Preserving Paper Maps Means Areas Without Connectivity

by Matt Ball on February 24, 2012

Flipping through the March issue of National Geographic magazine, I was surprised by this ad on page 6, with its tagline, “PAPERbecause.” The subhead that, “a lot of places worth going don’t get a signal, and hopefully never will,” probably speaks to most of the magazine’s audience. The PAPERbecause campaign is a much broader initiative that cuts across all uses of paper and print publications. This geo-centric advertisement that is aimed at this audience suggests that some places “are more enjoyable with a simple map.”

While I might agree that this is true from the perspective of this couple who have an advantageous view over a rather simple terrain, I’d have to insist that there are extremely few places where precise position and the registered digital realities of today don’t prevail.  I believe that most of today’s geospatial professionals, and explorers, would agree that digital wayfinding aligned to our deep knowledge of the Earth beats a paper map all of the time.

Sure, it’s nice to have places to truly escape, yet this couple here appears to be viewing the paper map on the roof of their car, so they can’t be that far out there. I venture to say that all places reachable by car are connected these days (via satellites at the very least), and the  capacity and reach of digital signals expands daily worldwide even across remote terrain.

The lack of signal that is mentioned in the ad means a forced reliance on paper. The fact that paper is the only option in some areas may be the main thing preserving the paper map today. The economics of printing maps just isn’t favorable for the mass market, and an increasingly shrinking number of publishers mean that digital map resources far exceed the coverage and currency of printed maps now and into the future.

I get the overall tone here from Domtar, the sustainable paper company, that we must think more about what we lose in the paper to digital transition, but it’s too nostalgic for my digitalist tastes. Having grown up in a paper mill town as well as having worked for print publications, I feel an affinity for the many purposes of paper. I’d like to think that a switch is on however, particularly in the mapping community, where the benefits of paper are far diminished by the capabilities of digital wayfinding tools and content.


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