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Why Are Paper Maps Still A Thing?

They're more than just a backup for when your smartphone dies.

In 2007, Miss Teen USA contestant Caitlin Upton was asked why, according to a recent poll, 20 percent of Americans were unable to locate the United States on a map of the world. Much to the internet's delight, she delivered a rambling, incoherent explanation that amounted to: because not enough Americans own maps. (Thankfully, the statistic was cited incorrectly: the 2006 Roper/National Geographic study found only 6 percent of young adults were unable to do so.)

But reflecting on Upton's words eight years later, I think she may have had a point. Despite having GPS-enabled smartphones in many of our pockets, would even more Americans know where the United States was located if they had more exposure to paper maps?

In The Guardian, Thomas McMullen wrote that "digital maps put us by default at the centre"—and this is especially true with the latest incarnation of Google Maps. Its newest user interface is intended to create a more personalized cartographic experience, tailored to a person's searches and location. But in the process, it means that each of my attempts at online mapping now begins neatly in my neighbourhood, and not at the scale of the city, the nation, or the world.

Unlike a paper map, I don't have to go looking for my origin or my destination across the tiles of Google Maps. Nor do I have to commit to memory the order of places and landmarks along my intended route. And while the ubiquity of smartphones might mean that fewer people are lost on a daily basis—in no small part thanks to routing software that helps us with the planning of turn-by-turn directions from point A to point B—it does so at the expense of developing a familiarity with places along the way.

A map of the Muskoka area in the Canadian province of Ontario. Image: Imperial Oil Limited/University of Toronto Map & Data Library

For all the benefits of having GPS-enabled smartphones in our pockets, there's a case to be made for the continued existence of paper maps: they orient us in a way that ensures we're more likely to know our way around in the future.

Two years ago, I asked a class of high school students when they might need to use a paper map, and no one could answer the question. "What if your phone battery dies on a road trip?" I asked, and they sheepishly laughed, not realizing the answer was a paper map.

Paper maps are our friends where cell coverage is spotty, data roaming charges are high and outlets are sparse. Compared to urban areas, the availability of high-quality digital map data also tends to be lacking in more remote locations—but there are frequently paper maps to be found that fill in these off-the-grid gaps. And although digital versions of National Topographic System maps (the cartographic BFF of Canadian hikers) are now accessible in mobile form through iOS and Android apps for day trips, nothing beats a paper map for an extended journey in the bush.

Digital maps also aren't the best medium for illustrating the passage of time. As new housing developments are constructed and highways are completed, digital map providers are quick to have them integrated into the datasets they serve up, making it challenging for users to see the way things were without an option to roll back to an earlier time.

A road and highway map of the Canadian province of Alberta. Image: Office of the Surveyor General/University of Toronto Maps & Data Library

The contents of a map, as well as the way places and things are represented upon them, also offer incredible representations of the political and historical geography of a given time and place. By questioning what is shown or not shown on a given map, it is easier to see how those holding power used—and still use—maps as persuasive tools in the (frequently violent) transformation of space, from colonial projects to urban renewal schemes.

Thankfully, map collections in city, national, and academic libraries (like the one I work in) still use these artifacts to tell richer critical histories of place. Thanks to new digitization initiatives, the information contained on old, potentially outdated paper maps is being given new life in geographic information systems, or GIS. Practitioners in historical GIS have translated paper maps and other location-based media into digital form to overlay the geography of the past onto the present, from exploring the environmental and industrial history of urban neighbourhoods to illustrating the reach of empires. The New York Public Library has invited anyone to contribute to their digital version of the city of the past, through their easy-to-use Building Inspector utilities.

Some credit digital mapping platforms with providing a whole new way to serendipitously explore and experience the world, allowing us to wander without getting lost. But I tend to agree with Simon Garfield in The Wall Street Journal, who argued that "digital maps are the enemies of wonder." From the Ontario highway maps that I browsed in the back seat of the car as a child to the historic city plans that live in libraries like mine, maps have always piqued my curiosity for getting to know unfamiliar places—albeit, in a way that's not so singularly focused on myself and where I am right now.

Don't paper maps also allow us to get lost and find ourselves as well?

Jordan Hale is a map cataloguer and reference specialist at the University of Toronto's Map and Data Library.