Field notes

By Juliana Adelman

My dad recently sent me a kind of odd little book entitled Field Notes on Science and Nature.  The book is a compilation of essays on the form, history and importance of field notes to which are added several examples of field notes.  As the title suggest, the field notes in question are of those of scientific naturalists.  The arrival was timely, since I am today beginning my participation in the Mass Observation Dublin 2011 project.  The book got me thinking about the obvious ways in which our recording of information has changed dramatically, not only in form but in substance.  The substance of what we record is affected by the forms we use to record it.  The contributors to Field Notes argued for the importance of recording by hand, of making drawings as a part of observation and of keeping records of information in an open-minded way.  They suggested that natural history students should try to be a bit more like Darwin and a bit less reliant on digital media.  It made me stop to wonder what a historian’s field note book might look like?  How many of you still take notes on paper or do you take them all on laptops?  What kinds of notes do you take on paper and what kinds on computers?  Archaeologists, geographers and art historians might find that they still use visual means of recording from sketches to digital photographs.  I know that I often take photographs to record texts for later transcription, or occasionally to remember visual aspects of a manuscript or book.  But on the whole, I don’t see too many historians with sketchbooks.

Just as the naturalists saw that students were missing out on a great deal of nature by a lack of interest in basic field observation, historians are missing out on a great deal of human activity.  It’s the kind of every day habits, thoughts and actions of Homo sapiens that the original Mass Observation project set out to record and that the Dublin 2011 project seeks to replicate today.  In my work I have relied on a few relatively wealthy and possibly self-obsessed diarists from the nineteenth century to fill me in on the details of every day life.  And of course the nineteenth century had its forms of mass observation in the remit taken by the Ordnance Survey, the Poor Law Boards of Guardians and numerous Royal Commissions into various aspects of life.

I received my first missive from the Mass Observation project today asking questions about me and providing some suggested themes to look out for in others this week.  I have decided to record mine as a field notebook although I’m not 100% certain if the organisers are looking to collect bits of paper.  I suppose I can always scan them after!  Nonetheless, I think it might be a useful exercise in thinking about how to record. And who knows what inspiration might come to me about nineteenth-century Dublin while watching twenty-first-century Dubliners?  I’m not expecting to discover a new scientific theorem, but you never know.  Dublin: we are watching you!

One Response to “Field notes”

  1. Póló Says:

    I am in the position where my memory is either in free fall or it works in ways that are unlike those of other people. Needless to say I tend towards the latter explanation.

    In any event, I write everything down in a small police-like notebook – from shopping lists, through things to do, to impressions for future blogging or websiting. I supplement this by taking photos, including contextual ones and sometimes of text itself as in notices.

    The very fact that I will be blogging or posting photos to Flickr heightens my sense of observation throughout the day.

    The downside is that I frequently forget to consult my notes or process my photos, and when I finally get round to them the task can be overwhelming and the notes either unreadable or unintelligible.

    Ah well.

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