The end of the road for paper maps?

Planisphere I’m always a bit behind with what I read online, and this is a story from about a month or so ago.  Are paper maps dead? For those of us of a certain age who did things like the Duke of Edinburgh’s Award Scheme or were Scouts or did military service, we can be put in to one of two groups; those who could fold and unfold maps with skill and confidence and not  rip them or get them blown off in to the mid-distance during the attempt, and those who…well…couldn’t.

I had my moments when I almost got it right – that’s why my paper OS maps are creased and crumpled in places where they shouldn’t be creased….

But I still have those paper maps – the Peak District, Sheffield and Derbyshire, Nottinghamshire.  In other words, the areas I walked and cycled around when I was a kid.  And about 5 feet from where I’m sitting writing this is my Silva compass with which I navigated my way around using those maps.  And in a cupboard downstairs are a couple of maps which I used when I did my ‘macho’ thing of travelling from Vancouver up to Prudhoe Bay and Point Barrow in the mid-1990s.

And the house is well equipped with Atlases – some are old enough to show large swathes of the world in ‘Empire Pink’ as I used to call it – and AA road maps and such.

Of course, at the click of a mouse or the swipe of a finger I can call up electronic maps on phone, iPad and computer.  I can zoom in, zoom out, get directions.  On my Blackberry I can even see where I am when wandering around courtesy of GPS. I even have an application on the iPad that gives me a star-map that updates in real time.

And funnily enough, it was when using this electronic star map the other night that  I was reminded of the article mentioned above and impressed by the fact that sometimes a paper map is needed.  Although I’ve had a lifelong interest in star-gazing and amateur astronomy I still can’t find my way around the heavens above without assistance – especially in the summer skies. So the other evening I wanted to do a little star gazing and decided to use the iPad to orient me….and failed miserably.  It updated in real time, showed me all I needed, but I just couldn’t get comfortable with it.  After 10 minutes I dug out my Phillips Planisphere (shown above) and got myself sorted with that in no time flat.  OK, I’ve been using such a gadget for years, so am rather used to it, but it just felt…right.

And there’s definitely what can only be called ‘the romance of old maps’ – as a kid I use to draw maps of imaginary countries on rolls of wallpaper, and used old maps to fight imaginary battles as part of my wargaming hobby. The Lands of Middle Earth and Narnia were mapped on paper, not digital screens, and the other day I saw prints of old maps being sold as wrapping paper in a local branch of Clintons Cards.  We’re going to buy a couple and frame them as decorations.  There is something wonderful about the idea of depicting landscapes on paper – something that electronic maps can’t match.

And, of course, on the day that the Governments of the world pull the GPS system down, or when a massive solar flare nukes all our electronics, we’ll still be able to use the paper maps to navigate by…although if the latter has taken place we may not be able to rely upon compasses anymore…..


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