Field Notebooks


Does anyone use field notebooks anymore?

In the olden days (like, up until the 1980s) field notebooks were a staple of the surveying, engineering, geology and natural sciences disciplines.  If you did any field work it got recorded for posterity in a field notebook.  Taking and maintaining field notes was not just an art, it was often a legal requirement, particularly in the surveying field; the entries that surveyors made in their field notebooks constituted the legal record of a survey and those notebooks often were turned in at the completion of a project to become part of the permanent record.

Field note taking and recording was usually part of the early coursework for beginning engineering & surveying students, and you were graded on the completeness, legibility and accuracy of your note taking.  Pencil only!  Erasures not allowed!  Mistakes had to be lined through and corrected notations added.  Our geology field classes stressed accurate structural and stratigraphic mapping along with proper representations of rock types and strike and dip measurements.  It was common during field classes for our professors to pull out an old weatherbeaten field notebook and refer to notes they had taken years before on the rock formations we were studying.

Virtually all of the big name engineering and survey supply companies sold field notebooks.  They were all pretty much the same – a hard bound book filled with blank lined pages (or alternating lined and graph) about 5″ x 7″.  The paper was 50% cotton rag content and usually treated to ensure archival stability and prevent wrinkling  from high humidity.  Most books included tables of conversion formulas, trig functions, curve tables, etc. in the last few tables; things now easily handled by a simple scientific calculator.  My suspicion is that there were only a few companies that actually produced these books and just did job orders for the big manufacturers.  There was a slight difference in quality from manufacturer to manufacturer, and the K & E and Post field books I’ve got in my collection are clearly a step above the average field book with sturdier covers and radiused page corners.

The US Army even got in on the act, and produced two styles of field books they classified as ‘forms’  One, the DA Form 4446 – Level, Transit and General Survey Record Book was laid out like a generic notebook.  The other, DA Form 4196 – Horizontal Distance Book, was laid out specifically for recording traverses.  Both included a handy tear-out address label so that if found all someone had to do was tape the label to the outside of the book and drop it in a mailbox and the Army would pay the postage to get it back to its owner.  To this day I kick myself for not picking up more of these manuals when our Army surveyors abandoned them in favor of pre-printed recording forms.  They had boxes of them laying around new in the shrink wrap and I’m sure most went into the dumpster when they got tired of looking at them.

Thankfully, field notebooks are still available from engineering and forestry supply houses. Still in the same format and the same construction.  I guess when you hit on a winning formula there’s no need to change.

But like so much in life, electronics got in the way.  With the arrival of total survey stations (theodolites), GPS-linked data collectors and computers running surveying and engineering-specific software the need for writing down project notes in a field notebook quickly disappeared.  While surveyors still use field notebooks to record things like the height of instrument or the serial number of the GPS receiver they are using on a particular project, the field notebook is no longer considered an indispensable item.

For much of my Army career I used field notebooks extensively, a practice carried over from my geology fieldwork days.  I was a sloppy note taker (see above), but I managed to get stuff into a logical and readable format.  Over the years I filled about half a dozen field notebooks with data collected on various projects in different parts of the world.  As I neared retirement I got caught up in the digital craze and abandoned notebooks for whatever was hot at that moment.  I’ve owned or used Pocket PCs, BlackBerrys, smart phones, iPhones, laptops, digital notebooks, you name it.  I’ve stored my notes in Borland Sidekick (anyone remember that piece of malware?), Windows Notes, Lotus Notes, Outlook, Outlook Express, iPhone Notes, MS Word, Wordstar, PC-Write, Open Office, and Google Docs.  Guess what?  Just about everything I stored in digital format is gone, gone, gone – unless I made a paper copy as back-up.  Roughly 10 years of meeting notes, field notes, observations, discussions, instructions from supervisors and directions to subordinates, everything gone.  Not because of some catastrophic event, but lost simply to the march of time, the changes in technology and the inevitable degrading of the storage media.

How many of you still have 5 1/4″ or 3 1/2″ floppies sitting around you can no longer read simply because you don’t have a device capable of reading them?  Can your new DVD drive read that CD you burned back in 1999?  Ever wonder why TV shows shot in the 1970s and 80s look so funky?  It’s not because of the bad hairdos or polyester leisure suits, but because so many of them were shot on videotape and the tape is starting to deteriorate.

Today the only way I can resurrect the record of my military career is through the written word put down on paper.  Thankfully I saved just about everything. I can’t tell you the meetings I had in 2005, but I can tell you in some fair detail about the meetings I attended in 1985. In 2005 I trusted digital technology to store my data. In 1985 I trusted a notebook and a pencil.

About a year ago I realized I was missing key notes on some fairly heated meetings we had held with one of our business units at work.  I knew I had probably written my meeting notes and observations in a series of emails to my boss, but for the life of me I couldn’t find the emails.  After about two days of searching on my computer and on our shared drives I remembered that I had done an email backup and clean-out about six months earlier and that my backed up files were on a USB drive – a drive I knew I had misplaced a few weeks before!  At that point I resolved to start writing things down and decided to start using field notebooks again.

As I’ve gotten back into the process of writing things down archivally I’ve been surprised at how my seemingly random scribblings begin to come together to tell the tale of the projects, events or items of interest that impact my life.  I can flip through the pages of my notebook and clearly view the progress of projects and issues I’m tracking.  I can go back to meetings held months ago to remind myself precisely what was said and agreed to. When an engineer has a question about the invert of a pipe we measured three months ago I can show him my original field notes. Sure, all of this information can be stored digitally (and most of it is), but my experience shows that I can’t put much stock in that digital data being available five years from now. In five years I’m pretty sure my notebook will be sitting on my shelf ready to be opened and referenced.

If it’s important, write it down on paper!


Brian

2 thoughts on “Field Notebooks

  1. Hi! As an amateur (OpenStreet)mapper and general map geek, I greatly enjoyed browsing through your blog. It is always interesting to know what the pros are up to (or, in some cases, were up to ages ago)! I got curious about the page pattern on the field book shown on the right… what is the reason behind the “stretched” grid on the right-hand side pages? For general sketching, I imagine having the same subdivision along both axes would be easier?

    • It is common to find field notebooks with a wide variety of grid layouts designed for different purposes. In surveying and field reconnaissance it was very common to have a layout with a traditional lined page on the left and a gridded page on the right, so the worker could sketch the field layout on the right hand page with the assistance of the grid, and the descriptive notes would go on the left hand page.

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