Atmospheric pressure dc glow discharges were generated between a thin cylindrical anode and a flat cathode. Voltage-current characteristics, visualization of the discharge and estimations of the current density indicate that the discharge is operating in the normal glow regime. Emission spectroscopy and gas temperature measurements using the 2nd positive band of N2 indicate that the discharge forms a non-equilibirum plasma. Rotational temperatures are 700 K and 1550 K and vibrational temperatures are 5000 K and 4500 K for a 0.4 mA and 10 mA discharge, respectively. The discharge was studied for inter-electrode gap spacing in the range of 20 νm-1.5 cm. It is possible to distinguish a negative glow, Faraday dark space and positive column regions of the discharge. The radius of the primary column is about 50 νm and is relatively constant with changes in electrode spacing and discharge current. Estimations show that this radial size is important in balancing heat generation and diffusion and in preventing thermal instabilities and the transition to an arc. © 2005 IOP Publishing Ltd.