The art of notebooks & metadata: Helping us keep our eyes wide open

Post by Emily Gelzer
Notes before (left) and after (right) taking the Art of Notebooks & Metadata class, © Emily Gelzer, 2019

​If anyone peered into my notebook right this moment, I hope they would find it easy to read, the pictures explanatory of the written notes, and insightful into science that I experience. Clear and easy to understand notes might help someone learn more about a topic they previously did not understand. In my mind, drawings make things more reader friendly so there is not an intimidating block of dense scientific/math related notes. Through writing not only about the research I am conducting for my thesis, but other scientific papers, lectures, and conferences, I hope to keep big picture understanding of science as a connected process.

Below is one of my favorite quotes from Aldo Leopold’s, A Sand County Almanac and Sketches Here and There, reminding us to keep our eyes wide open. From the chapter “Thinking Like a Mountain”:

We reached the old wolf in time to watch a fierce green fire dying in her eyes. I realized then, and have known ever since, that there was something new to me in those eyes – something known only to her and to the mountain. I was young then, and full of trigger-itch; I thought that because fewer wolves meant more deer, that no wolves would mean hunters’ paradise. But after seeing the green fire die, I sensed that neither the wolf nor the mountain agreed with such a view.…I now suspect that just as a deer herd lives in mortal fear of its wolves, so does a mountain live in mortal fear of its deer. And perhaps with better cause, for while a buck pulled down by wolves can be replaced in two or three years, a range pulled down by too many deer may fail of replacement in as many decades. So also with cows. The cowman who cleans his range of wolves does not realize that he is taking over the wolf’s job of trimming the herd to fit the range. He has not learned to think like a mountain. Hence we have dustbowls, and rivers washing the future into the sea.

I hope that using my notebook for more than just my project will help me to remember that science is a related process,  just as Aldo Leopold realized there is more to hunting deer than killing wolves. It is necessary to remember so one does not get pigeon-holed into one avenue of science.

Previous to this class I only kept a lab notebook for the field. This notebook included measurements or notes for the day, but did not extend outside of what was needed. No other observations or drawings. Very straight forward, to the point, and some might say “boring”. Similar to how some may view science as dry and short.

I hoped that this class would help me broaden my horizons and get me into the habit of taking notes outside of what is needed for the day’s work. In addition, I hoped to learn about other methods of notetaking, structure for notes, basic drawing techniques, and modern ways of storing these notes. As a result of taking this class, I have not only learned those skills, but several more. I now have a notebook that travels with me from class to class, meeting to meeting, and lecture to lecture. It includes drawings (see the images above), text, and even taped in post-it notes.

​I came around to taking photos of these pages to electronically upload to my computer as a backup, after reading horrifying stories of lost works due to fires. This is my first semester as a graduate student and I feel that this class should be a mandatory first semester class for all graduate students. I have learned more about how data is shared, stored, and identified, in this class, than most people seem to know despite it being their third semester.



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