Keeping Track of Work – Lab Notebooks

Keeping Track of Work – Lab Notebooks

Just today I turned over the first fresh page in my brand new lab notebook, having filled up my last one. This is lab notebook number four for me, in my four years so far in grad school.Β It’s a fantastic feeling when you have accomplished enough (or, at least WRITTEN enough) to fill another notebook.

In my undergrad Intro to Engineering class, I remember we spent an entire class period on documentation and proper lab notebook protocol. At the time, I mostly assumed that keeping good notes was important so that a) YOU could remember what you were doing, and b) so OTHER people could figure out what you did after the fact.

Then in grad school, I took a product design class, and we again spent an entire class on lab notebooks. Now, though, the reasons were different. It’s imperative to document well so that a) if you invent something awesome, you can prove it, and b) so that in a court of law, you can defend any patents with your name on it.

So it seems that lab notebooks are important. Here in grad school they are ubiquitous – the brown cover, the yellow ruled pages, even the smell is always the same. I’m not sure if other places have notebooks that look different, but I suspect the design is fairly standard (just like Composition notebooks in grade school are fairly standard). In fact, engineers and surveyors have been keeping field books since the beginning of the industry, and I doubt the look has even changed much since the 1800s! Field books for scientists, like Moleskines for artists and writers, have stood the test of time.

The proper lab notebook rules as I learned them are as following. For the physical notebook:

1) Must be numbered pages (so that you can tell if any pages were removed/added)

2) Must be written in pen (again, so you can see any changes)

3) If you want it to be legally defenisble, every page must be signed and dated by you and a witness

4) Not required, but from experience – the ring bound is highly superior to the book bound. Folding in half is incedibly useful, I don’t know why it took me two notebooks to figure that out…. πŸ™‚

And then for the content, you should record:

1) Design ideas and sketches, even just brainstorming

2) Experimental protocols

3) Experimental results

4) Not required, but from experience – I record notes from my weekly updates with my advisor. That way I can remember what he asked me to do, and I can remember when I told him I would have what done by which date. πŸ™‚

I am terrible at remembering details, so I write everything down. I can’t tell you how many times I’ve looked back at wiring diagrams, or machine settings for experiments. I’ve never regretted writing things that later become irrelevant – paper is cheap in the grad scheme of things, and it’s much more important to get your thoughts recorded.

I know labmates who are required to leave their notebooks with the lab when they graduate, and in that case they function as a historical record. I know labmates who are in the design field, and they keep the lab notebook with the intent of using it as backup for patent applications. For me, since I don’t expect to get a patent (although, maybe, you never know?), and I don’t have to leave my notes as a historical record, my main purpose is practical – to remember what color wire has the 120V running through it, for instance…

How do you document your work? Even if you don’t work for a lab, everybody keeps records of their work somehow. Is it weekly memos to your boss? Memos to yourself? A binder with papers for each project? No records, just hope that a search of your computer comes up with what you need?


In every new job that I start, I tried to instill in myself the good habit of notebook keeping. But after a month or two, I find myself only using the notebook sporadically. It’s just too much overhead for me and inevitably, I discontinue its use. I have patents and never needed the notebook to back-up my work. A set of PowerPoint slides that I had used to present the data internally was all that was required by the lawyer.

I see others in my company do a version of the notebook, which is to make PowerPoint slides as the results become available. This way, the presentation is pretty much ready to go when you’ve finished the design and everything can be found in the slides (extra data can always be embedded in a spreadsheet inside PowerPoint). I should start doing that…

I have tried and tried to use lab notebooks. I end up getting too preoccupied with making it look like a professional, well-thought-out, pre-planned document. Then it takes too long to write and I still can’t plan it perfectly, I get frustrated, and quit using it for a while.

It’s a terrible habit and I’m really trying to break it. They aren’t supposed to look like well-planned documents, they’re just a running log of everything you do.

I am fortunate enough to have a really good memory. For example, I can rebuild a test bench I built up 2 years ago. I remember all the machine settings, I even remember what biases I tested the devices under (1, 5, 10, 20, 50 uA), what thermal stresses (bake 2 hrs at 200 C). I’ve been relying on that ability whenever I need to refer back to something. But it’s becoming a losing battle…

For every experiment I type a diigital memo before the experiment starts and add to it as it progresses. I use a laptop so mobility is not an issue. Much of my raw data is generated digitally (especially larger machines) so typically I document all my data digtally and throw away paper copies. The same with drawings. If i decide to make a piping change I will first draw out the modification on solidworks or visio etc and then make the change.
I do this becuase my company backs up its network regularly and I can retrieve 10 different save states and saves the 2 most recent twice to different clusters.

I have kept lab notebooks for some projects (including one I’m thinking of getting back to after a 30-year gap).

Most of my work is computational, though, so I keep my notes on the computer, in README files for the directory where I’m doing the work. That way the notes, the programs, and the data all stay together. Change logs for software are kept in the code itself, not in a separate cvs, svm, or git repository.

I just do hobbyist work but I wrote a Python script that creates a project directory, which is in a category folder with other like projects. The script creates a variety of directories in the project directory like, notes, images, temp, documents, etc. where I can organize any material I gather or notes I take on the topic, and since a lot of what I do requires software it has directories for actual work being done. It helps keep everything organized and makes things fairly easy to deal with at a later point in time. I usually copy any file associated with it into one of these directories, as hard drive space is plentiful and cheap, so its always easy to find. When done I can archive it up, and take it out, all in one piece.

I love writing in my lab notebook. I just write it as a note to myself. I do all of my quick mechanical design sketches on paper in a notebook before I do anything in SolidWorks – it’s just so much faster. And I like writing down dates and times so that I can see how long I spend on certain tasks, and because it makes me feel more productive.

I don’t worry about writing in a certain style or being too professional – I just write everything as though I was the only one reading it, because 100% of the time that’s the case.

I also like to jot down other things – for example “4:30 pm – my computer crashed”, “12:00 pm – meeting with supervisor”, or “going to the electronics store today to obtain components”.

Due to the large number of projects I’m working on at any one time, having one log book would be a waste of time as it would not flow. So I (we) use a software package called BugZillia that allows you raise task and is a good way of recording notes. However for any large project that will take some time, I run a logbook just for that project alone.

I have in other jobs, like you, run a normal engineers log book that covers each and every day.

I’d like an electronic way of doing all this – maybe one day someone will come up with a good iLogBook that has all the features you have stated above, and then is also search-able.!

Good Blog BTW! :o)

My lab runs a blog which acts as a lab notebook and it’s a real godsend. Everything is date- and author-stamped, and it’s indexed and searchable. It’s stored on our internal webserver (which also hosts an internal wiki) and is accessed via username & password. Our home-built data acquisition software has a “post to blog” button.

I’ve hardly picked up a pen since joining this lab πŸ™‚ I would really recommend the blog-as-labbook solution. All you need is a webserver and appropriate software (wordpress, drupal etc).

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