Publish at January 20 2020 Updated May 09 2022

In the field? Let's go out with notebooks!

Field notebooks, field journals to learn to observe

Field notebook

Observing without intention and without a grid arouses interest and curiosity, but rarely contributes to developing learning. For centuries, scientists have taken notes of their observations, in notebooks, which have sometimes become tablets. Knowledge is built up in stages, from the notebook to the field journal, then to the more structured and standardized laboratory notebook and then to more elaborate documents.

This article offers you a few pointers and resources to get you started on your own or in the classroom, in science classes or in interdisciplinarity.

A Pioneer: Joseph Grinnell

For anyone who draws, there is probably no more enviable paradise than the Berkeley Museum of Vertebrate Zoology. Racks of skeletons and stuffed animals that are invitations to observe. It was in this environment that Joseph Grinnell devised a method of reasoned observation and field study in biology. After more than a century, it still inspires us with its rigor and simplicity. Donna Long, a professor of environmental science at Pensylvania explains it to us.

An All-Terrain Notebook

The first notebook fits in your pocket. It's all-terrain, can handle getting a little rain and falling in the sand. While an online scientific notebooking app reminds us that 17% of scientific data loss is due to lost notebooks, paper advocates remind us that a notebook that splits in two is two notebooks, but a tablet that's in two pieces, sanded up, or has taken on water... it's no longer a tablet. The flexible notebook is the most robust tool for collecting information!

Paper therefore retains serious advantages, even if prudence dictates that we scan the productions regularly!

This first notebook records notes as we go along, observations, questioning and the need for more precise references. An essential element: the pages are dated, and the location of the observations is recalled on each page, as well as the geographical orientation when relevant. The French Institute of Education gives some advice to Earth science undergraduates on their field notebook, as part of a 5-day internship to build a geologic map.

Observation log

On returning to the lab or home, the observer writes his or her observation log. He takes or pastes his drawings and details his working method and the context of his observations. Unlike the previous one, this document is more intended to be shared and exchanged with other observers.

In another context, field journals have often inspired by their aesthetics artists, and have been inspired in turn. The Berkeley Vertebrate Zoology Museum has made available online a whole collection of handwritten journals, but also photos of naturalists. Some show impressive graphic mastery.

But the purpose remains different. We won't blame the artist for confusing the leaf forms, when the field notebook should be precise about just such matters. How do we know what distinctive features an entomologist or botanist apprentice should pay attention to? The collection "mon carnet de terrain" published in 2000 by Milan or the more recent "carnets de nature" can help the youngest. They will then appropriate an analysis grid of the relevant elements to differentiate the species between them.

Older children will also find books and sites to guide them in designing a newspaper. There are forums that can help and encourage those who are just getting started.  On Instagram, hashtags #fieldnotebook , #fieldjournal   or #naturejournalcan inspire you. There are videos of teachers or experts sharing some techniques.

Description sheets

Grinnell then suggests creating description sheets to further detail the species encountered. The idea here is to produce precise information, to use diagrams, supplementing with outside information.  Cross-sectional diagrams, field surveys, topographical indications can thus supplement the information collected on site.


The catalog will list the places and dates as well as the conditions of observation.

Digital: what contributions?


With the advent of digital and networks, observations from different environments or geographic periods can be exchanged, discussed, and complemented. Geographically distant classes, several classes in the same school or the same section, over the course of several years can thus produce knowledge together.

More broadly, scientists quickly saw the value of collecting lay observations, giving them a framework. One example is the work of the participatory earthworm observatory, recently highlighted in a column by Matthieu Vidard, on a French radio station.

Tela Botanica proposes a series of cooperative plant-related science actions. By making participants competent, giving them structured documents to complete, scientists can collect a lot of scientifically usable data. Collecting lichens and wild plants that grow in the most unexpected places is not an easy activity to finance, but enthusiasts are willing to invest themselves and learn more about their environment. Technology is bringing the two together.

Digital notebooks

Online and phone/tablet apps have emerged. They attempt to preserve the "lived-in" aspect and emotion that these notebooks exude, while promising to save time and security. The functions are simple. They propose to capture the collected data, to classify and organize them, to allow the localization and the validation. The user can store his data on a space and manage them according to his needs. And above all, he can share them with other researchers. That's what natural solutions offers with Ecorelevé.

So no more notebooks? Not some people. Observational drawing is a school of the eye. It's about understanding proportions, angles, connecting links, internal structures. It is also about taking the time, to wonder about what is relevant, to select the information, to put in scene too... And all this, in an environment where it is still impossible to recharge your batteries!

Illustrations : Frédéric Duriez


Conservatoire botanique national de Brest - Field notebook, put online in April 2017, consulted on January 18, 2019 -

Allaboutbirds Take notes, tips for keeping a field notebook - posted April 2010, accessed January 18, 2019 -

Tela Botanica - Project space: create, participate, share your knowledge - accessed January 18, 2019 -

natural solutions - Eco survey -

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