Remember Taking Field Notes?

With the universal use of the camcorder in fieldwork, we often seem to forget or downplay a skill that is part and parcel of our toolkit, namely fieldnotes.  And it’s a skill we need to remember to cultivate.  The camera isn’t always an option and being prepared to write and record is extremely important. We often think that our intellectual and visceral response to a situation can be so strong that we won’t possibly forget it.  Indeed, for some, including myself, visual memories appear more detailed and long lasting than others. Note taking even seems to initially interfere with appreciation and understanding of the surroundings. Note taking seems a nuisance, an impediment to experiencing. Yet, details often fade with time as they are supplanted by subsequent experiences. An hour can alter everything. A detailed notebook allows you to recover that information – it is an extension of your memory, it is an important record you can later draw on. Simply rereading notes can bring back memories, images, and understanding that was otherwise lost, inaccessible in our cranial recesses until released by stimuli in the notebook.

The more you record and observe the more likely you are to potentially recognize anomalies, and the recognition of new patterns or anomalies is the crucial first step to new insight. I suggest you record not only what is directly important to and supportive of your research and ideas, but as time permits, observe what might be related, but is not understood. Anomalies will not be apparent if you look narrowly. Writing is an important mode of exploration.

Some (but not all) considerations:

  • It is helpful to note where information or ideas come from. Comments, books, museums, personal observations, movies are all sources. The feed into how you think about what you are seeing in the moment. Later you or someone else may want to follow up on the idea or information, and noting their origin helps. Also, make clear what is an observation, what is an external source and what is an interpretation.
  • We are so used to writing text that we often forget there are other options. Trying to find information within such text can be tedious. Where high information content and not prose is the objective then a hierarchal outline structure for field notes is often the best.
 Headings, subheadings, and lists more easily provide context, and are much more efficient. Also, do not crowd your notes together, leave room for later additions.
  • Sometimes, in the rush, observations are noted out of context, without connections to other observations or ideas. The reader (including the original author) may later come across the observation and suspect it has some greater significance, but not be able to establish it. Think of observations as often coming in groups. One should naturally lead to another, providing a larger context, a framework.
  • Many researchers, perhaps fearing ridicule of their sketches and simply feeling inexperienced, are often very reluctant to use sketches and diagrams when taking field notes. Yet a simple mental experiment tells you that such sketches and diagrams are much more efficient than text. The sketches and diagrams do not have to be artwork, they should be simplified representations, schematic, diagrammatic. For many field sketches and diagrams do take practice to become proficient at, but I believe its worth the effort.
  • It can also be helpful to create a prospective observation list to remind yourself what to look for and record when you are in the field? This of course varies extremely dependent on where you go and what the field trip objective is.
By Gavin
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