Fieldnotes 2.0

A couple of weeks ago, on the East Asian Anthropology Listserve, there was a brief flurry of emails in response to a query about what software works best for taking fieldnotes. Apologies for the double-posting, but I thought sharing some of the suggestions with the Savage Minds community would be useful. In terms of fieldnote taking, everyone, like opinions, seems to have their own method. Following the Lifehacker mode of “talk among yourselves,” I’ll list some of the suggestions with some comments and URL’s to check out.

Old School.

First, there is the method that no one (including me) on the EASIANTH listserve brought up – pen and notebooks. While I recommend digitized note-taking to my students, I still tell them that they should always carry around a pen and notebook, for those impromptu jottings and diagrams; old school still works!

Good old MS Word was also recommended by a number of anthropologists, largely because of its wide compatibility. Word documents can always be imported into other analytical software packages, and as David Slater from Sophia University Tokyo pointed out, has a “fields” command that can be used to code fieldnotes.

Fieldnotes 1.0 programs

One up on old school, these programs were made specifically to help organize and analyze qualitative data. I think all these programs (except for Filemaker Pro) can only be run on PC’s.

Atlas ti
Filemaker Pro. From John McCreery.
Easy to get started with, dead simple to use, available for both Macs and Windows PCs, and now an extraordinary powerful relational database. You can literally start as simple as creating a new database (just like opening a new file in a world processor), adding the fields you want, and start inputting data. Discover that you need a new field, no problem; just add it to the existing fields.
Then, moreover, the sky’s the limit. The program has been evolving since its introduction about the same time as MSWord on Macs, has tens, maybe hundreds, of thousands of users worldwide, and highly robust and helpful user community.
QSR’s nVivo: From Joe Bosco, Chinese University of Hong Kong.
There are many ways to use a program like NVivo, but for me, the main advantage is help in organizing the mass of data we can now collect electronically, and then structuring my work with the texts. The program helps you sort and keep track of files and information, and helps you organize your thoughts and ideas.
The files. NVivo now allows you to import documents in Microsoft Word, RTF, or TXT formats. You can also write note or transcribe interviews directly into NVivo, and it can handle photos and video and websites as external data, with a hyperlink in your NVivo data.
Organizing the data. NVivo allows you to give “attributes” to each case. For example, you can define the attributes of interviewees as male or female, or specify their age, and then later retrieve data based on these attributes (are there any old men who talked about using hair conditioner?). You can think of this as coding the entire case according to attributes of the speaker, if they are interviews.
Coding, or Working With the Data. NVivo offers many ways to code. It is designed primarily to allow you to code as you read along. Ideas come to you, and you can create a code. You can make it a “free code”, which stands alone, or a “tree code” which has relationships to other codes (such as a code for “buys shampoo” under which might be “buys name brands” and “buys cheap brands” as two branches off the trunk.) The program allows you to see all the possible codes in a box off to the side, and you can also see “coding stripes” next to your text, to see how text is coded (though you cannot see all the stripes at once–you probably would not want to since you are likely to have a lot of codes). It is very easy to rename, merge and move codes around. The program can autocode if your data is structured with common headings (e.g. if you asked everyone the same question). It cannot autocode for specific words, though it can easily search for certain words or combinations.
The program has a query function that allows you to search for patterns and test ideas through text searches, word frequency, and “matrix coding”, i.e. comparing results across several groups. All query results can be stored. The program can also produce “reports” which can be as simple as all the text coded for a particular code, or the code that comes from informants with certain attributes. It also gives a “coding summary” which lists the files and codes used, showing your progress in coding.
Each project is saved as one file, making it easy to back up or to move from one computer to another. The program comes with training materials and videos, but I found an introductory class quite helpful in getting jump-started in using the program, though the class was relatively expensive. The program is also not cheap, but it is quite robust and the company does give a lot of support. They even helped upgrade a project file when I could not get it to work with the new version. NVivo 7 works well with Chinese; earlier versions were hit and go, but now you can also enter data in Chinese.

askSam From me.
I myself use this program. AskSam is a free-form database that you can use to organize, code, and search fieldnotes. Although you can import Word documents into askSam, I usually type fieldnotes directly into askSam. I first learned of askSam (and received a free copy) as a participant in a NSF summer methods camp, and have upgraded it each time since then. What makes askSam a good way to manage fieldnotes is that you can both code as you type fieldnotes, or you can later do pretty powerful searches on a large set of material. I also use askSam to manage news clippings – when combined with Surfsaver (a sister program, made by the same company), it is an easy way to save webpages while using Internet Explorer. If I was not already accustomed to askSam, I would consider starting with something like nVivo instead.

Fieldnotes 2.0 programs
These programs are newer programs not really built as analytical tools for social science research, but as general note-taking programs that have the ability to combine different kinds of materials. They have great flexibility (in terms of data input and searching) and can be used to keep track of everything from web clippings to recipes. They also have cool and hip names like Voodoo Pad and Evernote! One very useful compilation of these newer software packages can be found on a website by Allison Alexy; she lists software for both Mac and PC users. The following summaries and links are shamefully (but with her permission) lifted from her website. Do yourself a service, though, and check out her full entry on fieldnoting software.

From Allison Alexy:
Voodoo Pad, by Flying Meat, looks really interesting and if I wasn’t already in the middle of my own system, I think I could be convinced to switch. What I like about it is that it is based on a wiki model — similar to the way that Wikipedia enables users to change it while it keeps a record of what changes were made when and by whom. Down side: it’s only available for macs. Up side: if you’re using a mac, then Voodoo Pad can link very easily with your other programs (address book, iCal, etc.).
This idea — making fieldnotes into the form of an editable website — reminds me a lot of Joseph Hill’s website. Joe is an anthropology grad student who had done fieldwork on religion in Senegal (that’s the short version). As you can see from his website, he used the site as a way to organize his fieldnotes. It’s not just that he posted his notes on a website, but that his notes are the website. His homepage is here, and his page about his dissertation research is here.

For macs there are also:
AquaMind’s NoteTaker — here is a review from MacWorld about version 1.9.4
Hog Bay’s Notebook — I couldn’t stand the layout of this program, but maybe you’ll like it better. I don’t like typing notes on computer screens that are made to look like legal pads.
Circus Ponies NoteBook – a review is here
PersonalWiki — another, less refined, Wiki option

For PC people:
WhizFolders — comes highly recommended.
Scribe — created by the Center for History and New Media.
EverNote — free, which is nice; a review is here

Other favorites or most hated programs?

One final thought — one of the reasons I decided to contiue using Word was I don’t want to be stuck with a mess of a unopenable files if the little software company that designed my program goes belly up. As evil as Microsoft is, the good news about MS programs is that you will probably always be able to open the files.

UPDATE: Sara wrote me saying that a friend uses a program called Soho Notes but she hasn’t yet tried it.

What do you use? Talk among yourselves.

11 thoughts on “Fieldnotes 2.0

  1. Nope. Microsoft windows files aren’t always openable. Old files from Word 2.0 are getting hard to use… If you want real reopen ability for much later (and after all in Anthropology, maybe historians will be reading those a couple centuries from now) use ASCII, or Unicode if you want non-vanilla characters. Plain, old .txt format. Also usable on a Linux computer, unlike Word.

    Microsoft keeps its formats secret, so that other software tools can’t open them. Whereas open formats mean you, or a computer programmer friend of yours, can always build a program to actually open the damn file.

  2. Re uiollioo: The mixed text “Wikiword” in Wikidpad sounds like a quick way to code; since it’s free, I’ll download it and give it a try. Thanks for the suggestion. Also, your link to the solar power battery pack reminded me that another post that may be of interest would be “what’s in your fieldwork bag.”
    I also forgot to list two more programs that may be useful for fieldnotes. One is Storyspace by Eastgate (for both Mac and PC). A friend of mine, Maris Gillette, used it and her review of this hypertext program can be found here on Eastgate’s site.
    Another possibility is Microsoft’s OneNote, a program similar to Evernote, but more expensive. My anthropologist-wife Rebecca Ruhlen uses this program a lot since she got it for free, and I made my son (who is going off to college in a week) buy the program to help keep track of things – because of the educational price of $19 and its ease of use.

  3. For fieldnotes, and the general in- or out of- field ephemera collection that constitiutes anthropological research, I use DevonThink (Mac only). It was recommended to me by a much savvier fellow grad student in my program. Despite the relatively steep price (even with education discount), I’ve been happy with the investment. I am not sure if my pal (who is, like me, in the field right now) is still using this db, nor how happy he is with it.
    DevonThink is a database program which allows you to organize most relevant text and media file types (PDF, webarchive, MP3, video of different sorts, JPEG, etc.). This is especially relevant for those of us working not only with notes, but with a significant amount of digital media as well. Most of these media files can be viewed within the database, categoried with keywords, etc. One can also store links in the database and view live webpages.
    In addition to this nice and seemingly comprehensive media handling, the program allows you to import and create .txt files which it automatically wiki-links (e.g. by SmashedWords, but you can tweak this or turn it off altogether). Search is very effective, PDFs are OCR’d and searchable, there is also some kind of ‘intelligent’ sort and search function, which might be useful for managing massive amounts of data.
    The program integrates with your other software mostly through a number of applescripts which facilitate the clipping and importing of text, etc. (many more are available on the (helpful) user boards). The program has several other advanced features (supporting website db stuff, etc.) that I haven’t had the opportunity to use.
    Finally, and perhaps most importantly, one is not locked into the software or a proprietary format. Though the database itself is not open source, all of your data is stored in standard and relatively open file formats, and is easily exported to a foldered file structure.
    I use the database to coordinate ‘old fashioned’ and ‘new fancy’ ways of handling fieldwork data. I collect my notes and diagrams on random pieces of paper and notebooks. Then every so often I type up and expand notes as .txt files. Diagrams can be photo’d and imported along with the other (date-stamped) digital photos I take to visually document various things (and to keep digital archives of other documents, these images can also be keyworded/labeled with date in a ‘comments’ field in the db, making them much more useful later). Digital audio/video are similarly easy to import and keyword (either now or in the future, when less lazy).
    I am basically a flaky person, more concerned with, or more qualified for, the hanging out/lead following aspects of fieldwork than its orderly progress/documentation aspects. Therefore, I’ve tried to figure out a set of relatively easy ways to collect my various stuff and to keep the relevant information attached. To this end I turned date stamp on for the digital camera, and have a digital audio recorder that date-stamps all recordings. I also made a .txt template for typing up the fieldnotes, which I keep on my computer desktop, which supports some kind of standard format in the notes. I then save the resulting .txt docs into a passworded and backed-up folder, and periodically import into the database so I can feel responsible. I don’t do any sorting at this phase, I just sort of throw everything into the database, knowing it’s there to be searched and sifted through later.
    I also use this software, and basically the same approach, to organize PDF articles, reading notes, etc. It was very helpful for preparing for exams, as one might imagine. We’ll see how it works out for post-field writing-type work, but I find it very pleasant to use during the fieldwork process.

  4. Fuji: Wikidpad actually two ways of making a link. The second is less well known. Mixed words like: SavageMinds or MorNing. Or you can simply put something in brackets [Savage Minds], [morning]. I find the latter more convenient than trying to force things into mixed world format. In view mode the brackets disappear.

    A nice feature is that whenever you link to a wikiword it does the housekeeping and links you to the same page. (It doesn’t handle grammatical transformations of such words (like pluralizations) though.

  5. For the first time this summer, wireless internet is available in some of the communities in the area I do research (northwestern British Columbia). This opens up the possibility of using web-based tools for keeping notes. So, to the list I add the google suite of products (Google Documents and Google Notebook) and the Zoho Office Suite (

    I can’t use the internet in all places in the places I do research … no internet in hunting camps for example … and frankly I don’t usually carry a laptop to those places either (no electricity, too intrusive in camp life, etc). So, I still take notes by hand and then transfer them to Word or Atlas.ti.

    I am intrigued, however, about the possibility of using collaborative, web-based software like Google or Zoho to work with people in the community and other researchers especially when I am not in the community. I think that’s next for me.

  6. Suggest you take a look at the datablogging application at … you can add quantitative and qualitative fields, create data forms for a group or project use, create groups who share entries … it wasn’t specifically developed for field reserach / note taking, but has fit the bill for a few folks … strong administration.

  7. Hi there,

    I’ve used Nvivo (was trained on it back when it was N4 in 1997) for many years in data analysis in Native Title research & in private consultancy work. NVivo trainers (i.e. Pat Bazeley) recommend that you don’t type field notes into NVivo but into Word because of Word’s spellchecking and other functionalities. Incidentially, NVivo 8 (due for release next year) will have sound & video file capabilities incorporated. I can’t wait!

    I live and work Central Australia (think extremely remote!). Like others who’ve written here, I use note books (paper note books, not computers) & pens for recording field notes – it’s just less intrusive and you just don’t have the luxury of power & internet (as for wireless… many places still lack reliable dial-up).

    However, I don’t think *software* for field notes is really the issue. For me it’s the hardware that’s lacking. What I would really like to see is a PDA that could act as unobtrusively and as funtionally as a real paper note book. It should be able to run something like Evernote. For example, design features that I would like to see:

    – must’look’ unobstrusive (imitating a real hardcover notebook would be a good place to start)

    – must be larger than a current PDA (perhaps A5 size)

    -must be able to record voice & cope with digital photos

    -must weigh about the same as a hardcover note book or less

    -must have long lasting, easily obtained batteries *or batereis that are easily charged by common 12/24 volt 4WD systems*. People might cry foul, but rechargable AA batteries would be good. (Why? Batteries tend to die when you’re only 2 days into a 10 day bush trip and the only batteries they stock at community XX are AAs)

    Just a few thoughts



  8. Field note software for Mac users:

    In my previous comment to this post I talked about how I use DevonThink, a database program, to organize my field notes and other materials (photos, webpage archives, digital audio). I also use it to organize reading notes and PDFs. It is a great database, I think the best for anthropologists, because it is makes the best use of searchable and wiki-linkable RTFs. It makes it very easy to tag media and text files. It allows you to view most media files inside the database. And, it has really great search and smart-folder features. In short, it’s a great way to sort and organize data. But it’s not the best for actually WRITING the text notes that are bread and butter of anthropology.

    And it’s the WRITING, getting notes down and into electronically archivable and manipulable and sortable text files, that can be a challenge. Typing up field notes requires some special features in software. I have found that, recommended to me by a friend, is actually a great fit. Also, since it’s donationware, it’s easy on the budget.

    Journaler works pretty well as a database as well, with nice smart folders and concordance-based searching. But I use it for typing daily notes–field notes, reading notes, all notes–and put media and things like that right into DT.

    A list of the most relevant features:

    1) Automatically saves your document, you can change the frequency of these saves in preferences. Crucial in cases of frequent power cuts.
    2) The text-entry field has a live word count, crucial for knowing when I’ve hit my current required quota for the day.
    3) Each text note (in .rtf) is automatically stamped with the date of creation. It’s very easy to insert time and date stamps into the text field as well.
    4) The text-entry window has fields for category (e.g. field note, reading note) and a field for keywords.
    5) When you export text files the date, category, and keywords fields are inserted into the top of the body of the text.
    6) The program also comes with a handy ‘drop-box’ feature: an alias that sits on your desktop. Files (text, web archive, audio) can just be dragged into this alias. When you drag a file to the drop-box, a dialog box pops up, asking you to specify date, category, keywords, etc. for the entry. The file is then entered into the database. Excellent!
    7) Nice to have built into your fieldnotes: it’s very easy to password protect your database or ‘journal,’ nice for the IRB and privacy minded.
    8 ) Built-in calendar allows you to make entries for upcoming events and future to-do items too! Just type in your upcoming appointment with the grand poo-bah of wherever. Awesome. Sadly, no alerts yet.

    1) Apparently not so great at handling really big databases. (That’s why I’m planning on exporting the text and moving it into DT)
    2) PDF handling is kind of weird, they seem to be embedded in RTF files, or linked to them in some weird way. This is a bummer, because I’d like to keep my reading notes together with field notes etc., and the reading notes should really be with the PDFs. Another reason to use Journaler as a note-taking app, and keep the real database elsewhere. My solution now is to use Journaler mostly for RTF production, then export them, all nicely tagged, and drop them into DT. Not ideal, but works for now.

  9. Thank you for the excellent summary. I use Bento, the simpler (and less expensive!) version of Filemaker to write and organize fieldnotes. Being able to make a custom form and then add fields (keywords etc) to that at a later time is very useful. It integrates with the most common Mac applications too, so you can make custom fields for iPhoto pictures or use Address book to organize informants.
    Devonthink is great for organizing all sorts of material from the field (if you can afford it…) but AFAIK will not allow you to input your fieldnotes to custom forms.

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