the all-seeingeyeWhy a Lab Notebook?

Some of the notebooks I've used over the years.

I am haunted by the spirit of my high school chemistry teacher. He required that lab notebooks be kept diligently. I am further haunted by my father's approach to problem solving, which he developed in the age of slide-rule engineering. Between them, I acquired (and have kept) a few habits.

The first is that I'm never without a way to record ideas or to make little sketches. Traditionally, this has been a bound lab notebook (I find that works better than loose-leaf, you respect it more and are less likely to lose it) More lately I have supplemented the bound notebook with a PDA. So the first step is to go out and get a bound lab notebook. My preference is for graph paper pages because I do a lot of scale sketches. Better paper and binding will last longer and be less likely to suffer from the inevitable water splashes-but buy what fits your budget. Keep it with you all the times, and jot whatever occurs to you down in it.

You may argue that your memory is just fine-that you'll remember to write it down later. But I doubt it. We live in an age of written reminders, and a level of background distraction that works against memory. Besides, the one really great (maybe patentable) idea will always be the one you lose.

How formal should your note taking be? That you have to answer for yourself. At a bare minimum I date every entry. It takes no time, and should you actually come up with something you would patent, the date could help establish precedence. Most of the time that's it. When I'm faced with a problem to be solved by brute-force methods, like color-calibrating a printer or film recorder (don't ask-I'd rather not think about it), then I use a more formal approach.

The formal approach to brute-force attacks (straight out of high-school chemistry) contains the following information:

Date: date each page when you put something on it
Title: a good project/problem title goes a long way toward clarifying your thinking-helps keep things focused
Description/Goal: generally resembles a statement of purpose, what you are testing and why
Procedure: an outline of how you will proceed
Data: numbers, observations and calculations
Summary/Conclusions: what you learned

Design work doesn't require nearly this level of formality. A date and title is usually sufficient-and the title is only to remind me just what I was thinking about when I made that scribble. For me the greatest benefit of notebooks is efficiency. It is a truism that the first design is garbage-in almost everything. When was the last time that Software Version 1.0 was bug-free? Most of my first designs for things are pretty bad. My rule is; version 1 is garbage, version 2 is closer, version 3 will actually work. The trick is to execute the first 2 only on paper, and build version 3.

The other thing you must do regularly is to photocopy your notebook. Keep the notebook and the copy in different locations-like work and home, or give them to a relative to keep. Fires, floods and the like should not cause you to lose your ideas. If you really are working on patentable inventions, regularly give a copy to a trusted colleague (or your lawyer) to keep. Good practice is to have that person initial and date each page.

I can't say that these methods will work for everybody, but I've found them extremely helpful. This approach has helped smooth the way for any number of projects. I've also found it fun to look through older notebooks just to remind myself what I was working on and when, and every now and again I come across an old idea that I never got around to pursuing that maybe now I have the time, or skills, or tools to carry out.



The Moleskine line has become my new favorite in notebooks. I must confess to something of a fetish for good notebooks, and I really am a horrible paper snob. The Moleskines satisfy both these desires. The price is really quite extraordinary, but the quality is well worth it. A Moleskine appears (I think) in The Rundown-it's the notebook the lead character uses to record his recipe ideas.

"This is Moleskinerie, a blog dedicated to the proposition that not all notebooks are created equal. Its impeccable provenance notwithstanding this site will talk more about the places and adventures, life's little dramas and other forgettable events that otherwise would have been lost were it not scrawled between the pages of these little black books."