This coffee table-sized (and dauntingly priced) volume is the result of many years' work and is certain to be of enormous value to students of Maryland history.

It contains 142 plates, 15 in color, that reproduce about 100 maps of the state beginning with the first, drawn by Capt. John Smith in 1608, and ending with one drawn three centuries later when the nettlesome dispute over the state's western boundary finally was settled. The book is likely to give as much pleasure to the general reader as to the scholar, for it is a handsome object to examine; its text is readable and informative.

Its authors, respected authorities on the history of the Free State, point out at the beginning that Maryland "presents a formidable challenge to the cartographer." They quote an early 19th-century geographer: "The State of Maryland is extremely irregular in its configuration, its southern boundary being formed by the Potomac, with its winding channel and circuitous general course, and the intrusion of the State of Delaware upon the east and the great expanse of Chesapeake Bay in the center adding to the irregularity of its land area."

The purpose of their book is to show how mapmakers over the centuries have met this challenge, "and to convey the growth and development of Maryland as cartographers saw it from 1608 to 1908."

This the atlas does exceptionally well; the combination of maps and text amounts to a brief, illustrated history of the state as well as a cartographical overview. The maps of the state reveal, for example, how its outline was altered again and again by border disputes with Virginia and Pennsylvania--and how, as a result of one dispute with Pennsylvania, Charles Mason and Jeremiah Dixon were commissioned to draw what became, in 1768, their famous "Line."

The maps show how the state's system of roads and canals gradually evolved, how its settlements spread inland from the Chesapeake, how those settlements grew into towns and cities. They also show how some mapmakers were willing to tinker with their products in the hope of profit: "In the 19th century, mapmakers would promise to identify property owners prominently by name in order to promote sales of their wall maps and atlases."

Considering the difficulties Maryland can pose even to the skilled 20th-century cartographer, the basic accuracy of many of the earliest efforts is quite startling. By juxtaposing John Smith's 1608 map with a 1976 satellite photo, the authors provide impressive evidence that the primitive surveying techniques Smith employed did not prevent him from getting the shape of the place down right. From then on, the process of mapmaking became one of developing ever sharper and more reliable detail -- down, finally, to block-by-block maps of Annapolis and Baltimore.

It goes without saying that a map can be a work of art as well as a depiction of terrain, and a number of these certainly qualify. The authors seem to have made a point of choosing for color reproduction those of particular merit: the John Smith map; four brilliant plates photographed from an important 1794 map by Dennis Griffth, whose story of professional travail and frustration provides a poignant aside in the text; a breathtaking "Bird's Eye View of the City of Annapolis," published in or about 1858; a 1907 geological map. Since many of the originals are in extremely delicate condition, these excellent reproductions are, in effect, a form of preservation.

A couple of small complaints must be registered. One is that though the reproductions are indeed first-rate, they are of necessity relatively small and thus lose a certain amount of detail; a magnifying glass is a useful aid in a careful examination of the atlas, and it is to the printer's credit that all details emerge quite sharply under a glass. The other is that (obviously in hopes of preserving as much detail as possible) the authors chose to divide important maps by Augustine Herrmann and Thomas H. Poppleton into quarters, one quarter to a page, with the consequence that it is difficult to get a sense of each map as a whole; a reproduction of each map in full, even a very small one, would have been a useful addition.

But these complaints come close to nit-picking; the "Atlas of Historical Maps of Maryland" is a work of scholarly importance and a great pleasure to peruse.

Readers also should know that the Johns Hopkins Press has on sale two portfolios of color reproductions from the atlas. One, for $25, contains four maps of the state; the other, for $35, contains these four plus one each of Annapolis and Baltimore. The reproductions measure 23-by-18 inches and are on acid-free paper.