Does every map need a north arrow and scale bar?

By Aileen Buckley, Mapping Center Lead

World with orthographic projected coordinate system showing earthquakes

I had an interesting email conversation this morning with one of my mentors, and the subject revolved around whether all maps need a scale bar and north arrow. He was trained in the “old school” of cartography, as he admits. His cartography teacher once gave him a “D” on an assignment for “turning in a map with no stated scale, no north arrow, an inappropriate title, and no statement of where the data came from.” This sparked a conversation about whether all maps do need these map elements.

I teach my students that a north arrow and scale bar are not necessary on all maps — indeed some should not have them, such as orthographic views of the world. One common mistake I see is a north arrow on a smaller scale map (say the United States) in a Lambert Conformal Conic or Albers Equal Area projection — on these types of map, north is only North along the central meridian (due to the convergence of the meridians toward the pole). But we still have an obligation to help the map reader with scale and orientation, so instead of a north arrow the graticule should be shown. A cardinal rule is that a large scale map oriented such that North is not “up” must have an orientation indicator, most easily shown with a north arrow, since these tend to be larger scale maps.

However, I do think that all maps should have an appropriate title! It should also be possible for someone to find out where the data for a map came from, though there may be ways for people to convey this information other than text printed on the page layout. For example, the data that relates to a map on a page in an atlas can be located elsewhere — perhaps in a list of courses toward the end of the book.

About the author

Dr. Aileen Buckley has been making maps since she was an undergraduate student. She has a Bachelors in Geography and Spanish from Valparaiso University, a Masters in Geography from Indiana University, and a Ph.D. in Geography from Oregon State University. She is a senior product engineer on the Living Atlas team, and her work focuses on determining and sharing best practices for mapping and analysis with modern GIS. She publishes and presents world-wide on many aspects of mapping and GIS. She is a co-author of Map Use: Reading, Analysis, Interpretation, and she is a co-editor for the Atlas of Oregon. Aileen is a former president of CaGIS (the U.S. cartographic association) and is actively involved with the International Cartographic Association in which she is the lead delegate for the United States.


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