The importance of recording everything: A book review

22 Feb

Field Notes on Science and Nature (ed. Michael R. Canfield) was recommended to me by a teacher a while back. It made loads of Best of 2011 lists, too, and for good reason — it’s a fascinating exploration of keeping field notes.

On the surface, this may not sound so interesting, but the book illuminates the approaches of several contributors spanning fields from anthropology to wildlife conservation, and it not only explains what sort of things they record, but why, and even what benefit there is in doing it one way instead of another. A great example is the chapters that alternately sing the praises of Polaroid instant film and of black-and-white sketches. Because each contributor makes a convincing case for his or her method of choice (which often involves explaining why another method should not be used), it can seem like a tangle of contradictions. But the wealth of perspectives is exactly why I found it valuable.

There are several major themes that everyone generally agrees upon. George B. Schaller opens up talking about balancing natural history and narrative information, and quantitative description (in narrative form) versus lists of hard numbers; this idea of balance between purposes is echoed throughout the book. And the value of written notes over digital information is touted almost unanimously — the lone holdout being computer database builder Piotr Nasrecki. But even he keeps a digital tablet to mimic the flexibility of a notebook where one can draw or write as she sees fit.

Several people also discuss mixing media to glean as much info as possible; a photo on its own may not be enough even though it records all the information in the camera’s frame. Even more important, idea generation is a crucial function of field notes for many of the writers. Some discuss the use of notes for private purposes, like coming up with new leads for future research, while others discuss the more public benefits of having an aid when the time comes to write a book or publish a journal article. Several contributors also agree that detailed, multifaceted notes help produce the most famous science books — think Walden or The Voyage of the Beagle.

Everything else seems to be up for debate among these experienced scientists. While Anna K. Behrensmeyer encourages me to use convenient instant photos, Jonathan Kingdon makes a good case for exclusive use of sketching; some authors say that I should keep future readers in mind as I write, while others say to keep it personal; one swears by hardbound notebooks and another endorses looseleaf ones. However, the writing and editing are both superb, leading aspiring researchers to find all these options inspiring rather than confusing.

I’d also like to share some unique perspectives from the various contributors. In my opinion, Schaller’s most interesting point is that practitioners of field science need to view things together, not separately. He shares an excerpt on p. 31 written in the voice of a giant panda reminding researchers that one can’t divorce statistics and quantitative information from the greater context of an organism’s life. He writes:

“How can you understand me? … You study my diet, you study how many times I scent mark and mate and how far I travel. Remember, you cannot divide me into independent fragments of existence . At best you might perceive an approximation of a panda, not the reality of one.”

Emphasis is mine, because this idea stood out to me as one of the most essential quotes of the book.

Bernd Heinrich goes on to illustrate through personal experiences that quality and type of documentation is what separates observers from scientists. He also provides an interesting discussion of thoroughness for its own sake: “Protocol was out the window since I had no idea where I was headed or what might be trivial and what important” (p. 39). I can certainly relate to that! He also says his field notes are a mess, which I find laughable. Because the book also includes tons of color scans from the contributors’ own notebooks and journals, you can get a good look at his so-called mess. Maybe it’s just funny to me because most people would consider my own field notes to be absolutely atrocious.

Kenn Kaufman discusses listing as a framework for learning about the diversity and current classification within a group, and provides examples of such hands-on taxonomy from his birding experiences. The only botanist in the book, Roger Kitching praises elegant prose and asserts that collecting is a valuable exercise rather than just amateur fun. I agree, which makes me question if this is a plant thing; would wildlife-oriented scientists disagree, I wonder? And if you want practical advice on scientific illustration, there’s even a chapter for that; artist Jenny Keller gives practical advice on techniques with everything from color and proportion to using negative space.

On a related note, Kingdon talks about learning to sketch in his childhood in Africa, which he later applied to his work with African wildlife. Sketching, due to its quick nature, requires the sketcher to decide what information he should to include or exclude in much the same way field science has to discriminate between useful data and unnecessary detail; this notion has revolutionized my notation methods already. He also writes an incredible explanation of how sketching led him to the idea that camouflage is a selective evolutionary writing of predator behavior and landscape on the bodies of surviving prey (p. 141 – 5).

Behrensmeyer goes on to defend the usefulness of photos, and also encourages making notes useful over time. She tells readers to come up with a key for codes so that notes can be useful to someone other than the note writer — advice that I could probably stand to follow more often. John D. Perrine and James L. Patton emphasize this, too, and while Erick Greene encourages seeing note-taking as a personal enterprise, he still sees it as important for others to be able to reference ideas and directions that may otherwise be forgotten.

Perrine and Patton also talk a lot about field notes for posterity because they work for UC Berkeley’s Museum of Vertebrate Zoology, which archives everything. They discuss their involvement in a massive project to resurvey all the turn-of-the-century work done by the MVZ’s founder, Joseph Grinnell; this gives them a unique perspective not only on posterity, but also the importance of standardization in making comparative research useful.

Another unique perspective comes to light in Karen L. Kramer‘s chapter. Being that the work of an anthropologist often involves living among the subjects of her study, she relates how digital devices can obstruct normal life, to the potential detriment of her study. This is something I would never have considered from the viewpoint of my own discipline, where GIS and handheld data recorders are ubiquitous.

Conversely, entomologist Nasrecki offers a lot of insight into harnessing digital technology for scientific purposes. Beyond the distinction of being the only contributor who doesn’t use paper notebooks, he is also the developer of Mantis, which is a relational database. He explains how to structure and manage digital workflow when your main priority is cataloging, and he also describes Mantis as being an extension of his brain because he designed it according to his own way of mentally organizing data. It’s no wonder, since relational databases work in an interconnected way just like pieces of information we store in our brains.

I’m not sure all software can be seen as an extension of the developer’s brain, but this really makes me want to interview the person who created SuperACE. I also found Kingdon’s chapter so fascinating, that I think I will try to make him my next author interview for this blog. I’ll keep you lovely readers posted, as usual!

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3 Responses to “The importance of recording everything: A book review”

  1. theevolutionofeating February 23, 2012 at 12:29 pm #

    It’s interesting seeing how people in different fields, and even people in the same field approach note taking. Very useful information for you, I’m sure!

    • xylem_up February 23, 2012 at 1:13 pm #

      It really is! Listening to what people in other disciplines have to say can give you some great perspective.

  2. Tresa Saneaux March 19, 2012 at 7:22 am #

    Some genuinely grand work on behalf of the owner of this site, absolutely great articles .

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