Tuesday, July 8, 2014

Canfield - Field Notes on Science and Nature

Just what is the best way to record and organize my research notes? I've long been interested in answering this question. On the first day of my master's degree, I started a bound notebook (I love the squared, softcover Moleskine notebooks), and used it for caddisfly-exclusive notes. In particular, the notebook filled with sketches, observations, and thoughts pertaining to my work on the genus Cheumatopsyche. When I started my PhD program, I did the same for my tachinid research. I also keep a Grinnel-style triad of field journal, catalog, and species accounts for any field work and dragonfly observations. These are less often used, as I spend most of my time in the lab looking at dead specimens under the microscope.

I had been meaning to read Field Notes on Science and Nature for several years now, and finally just got around to it. The book is a mixed collection of biologists, anthropologists, and geologists, writing about their methods of taking notes in the field (whatever "the field" might be). The individual chapters are accompanied by photographs of the actual field notes, so you get both the text explanation of methods as well as a visual example. The primary methods of these researchers range from the above mentioned Grinnel system, to more informal collections of notes and drawings, to careful logs of stratigraphy, to the completely electronic recording system of insect taxonomist Piotr Nasrecki.

However, the overall feel is less that of a textbook on field work and more artbook-slash-nature journal. Most of the chapter authors supply prose accounts of exciting field observations, particularly those working with large mammals. And the journals in themselves are both art and historical artifacts; they carry information, but are also pleasant to look at.

One theme stretching through the work that seemed most important to me was that "the field" is not necessarily out in nature. It can be, in many people's research, simply in the presence of potentially living specimens. For me, viewing specimens at the microscope is "the field", and the notebook in which I record my observations is my "field journal". Another point many authors made was that observations should be recorded as soon as possible, in a permanent method which other people can use in the future. Who knows what piece of information may be useful?

I appreciated these and other suggestions on design and maintinance of field notes, including Jenny Keller's heuristic for drawing biological specimens in the chapter "Why Sketch?". I have been illustrating genitalia for some time now, but I have no formal art training, so some of her methods were completely unknown to me.

I recommend this book for anyone who does natural history research, because, even if you have already found your perfect method, you will appreciate the diversity of approaches to keeping notes in the field.

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