Course:FNEL 380/Field Notes by Hand

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Field notes are a method of recording data while in the field. This method can be applied in many social science and humanities fields but is often associated with anthropology. In field notes, the user describes the activities and attributes of their day, the people or language they are learning, and in some cases, their own experiences and feelings. Field notes can be descriptive recollections and notes in which the writer does not input much of their own feelings and experiences or can include less objective details and have reflections on their emotions while witnessing or experiencing events. Regardless of how objective the writer is in their descriptions, field notes are an excellent tool for recording experiences in many different environments and on the fly.

Arguments for Fieldnotes

In this digital age, fieldnotes may not be considered in favour of technology, but they are a useful tool for many. Fieldnotes do not require charging, can be used anywhere by anyone, are easy to use, and require little to no learning curve. Using fieldnotes in interviews or in language documentation allows for the interviewee or language consultant to address any mistakes in spelling or orthography in session, rather than in a meeting or taking up time in a later session. Not only does it mean that corrections can be made at the same time as it is being written, having a physical copy of any notes alongside any digital work means that there is another copy in the unfortunate event of file corruption or loss. These notes can also help remind the writer of any small, but important, details that may have been forgotten, as well as be used as a tool for reflection and processing events that happened in the session or over the course of the day. While these can all be done in digital format, the accessibility and portability of notebooks make them a good choice for anyone who will be travelling or in the field frequently.


There is not much in the way of training for fieldwork[1], so each writer must find what works best for them. Each individual having their own method may be part of the reason that it is so difficult to teach - if each individual has their own ideas on what is the ideal way to create fieldnotes, there will be conflicting opinions on what is considered to be best practice. The benefit to this is that each writer has the chance to figure out what is best practice for each project they approach and customize any and all aspects to suit their personal needs.


Shobhana Chelliah noted many good tools in her chapter, Planning Sessions, Note Taking, and Data Management[2], in the Handbook of Descriptive Linguistic Fieldwork. This list included the following items:

  • Notebooks - It is recommended to use a bound notebook over spiral bound, as it allows for a sturdy surface wherever the writer is. Spiral bound notebooks are more flimsy, and often have pages tear and fall out over time. The disadvantage of a bound notebook is that they are more expensive, and cannot be found in as many places as a spiral bound notebook
  • Acid-Free Paper - Other types of paper brown and disintegrate more quickly than their acid-free counterparts. Chelliah notes that if other types of paper have to be used due to either cost prohibitions or from lack of access, the pages must be scanned or photographed as soon as possible so the information is not lost when the paper deteriorates. This step is one that may be considered for all handwritten work, as it creates a secondary copy in the case of the original or destroyed.
  • Pens - Pens will last longer and show better in scans or photos of the written work. Chelliah advises against using pencils, as it, much like non-acid free paper, will deteriorate much faster. Using pencils may also create a desire to erase "wrong" transcriptions or translations which can hinder progress later on. A single strike through on anything that is thought to be incorrect marks that it may not be correct while still leaving it retrievable. The reason not to erase or obscure anything believed to be wrong is that the first transcription or notation may be correct, and cannot be retrieved once it is removed. The ideal pen would be black, of medium thickness, and does not smudge.
  • Paper Thickness - The ideal paper will not only be acid-free, but also thick enough the ink from the pen does not bleed or show through. This will reading over notes easier, and make any scans or photographs of the fieldnotes more clear.
  • Plastic Sealable Bags - Sealable bags will not only protect field notes and journals from any unexpected rain or snow but will also help preserve the paper better in humid weather.
  • An Organization System - While not an object of itself, having a decent, consistent way of organizing notebooks and their contents will not only make the writer's life easier when referencing the fieldnotes later on in an individual research project but will also make them easier to catalog in archives and for future use by other researchers.

Organization Systems

There are many different ways that pages, individual notebooks, and collections can be organized. Below are some options that can be used to help form a system.

  • Numbering and Naming - Number each page, notebook, and collection, label different topics, note who is being worked with, include dates. This is a simple aspect that may be forgotten as time goes on, but being consistent with numbering and naming will make it easier to access information later.
  • Colour Coding - Use the same coloured notebooks if multiple topics are being written about. When making corrections or additions earlier recorded entries and data, use different colours of pens to avoid confusion between original notes and later additions.
  • Table of Contents - If the contents of a fieldnote are yet to be decided, leave the first few pages blank so one can be included later. Having a table of contents will make it much easier to find specific data, and can prevent needing to skim through each notebook trying to find a specific piece of information.
  • Shorthand Guide - Fieldnotes may contain shorthands or symbols used in place of words or letters, which should all be noted in each fieldguide. This can help alleviate confusion if a symbol or shorthand meaning is forgotten, and to help future researchers be able to decipher what each shorthand or symbol means.
  • Consistency - Being consistent with any shorthands, symbols, diacritics, orthographies etc., will help the notebooks retain clarity, cut down confusion and make them easier to read for anyone who references them.
  • Creating Multiple Copies - While the good thing about using notebooks is the portability and lack of need to be backed up, charged, or plugged in, it is still a good idea to scan or photograph the notes in the case that the notebooks are damaged to the point of being unusable, stolen, or lost. This is also a good way to share information with multiple collaborators or supervisors without having to loan the original notebook out.

Alternative Methods

In the case of someone who may not be able to write for any reason, technology or a transcriber could be used in place of handwriting. In doing this, fieldnotes become more accessible to those who use languages without writing systems, those with disabilities, or those who may be working with their hands while being involved in activities.

Skills Required

The only skills required to create fieldnotes are the ability to write or speak and pay attention to details. As a result of this, the method is accessible for many people.


Emerson, R. M. et al., Writing Ethnographic Fieldnotes (1995).

  1. Jackson, J. E. (1990). I am Fieldnote
  2. Chelliah, S. Planning Sessions, Note Taking, and Data Management (2010). From The Handbook of Descriptive Linguistic Fieldwork.