Don’t forget the Melway: why printed maps are still relevant

Two women looking at map of Australia

RACV Staff

Posted July 21, 2022

Modern online and interactive mapping tools might be the trendiest option today, but old-school printed maps are still being bought by tens of thousands of Victorians every year. 

Flash back to a road trip from your childhood, and there was one item alone that got you to your destination: the tattered old Melway. Dominating 80 per cent of the street directory market in its 1980s heyday, the street directory in every Victorian’s glovebox or backseat was how all drivers learned to get from A to B.

Whether it was for pizza delivery, emergency assist, a road tripping adventure or getting to know the city streets, giving the old Melway reference - Page 43, G8 – were terms in the common vernacular that now sound like another language.

These days, circulation of paper or printed maps has obviously dwindled with the introduction of satellite navigation GPS in our cars and on our smartphones.

So, who is still using street directories like the beloved Melway? And do they have a future?

Street directories versus digital maps

The history of printed maps

Since the 1950s, buying your first ‘Melway’ and shoving it in your second-hand car was a rite of passage equivalent to fixing on your P-plates, but not for the most recent generation of drivers, who may look at you quizzically if you ask them what a street directory even is.

Originally, Melway street directories were created by devoted cartographers, who would visit the area and create detailed mapping routes.

“We are finding the market is much smaller,” says Melway Publishing Director Murray Godfrey. “Our sales climbed until the Global Financial Crisis (GFC) in 2008. They dropped back then, and they certainly have not risen since.”

As of 2021, the Melway was still selling around 100,000 copies per year at places like service stations and RACV retail stores – although the number is a far cry from its annual circulation of 500,000 before the GFC.

These days, Melway bills itself as a ‘companion’ tool to the digital GPS rather than a competitor, where they can give the user ‘a complete feel for the surrounding area.’

That said, it’s no secret that both GPS and mobile phone mapping have been to blame for the diminished sales of street directories in the information age. Anyone can switch on their phone and with hands-free operation in the car, get directions to anywhere in the world by using a range of different transport options on apps like arevo.

Aside from ease of use, apps do have a lot going for them – after all, they’re better for the planet with no paper wastage, give up-to-date route time estimations, road closure updates, and roadside accident notifications.

So why use printed maps at all?


Melway street directory

The Melway used to be the main way to find your way around town. Image: Alamy. 


Who still uses print maps?

Emergency services, real estate, and travel industries

Melway sells mostly to people over 40 and emergency services, as well as government departments, military personnel, real estate corporations to show nearby amenities, and travel industries such as taxi services and buses. Godfrey notes that firefighters need a hard copy "because they found [during] the bushfires that there was so much material in the air that their GPS units failed.”

Road trippers

While digital maps can automatically find the most direct route, there are plenty of people out there happy to go old-school on their great Aussie road trip.

From packing in the car for a journey up the east coast to find Australia’s Big Things to hitting up the wineries and mountains on the road from Melbourne to Adelaide, there’s something to be said for designing a trip according to the surrounding areas found on a printed map. This way, rather than just being used a vantage point to get from A to B, the trip becomes as much about the journey as it does the destination.

Bushwalkers and park rangers

Heading into the hills or on the road less travelled certainly means more time in the great unknown – and this often comes with a lack of Wi-Fi reception. For bushwalkers, trekkers and hikers, printed and paper maps are still a necessity for guidance, safety and education, particularly for topography in certain peaks.


Old items are often worth more than you think. First edition Melway directories can go for as much as $1,500, while ‘vintage’ editions from the 70s and 80s regularly fetch hundreds of dollars on resale websites. 


GPS in car

These days, it's much more likely that a driver will use a GPS map rather than a printed street directory. Image: Alamy. 


Why printed maps are still important

While printed maps may not be the first choice for street directions for the majority of folk today, understanding how to read them, even just for emergency use, is still an important life skill. Who hasn’t found themselves in a place with no phone reception, broken down, or with a dead phone battery, wishing they had a street directory to lead them to their destination?

Godfrey says schoolteachers often state that those who rely exclusively on phone navigation lack ‘spatial awareness’ - a sense of their surroundings and their place in it.

It can certainly be true that a GPS can put a driver on a sense of autopilot, where they end up at a destination without ever learning the route or understanding the street networks that got them there. 

A recent study found that ‘when people use tools such as GPS, they
tend to engage less with navigation. Therefore, brain area responsible for navigation is less used, and consequently their brain areas involved in navigation tend to shrink.’

Overall, the study found that stimulating the part of our brain used for activities such as map reading ultimately can assist with offsetting ‘age-related cognitive impairments or even neurodegenerative diseases.’

While it is true that printed map companies like Melway have significantly declined in their reach, there may still be life left in the art of the paper map.

As records of time and an art form, the use of this ‘base data’ from cartographers remains relevant for topography, emergency services, bush walkers and those fond of map reading as a skill and form of sentimentality. 


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