Stanford University News Service
425 Santa Teresa Street
Stanford, California 94306-2245
Tel: (650) 723-2558
Fax: 650) 725-0247

News Release

March 16, 2009


Adam Gorlick, News Service: (650) 725-0224,

AAA maps of California find their way to Stanford library

Long before a car's GPS could talk you from your driveway to some faraway city and getting directions was as easy as typing your destination into a computer, drivers had only road maps to find their way.

Often an afterthought, abandoned in the trunk or appreciated only when road signs stop making sense, those basic travel tools do more than help the lost find Point B after taking a few wrong turns from Point A. They give a sense of place, spark the romance of a road trip and chart a community's development.

And for those reasons, they're worth saving.

The American Automobile Association of Northern California, Nevada and Utah (also known as the California State Automobile Association) recently donated about 7,000 road maps to Stanford's Branner Earth Sciences Library and Map Collections. From the Redwood Empire to Southern California, the maps span five or six decades of changes to scores of cities in those regions.

"So many people grab these maps, keep them in their car until they fall apart and just throw them away," said Julie Sweetkind-Singer, Branner's head librarian. "But what's interesting and often overlooked about them is you can see the minute details of a community and how they change from year to year."

Consider Tracy, Calif.

In 1968, unfolding a map of that tiny town revealed a concentrated grid of a few neat streets, six scattered parks and not much else. Highway 50 slashed straight through Tracy's center, heading east before taking a sharp turn north into nothingness.

But the uncluttered map comes with a peek into a booming future. An arc of dashes hovers along the city's northern border. It is the promise of Interstate 205, drawn above the words: "UNDER CONSTRUCTION. ESTIMATED COMPLETION LATE 1970."

And here is the Tracy of 2005: An explosion of streets have invaded the city's western and southern quadrants, sprawling into neighborhoods not even imagined 37 years before. More than two-dozen parks—including the Tracy Sports Complex—color the map with green blocks.

The interstate was built as planned, and Highway 50 has been replaced with an I-205 business route. Instead of veering toward emptiness, the road now slams into I-5, the traffic-choked artery stretching through California's Central Valley.

"These maps help you get as close as you can to what was actually happening to the development of these cities at any given time," said Michael Kahan, associate director of Stanford's Urban Studies Program. Kahan is teaching an urban history class and making a batch of old San Francisco maps from the donated collection available to his students.

Over the years, the San Francisco maps show changes in the city's transportation system, the development of parks and how landfill shaped neighborhoods like Bayview-Hunters Point.

"You put that information together with what you find in old guidebooks and newspapers, and students get a much fuller picture of the history of the city," Kahan said.

The motor club decided to donate the maps while preparing to move its headquarters from San Francisco to Walnut Creek. Faced with less space in the new location, the organization needed to find a new home for the old maps. Trashing them was never a good option.

"This is an important collection, and we wanted to make sure it would be available for people to see," said Tracey Panek, an archivist for AAA.

The maps are now being cataloged and will be available for onsite use at Branner.

Along with the road maps, the AAA donation includes thousands of linen maps, topographic maps and county tract maps that expose the nooks and crannies of neighborhoods down to the sizes of housing lots and location of storm drains.

Also in the collection are several boxes of etched sheets of scribecoat, a material similar to Mylar that was used by AAA mapmakers starting in 1970. Cartographers would draw separate pieces of information on individual sheets of scribecoat—roads on one, buildings on another, for instance—before layering the sheets atop one another to create a complete map. The images were then photographically manipulated, printed on paper and folded to fit in any glove compartment.

The method was used until 1990, when digital mapmaking became possible.

The AAA donation ensures the art of that bygone process will be preserved along with the final products. Once a navigational necessity, road maps now often take a backseat to computers that take the time—and some say the fun—out of finding your way.

"Those early maps are part of a time when you couldn't call for directions from the road or use Google," Panek said. "You had to know how you were going to get to your destination in a way that you take for granted now. It was more of an adventure than it is today."



Julie Sweetkind-Singer, Branner Earth Sciences Library and Map Collections: (650) 725-1102,

Related Information:

To subscribe to our news releases:

Email or phone (650) 723-2558.