Death of the Paper Map ‘Greatly Exaggerated’

November 29, 2017

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There is no doubt we live in a digital world, and portable digital mapping is changing the way we use geography to solve problems. Before you send out your plotter for surplus, though, I’ll suggest that hard copy maps are not just relevant, but also essential, in our ever-more-digital geographic world. Behind every map is a story, and behind every story is a map, paper or digital.

This isn’t a Luddite rant on why we should all toss our phones and tablets and PCs and go back to the days when you had to keep turning your pencil so the line on the vellum would be the same size even as your lead wore down. (Anyone remember that?) Instead, I’d like to offer some compelling reasons to keep paper maps in your GIS toolbox.

Paper maps encourage real-time, face-to-face interaction.

Picture four different meeting rooms filled with passionate, engaged people in different locations on different dates. Each room is discussing the revision of the trail system in a beloved park. In one room are the park staff-biologists, cartographers, planners, trails crew and others; in the other rooms are the public- hikers, bikers, skiers, equestrians, hunters and retirees.

The demographics are different, but everyone is looking at the same maps. Every person in every room has different opinions on how, or even if, changes should be made. Of course, this could all be done online: Post the map on a website with a form for comments, or even develop an app where people can mark up the map. But, is that really a substitute for the knowledge that is exchanged when people engage face-to-face? People gather around paper maps.

How many people can gather around a phone or monitor at once? A big map on a screen can be seen by hundreds or even thousands, but how do you easily interact with it? When the maps are laid out and the pens passed around, a conversation begins. Knowledge and experience are shared. With professional guidance, all that knowledge and experience will become digital data. Let’s explore reasons to appreciate the value of paper maps.

Paper maps turn small images into big pictures.

Student research on Indian Removal in a U.S. History class morphs from information to enlightenment as they all take their small group maps to the big map on the wall and draw their findings. A story begins to emerge, with dots and arrows and text. Names and numbers from individual tribes become a tale of thousands of individual people marching thousands of miles. As more conversations begin, one young lady looks at the map and sighs, “People aren’t very nice.”


As small mental images become big pictures, the story unfolds. Research, drawings and paper maps become new digital information with tools like Story Maps, Esri’s ArcGIS Online, Google Earth or several other web mapping apps. Story map templates take away the burden of building a base map. In this case, locational accuracy isn’t as critical as showing the vast scale of tribal relocation from one region to another. These stories can be told and shared with a broader audience, but it started with a paper map.

Paper maps bridge the digital divide.

Some maps simply must be in hard copy. They may be displayed in a visitor center, handed out to rescue crews in a briefing packet, or published in a journal. More often than not, the clients requesting these maps aren’t GIS folks, but they need maps to do their jobs and have strong ideas about how the map should look when it is finished.

We have all made many map revisions “over the shoulder,” making real-time on-screen changes with the client. We all know, though, that what you see on the screen isn’t necessarily how it’s going to look when it’s printed. If it is going to be a hard copy, we need to see what the final product is going to look like.

Paper maps encourage immediate reflection.

I always advise mapmakers (including myself): for every hour you spend making a map, an average reader will spend ten seconds looking at it. A compelling map, though, will draw the viewer in, and could make that ten-second glance turn into 30 seconds, or a minute, or longer; and those ten seconds per individual reader will add up to hours of cumulative viewing time.

Before you publish it, find a way to see your map from the outside. Between the cartographer and client, we know the content and data in detail. After so many revisions, we often stop seeing the forest for the trees; but remember that your audience will be seeing this for the first time, maybe the only time. This map may be your one and only chance to tell your story.

That’s why third-party review is critical. Pass on the hard copy map to someone who might be representative of your intended audience, in its final format. Stand back and let them digest it. They will definitely see things that you don’t. Their initial reaction and subsequent comments will lead to a better product.

Paper maps aren’t keyholes.

A geo-mentor of mine, Dr. John Ritter, advised me of this. He is passionate about improving public health in our community, and used his maps to bring funding for bike lanes into an underserved neighborhood by presenting them at a city council meeting. Instead of zooming in to a specific place on their device, the audience zooms in on the map with their eyes and their minds, while everything else around their area of interest is still visible. With a paper map, everyone sees the details in the context of the greater picture.

At the city council meeting, Dr. Ritter’s presentation was lauded for being the only one that was data-driven. Rather than throwing numbers and charts up on a screen, he gave them the data on a map, and they gathered around, talking to one another. The health risks in everyone’s neighborhood were there for all to see, and the conversations continued yet again.

Paper maps create digital data.

After each trails meeting, our heroic GIS specialist takes each version of each map and digitizes the mark-ups. There are numbers and words and lines, each one associated with a specific place. Two maps per meeting, a dozen or so people per meeting, four meetings, and now you have 100+ different perspectives on the same topic using the same data.

Turning the written notes into GIS data can be a challenge. Is this a point, a line, a polygon, annotation, or a combination? Like all GIS projects, having a data schema is the first step in an iterative process. It may start with some basic shapefiles or CAD drawings, so you can get everything in there. As the picture unfolds, and more data is added, the data schema can be further refined.

Our role as geographers goes beyond making maps from digital data. We are translators. There are so many rich data sources, and our talents lie in our ability to bring these into a common language, the language of a map. Data can come from a GPS, a paper map, or a mental map. An historian who doesn't even know Excel may see the world in narrative terms, but can describe a site location in detail. Sit down with him and a paper map. The memories become dots and lines on a map that become digital data.

Decades ago, a biologist took detailed notes of bird sightings and put them on a Mylar map that lay unseen in a cabinet, until it was scanned and georeferenced and then overlaid on a recent digital map of the same birds. With collaboration, knowledge becomes data, and data become digital maps. Then these digital maps become paper maps, and the cycle of exchanging knowledge begins again. The conversations continue.


Analog and digital are both part of an ongoing, iterative process. All the paper maps I mentioned came, of course, from a digital GIS database, but way back when, most of the digital data upon which we depend came from analog sources. How many hours have been spent by our forebears digitizing ground surveys, Mylar sheets and 9x9 air photos? Now the information gleaned from the Post-its ® and mark-ups adds new knowledge to the digital database.

One final advantage of paper maps: When was the last time you wrapped a present with a leftover web app?

Read the next article in the Paper Maps series, "From Paper to Digital and Back Again: A Map’s Journey."


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