dead. But people are still listening to the radio."

"I think they can coexist pretty comfortably," says Ashworth. Yes, he says, it's quicker to look up a place in Google Maps than in the atlas index, "but the result doesn't necessarily tell you the whole story.

"To me it's still the geographical context that you lose on your screen by the time you zoom out on your smartphone or whatever. You cannot see the relationship between Syria and Iraq and why Israel is so worried about it. The picture you'd get on your screen wouldn't give you that overall geographic context."

Still, the world is starting to look different to us. We increasingly see it in the travelling line that arrows across a simplified landscape on the sat-nav on the car dashboard. Maybe there's an existential change inherent in this. An atlas reinforces how small we are. A sat-nav makes us the centre of the world.

But then to ourselves maybe we always have been.

Ashworth and Lennox are cartographers. If you ask them, as you would expect, they have their favourite maps. Ashworth opts for a nautical map by Lucas Jansson Wagenaer from the 16th century. Lennox's is a little more prosaic but just as revealing. "My favourite map is probably the Ordnance Survey Landranger 1:50,000 map of Rum, Muck and Canna because it reminds me of family holidays to the islands. These really remote areas of our country are mapped so accurately and so well you can go to the back of Rum, up the valley, and the river is exactly how it is on the map. It just brings out the adventurous side of me."

Which is were we came in. Our lives are mapped. In our heads as much as on paper. n

The Times Comprehensive Atlas Of The World is published by Collins Bartholomew, priced £150.