Every so often we see a story about how paper maps are making a comeback. Last week the Wall Street Journal reported that sales of paper maps have been going up in recent years—a story that NBC’s Today show picked up yesterday. One of the appeals of paper maps, these stories note, is that they provide context—the “bigger picture,” as the WSJ article puts it. Something that can be lost when focusing on getting to the destination.
I’m not remotely surprised that paper maps refuse to go away, that they keep showing signs of renewed life. I have a thought or two about this, and about the perennial question of paper maps in the digital age. There’s a reason this question keeps coming up—which these stories do get at. It’s that every new technology that supplants the old does so imperfectly and incompletely.
Angie Cope reports that the Seeger Map Company, the Wisconsin-based publisher of hundreds of city, county and state maps, many for the American Automobile Association, since the 1970s, will be closing down at the end of the year. “At the height of the company’s success in the mid-1990s, they employed 27 people and produced 2 million maps a year.” [MAPS-L]
The Australian government agency responsible for printing topographic maps will stop printing them as of December, ABC Australia reports. Geoscience Australia cites a lack of demand for paper maps, but as you can imagine there’s some pushback against the decision.
The British Antarctic Survey—which despite its name focuses its attention on both polar regions—has released a new one-sheet map of Greenland and the European Arctic. The 1:4,000,000-scale map covers a region from Baffin Island to Novaya Zemlya to Scotland: a region that’s usually on the edges of maps of the Arctic and Europe rather than getting its own map. More importantly, it’s a very recent snapshot of a rapidly changing region: the retreating ice sheet in Greenland is revealing new landscapes. The map costs £12 and is available either folded or rolled from Stanfords and the Scott Polar Research Institute. [BBC]
The flurry of articles defending paper maps continues, and it can be tricky to separate them from one another: some are in the context of the Standfords store move; others are reprints of Meredith Broussard’s Conversation piece. But Sidney Stevens’s essay for Mother Nature Network is its own thing. It acknowledges both the downsides of paper maps (they get damaged and outdated) and the advantages of digital maps (“GPS”) before looking at the advantages of paper maps. It’s well-researched and well-considered.
Paper maps continue to find their defenders. The latest is Meredith Broussard, author of Artificial Unintelligence. In a piece for The Conversation, she applies her argument against what she calls “technochauvinism”—the idea that the digital and the technological are always better—to mapmaking. “Technochauvinists may believe that all digital maps are good,” she writes, “but just as in the paper world, the accuracy of digital maps depends entirely on the level of detail and fact-checking invested by the company making the map.” Errors on paper maps are more forgivable because, she argues, we recognize that paper maps fall out of date.
She also distinguishes between surface and deep knowledge, and associates digital maps with the former and paper maps with the latter, but there’s a risk of getting cause and effect spun around. “A 2013 study showed that, as a person’s geographic skill increases, so does their preference for paper maps,” she writes; but it doesn’t follow that paper maps lead to geographic skill. Those with poor map-reading abilities may do the bare minimum required to navigate, and nowadays that means using your phone. [WMS]
Another article on the comeback of paper maps that is really about the move of the venerable map and travel bookstore Stanfords’s London store to new digs, this time from Nicholas Crane in the Financial Times. He maunders a bit, as do many map aficionados when we get started, and ends up becoming a paean to Stanfords’s old paper maps as much as anything else. [Gilles Palsky]
CNet’s Kent German asks people to stop tech-shaming over old phones and paper maps, though I’m not exactly sure who exactly does this (it’s not like he provides any examples). Anyway, one example he does use to bolster his argument is the time a paper map saved him from getting lost in France when his rental car’s GPS didn’t have updated maps; the graft to the larger argument in favour of not being so quick to abandon old tech in favour of the latest and greatest does leave some visible seams. (He also drags the post office into the argument. It’s Luddite potpourri.) [MAPS-L]
The argument for paper maps is getting ever more insistent, even shrill, but it seems to me to be mainly coming from the tech side of things. My impression is that the people who rely too much on mobile maps haven’t lost the ability to read maps; they never had it in the first place.
Popular Mechanics: “Even in 2019, there are good reasons to own a paper map, whether it’s the kind you can grab at the gas station or a sturdy road atlas […] that lives in your car.” This is a listicle, so six reasons are given, some of which are absolute rubbish: paper maps aren’t “nearly flawless” in terms of accuracy (they do go out of date), and they’re not inherently more comparative (checking vs. online maps) than checking one online map against another (e.g. Google vs. Apple vs. OpenStreetMap). Valid points about reliability and being able to plot out your own routes, though. [CCA]
Relying on your smartphone’s maps can be risky in places where cellular service is patchy. That goes for Gatineau Park, where, despite the fact that its southeast corner is surrounded by the city of Gatineau, Quebec (across the river from Ottawa), staff still recommend people use paper maps, CBC News reports. It’s a big park, after all, and not all of it is in the city. But it’s not just about dead zones and dead batteries: out of date trail information and lack of trail difficulty are also problems. None of these problems, mind you, are unfixable (except, you know, dead batteries).
The Baltimore Sun: “In a potential sea change for a nautical industry heavy on tradition, the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration’s recent National Charting Plan suggested that, eventually, ‘the reduction or elimination of traditional paper nautical charts seems likely.'” (This is NOAA looking into the future, but note that private companies, rather than NOAA, already do the printing and distributing of paper charts; NOAA’s charts are, of course, available online and can be printed.) [WMS]
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