Careers in Cartography What do Cartographers Do?

It goes without saying that most cartographers are employed in map-making, and the examples in the previous section give a good indication of the kind of work this involves. Individual cartographers vary a great deal in what they do, but we can identify certain basic functions that are performed by cartographers in general. The most important of these are liaison, editing, drafting, reprographics, administration, research, teaching and custodianship. Depending on the nature and size of the organization for which the cartographer works, he or she may perform just one or several of these functions. They are described separately below, but in reality there is often considerable overlap between them.


Cartographers do not exist in isolation. They have frequent cause to interact and work with people from outside the profession, and this may occur at any stage in the mapping process. If, as often happens, the original idea for a map comes from someone else, the very first thing the cartographer does is discuss the client’s requirements in detail and draw up general guidelines for the project. And if the map is to be printed in full color, the very last responsibility may be to stand at the printer’s as the sheets come off the press to ensure that the printing is done to proper standards.


Editing encompasses a number of tasks, including the evaluation and processing of data, selecting scales and projections, making design decisions, drawing up flowcharts and specifications, preparing compilations, and last but not least, checking. Checking is very important indeed. Every piece of work done, no matter how minor–every line drawn, every name typed, every symbol positioned–must be independently checked and double-checked to ensure that no errors appear in the final map. In certain mapping situations, such as small-scale atlas cartography, the editing function is often assigned to a designated cartographic editor.


This is the process of constructing the map image, which is, in general, done by computers, but it may also be done by hand, or by a combination of the two. Hand methods range from pen-and-ink work, supplemented by graphical aids such as dry transfer symbols and lettering, to scribing and the other techniques described in the previous section. Some cartographers–often called cartographic technicians–spend most of their time doing this kind of work. Scribing can also be done automatically on computer-driven plotters, and the line-work on photogrammetrically-compiled maps is routinely drawn in this way. The current trend is towards ever-increasing computerization, and the way of the future–a cartographer drafting complete maps on a computer monitor–is already with us.


The operations that fall under this heading are of two main kinds, the production of intermediate materials leading up to the final map and reproduction of the final map itself. An example of the former is the creation of final negatives from scribecoats, type overlays and peel-coats, which is basically photographic work carried out in a dark room. The latter, reproduction of the final map, involves some kind of printing process, usually offset lithography. While these operations are essential to map-making, they are often carried out by reprographic specialists rather than cartographers per se, especially in large organizations.


Whether maps are made by an individual working alone or by several people as part of an organization, there is always administrative work to be done. At the very least this involves tasks like cost estimating, scheduling, budgeting, and purchasing materials and equipment. Supervising the work of others is another important administrative role. In major mapping organizations there are those whose work is almost entirely administrative. These are cartographers at the top of the hierarchy, with responsibilities covering personnel management, long-term planning, project coordination, public relations, and so on.


Research can mean four things in cartography. It means first, the work a cartographer does when searching out suitable data for a map, which often involves consulting sources of statistical data such as census returns or World Wide Web data. Second, it means the analysis incorporated into the mapping operation when cartography is combined with GIS; this is something that cartographers are likely to do more and more as mapping and GIS software become increasingly integrated. Third, it means the scientific study of maps and the map-making and map-reading processes, work that is usually carried out by academics in universities. And fourth, it means research in the sense of development, work geared to developing new techniques of map-making and new map products (image maps and electronic atlases, for example).


Many people are born cartographers, in the sense that they have a natural instinct for making maps, but such is the complexity of modern cartography that not even these can hope to qualify as cartographers without formal training. Thus it is that many cartographers work as teachers in colleges and universities. There is a difference in emphasis between the two, however. Generally speaking, college instructors mount specialized programs aimed at turning out professional cartographers. Their university counterparts have a broader responsibility, and at the undergraduate level at least usually teach cartography as part of another program such as geography.


All cartographers have a responsibility for custodianship, that is, preserving and maintaining the results of their work, whether printed copies of their maps, original plastic overlays or digital files. Some cartographers, however, make custodianship their speciality–these are the ones who enter the field of map librarianship. Map librarians are responsible for maintaining permanent map collections, work that includes acquiring maps and atlases (and sometimes remote sensing imagery), cataloguing and filing, and providing a variety of services to users. In regular map libraries, the emphasis is on current published maps; map archives have a broader mandate and collect historical and unpublished materials also.