Doing Science: Researchers and Exhibition Staff Talk About Their Work: Keeping a Field Journal 1
All scientists who work in the field keep a field journal. In it they record everything they find, observe, and collect. No matter what kind of science they are doing--whether they are studying plants or arthropods, mammals or fish, individual organisms or interactions between organisms--their journals contain the evidence on which all of their work is based. The journals scientists keep become the property of the Museum or other institution for which the study was done. They are kept so other investigators can use them as references, sometimes many years later.
You will be asked to keep a field journal. It is not quite like a personal diary you might write in at home, or even as an exercise at school, but it is not busywork either. It will contain your evidence, and perhaps it will become part of the class or school library, to be used as a reference by others.
To find out how, and why, to keep a field journal, we asked an expert: Eleanor Sterling, an anthropologist who has done fieldwork and kept field journals in Africa, from the rain forests of Madagascar to the savannas of Tanzania.
"Field journals are incredibly important," she told us. "Basically you can't do science without them." We asked her to elaborate.
"When I first went out into the field, I thought it wasn't very important to take notes, because I wasn't collecting data, I was just looking for a site. I wrote down things occasionally but not rigorously. Besides, the things I was seeing were so amazing that I was convinced that I would remember them for the rest of my life. But the truth is that so many things crowded my brain that I couldn't remember them all, and some of what I couldn't remember turned out to be very important. For example, when I got home, I couldn't remember whether a little baby animal we had seen had his eyes open or closed. Now that makes a huge difference if you want to figure out when the baby was born. Later, when I was working on other research, suddenly that little piece of information would have been very valuable . . . but I didn't write it down!" She laughed. So the moral is: No matter how trivial an observation or piece of information seems, write it down.
But how can you write down everything? we asked.
"You can't write down everything, it's true," Eleanor told us. You have to figure out what basic things are important and then, through trial and error, you begin to know what kinds of information you need for your project. "You will probably find that you've left out some important data that you really could use. Chalk it up to experience, and take more complete notes next time," she advised.
Here are some tips from Eleanor on keeping a field journal:
Losing a field journal is every scientist's nightmare, Eleanor said. "You just can't reconstruct all the data, so it's really a disaster when it happens." She told us some stories about journals lost and found.
She once found another scientist's journal in a marketplace in Madagascar, where paper is very scarce and very valuable. It was being sold page by page, and fortunately, the merchant had started ripping out pages from the back, where they were still blank. Eleanor recognized the journal and knew to whom it belonged, so she bought the entire book and mailed it back to its owner. "I have a friend for life," she said.
Then there was the time she was in Tanzania, studying baboons. "The little baboons would come up to me all the time, and anything I put down beside me would be gone. They'd snatch whatever it was, as if to say, 'Oh, this is cool,' and head off with it into the forest. What I ended up doing was putting a string through the spine of the notebook and attaching it to my belt, sort of like a leash, so if an animal made off with it, eventually it would stop." She also wore her pen or pencil on a string around her neck. That way, if she needed her hands free in a hurry, she could drop everything and not worry about losing it.
A strategy like that might have saved another scientist Eleanor knows from some unpleasant mucking around. She had her notebook in her pants pocket when she made a visit to the outhouse. To her dismay, the book fell out of her pocket and into the hole. Knowing what you know about the importance of field notes, you will not be surprised to learn that the scientist retrieved the notebook, but, as Eleanor said, "It wasn't a pretty sight!"