Paper Maps Refuse to Die in the Digital Age

Rebecca Maxwell


In today’s era of digital maps, the use of paper maps might seem a bit antiquated. When Google Maps are easily accessible through any computer, tablet, or smartphone, pulling out a paper map appears to be as old-fashioned as using a rotary telephone or listening to a vinyl record.

For example, in 2008, SF Gate reported on the phasing out of the cartography division that served the California State Automobile Association.   By the end of 2008, the twelve-person cartographic unit was to be disbanded with mapping services done only by AAA’s national headquarters in Heathrow, Florida. 

Paper maps falling by the roadside

The cause for the demise is the widespread availability of online map directions and in-car navigation units which cut demand for the paper maps by 13% in 2007.  The high degree of research needed to keep current with local changes in roadways and street name changes leads some to question how well the national office will be able to provide accurate local maps.  

“I don’t know if (AAA has) the resources, now that this is suddenly dumped in their laps,” said Curtis Carroll, sales and marketing director of Benchmark Maps, also in Medford, Ore.  Carroll further predicated highly detailed local papers maps will be a thing of the past: “Street maps with the level of detail as we know it on a paper sheet may not be with us in a decade,” Carroll said.

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Artistic cartography thrives on paper

There are, however, still people who refuse to let paper maps die, continuing to produce and share print maps for future generations to enjoy.

A 16th century map of the Scandinavian peninsula with ships and sea creatures in the water.
Historical maps contain a trove of geographic information in text format. Map of the Scandinavian peninsula by Olaus Magnus, 2nd edition, 1572. Via Library of Congress.

Alan Grossman is one of those individuals. Grossman, a New York lawyer, is a die-hard Elvis Presley fan, and his admiration for paper maps grew out of his enthusiasm for the rock-n-roll icon. It was out of this passion that Grossman and his wife, Andrea, produced the Memphis Map for Elvis fans, a full-color 18’ by 27’ paper map of the city bordering the Mississippi River.

This map stands out not only because of the hand-drawn illustrations but the inclusion of over 130 sites that would be of interest to any die-hard Elvis fan. The map details the most well-known sites like Graceland, but many obscure ones as well, some that do not even exist anymore.

These places include Coletta’s Italian restaurant where Elvis ate pizza, Crown Electric Company where he was employed as a truck driver, the Britling Cafeteria where his mom worked as a waitress, and the local draft board where Elvis registered.

Grossman invested over $50,000 in the creation of his Elvis map and still finds paper maps comforting and easier to read. Paper maps decorate the walls of offices at Google Maps, and even the Director of Google Maps, Manik Gupta, goes out of his way to print out paper maps when he travels.

They can be folded into his pocket and handed to taxi drivers. Bill Rankin, cartographer and Yale professor, says that there is something about having a paper map on the wall to look at.

Paper maps have also been put to good use in instances when digital versions might be a disadvantage.

The military still needs paper maps. It could be a disaster if soldiers faced a signal dropout on the battlefield.

In 2011, the Portland regional government commissioned a paper map to be designed in order to encourage young Hispanic residents in suburbs to walk and bike more. Paper maps were ideal because the majority of that population lacked access to computers and smartphones.

In a time when Google Maps reign, there is still room for paper maps to exist. Even though customers have increasingly turned to digital maps on mobile devices, custom cartography has value to offer. The North American Cartographic Information Society, which consists of more than 400 members, has those dedicated to exclusively to digital maps, some to paper maps, and others who do both.

Even though there are mapmakers who deride paper maps as outdated and impersonal, there is something to be said about the complexity and artistry of paper maps. When it comes to digital versus paper maps, it is not one or the other. Paper maps and digital versions can still exist side by side.


“In Era of Google Maps, Fans of Paper Maps Refuse to Fold.”

“Memphis Map for Elvis Fans.”

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About the author
Rebecca Maxwell
Rebecca Maxwell is a freelance writer who loves to write about a variety of subjects. She holds a B.A. in History from Boise State University. Rebecca has also been a contributing writer on