Why paper-based field notes just work

I find myself writing this blog as more is being demanded of the field notes that I write, and I’d like to do more with them if possible. However, promises of technological solutions for digital note-taking whilst doing ethnographic observational work don’t hit the mark (yet). I’ve tried to highlight some factors of why paper-based field notes just work:

Ease of use – Handwriting is a beautiful thing (even though in my case it is hard to read). With a pen and paper we can write, scribble, change and embellish previous notes, diagrams, and drawings. At the moment the tablet apps just don’t cut it. Even a delay of milliseconds between digital pen and digital ink can throw you off, let alone avoiding the feeling of having something akin to a digital crayon in your hand rather than a pen. Will the latest Microsoft Surface make progress here, some say so, but we have heard and seen the adverts many a time before and so far we haven’t got what we’ve been promised. Pen and paper works so well, in subtle but important ways that we barely think about it.

Flexibility (for non-linear processing) – I can flick back and forth through my field notes, circle things, make extra notes, feed forward questions from previous notes by creating new sections and writing further the questions. Field notes support the non-linear thinking and engagement with context – we don’t get a full set of notes the first time we see something, we don’t even ask all the right questions, we look back and reflect after seeing many different examples, sometimes embellishing those old field notes, sometimes creating new notes further on and sometimes both! Flicking through paper in an easy way supports this.

Accessibility – Without powering up I can flick through my field note book and conveniently see what’s happened most recently and in the past, depending how many pages away the notes are – so natural it seems funny to describe it this way.

Cost – How much does pen and paper cost? Not a lot.

Convenience – We can buy note pads of different sizes – ones for the pocket and larger ones for a bag.

But also where they don’t or fall short:

Collaboration – I find myself approaching a study where I need to work more collaboratively with a remote partner so my paper-based field notes become almost a barrier to sharing work. I can barely make sense of them some of the time, and he can’t even see them.

Extensive and complex field notes over a long period – When the study you’re engaged in is complex, long and perhaps not your only focus then it can be easy to lose your way in masses and masses of notes. All of a sudden the flexibility of flicking backwards and forwards doesn’t seem like a benefit. You will sometimes find yourself scrabbling through books trying to find where you made notes on incident X which shows what you’re looking for – wouldn’t it be nice if they could be searched like a typed doc!

Organisation and structuring – With typed text it is much easier to copy, paste and restructure things and this can be a real benefit as you’re working through and making sense of the data you’ve gathered.

Multimedia – Wouldn’t it be nice to embellish field notes with audio, pictures and video – surely this would bring your notes to life more.

In the fieldwork I do I need to make notes on people using technology as I watch them and ask them questions. Currently I use pen and paper to write personal notes that I’ll sift through and reflect upon whilst I’m still doing the observations to check my understanding and generate new questions (it’s not just a recording device it supports reflection and thinking). These notes will be analysed and organised more thoroughly when I’m back in the office. However, I need to share these notes with an expert in a different domain so they can give me input into the ongoing fieldwork too.

I like the idea of going digital but a wholehearted change to taking raw field notes in digital form seems premature and beyond reach at the moment. Perhaps there is a hybrid version where paper-based and digital notes (via a tablet) can co-exist side-by-side in the field so we have the benefits of paper but some of the advantage of digital too.


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