Ethnographic Field Data 1: Should I Share my Fieldnotes?

[Savage Minds welcomes guest blogger Celia Emmelhainz.]

“This will be your office,” Dr. Bernson* says, unlocking the storage room near her office.

Tall wooden shelves frame rows of ethnography, gender studies, and area studies book, dog-eared dictionaries of minority languages, and obscure books she picked up in the field. A row of file cabinets faces the bookshelves, and in the back: two old computers for the graduate students.

One Tuesday, when work is slow, I unlock my office door and open the large file cabinet marked fieldnotes. Curious, I pull out slim tablets of lined paper, and discover the records of Dr. Bernson’s first fieldwork, some twenty years before: handwritten notes on conversations, dinners attended, interviews in halting tongue, new vocabulary, and reflections on her early research projects.

I flip through the tablets, and carefully put them back in the cabinet. Close the drawer. Lock the office.

For the next year, I work for Dr. Bernson to code her data, prepare a manuscript, translate online articles, and revise her existing publications. Yet I wonder what happened to the rest of her stories, the fieldnotes we take but never share. Will I someday inherit her notes? And what would I even do with them all?


In this series, I’d like to talk about what it might take to safely archive and share Dr. Bernson’s—and your—field research. I’m sure this raises many questions/reflections, which you’re welcome to share in the comments.

The first, of course, is: why bother? Why even share fieldnotes?

I suggest we have an ethical responsibility to safeguard and protect our “data,” the stuff of our research—but also to preserve and share it at the appropriate time. Sometimes, we protect local communities by limiting access to information.

(Other times, we protect ourselves and our own reputations. I’ve heard from younger archaeologists that the practice of ‘hiding information’–and even withholding data for thirty years or more!–may help established scholars but may also limit the access of younger scholars to materials that might inform their research.)

There are many good reasons to secure our field data: the possibility that sharing could harm the people we work with or our own scholarly reputations, a lack of established guidelines, and a lack of time and expertise for us to archive both the content and context of our research.

Yet there are also many reasons to preserve and share our work: a desire to share stories from communities that may be ‘off the record,’ to memorialize people we have worked closely with, or to record communities, their constraints, and their ways of living in the world. We may want to help future researchers or those from outside our field to begin developing a broader view of current topics. And we may want to put photos, field documents, and stories back into the hands of those who first shared them with us.

In other words, archiving and sharing our field documents can at times be part of our responsibility to the people we work with, to fellow researchers and to the public. In this series, I’ll bring up some of the issues in securing, archiving, and sharing our fieldwork records–but also discuss why we would do that for ourselves and for future historians and social scientists.

Of course, these posts are only a primer. As an anthropologist-turned-librarian, I’ll remind you that you likely have a “liaison” librarian, archivist, repository manager, or data librarian at your institution. These folks could advise you on preserving and sharing field records. Getting connected with others, here or in person, is one of the best ways to begin thinking through how we can best care for our irreplaceable notes, images, interviews, and other field documents!

2 thoughts on “Ethnographic Field Data 1: Should I Share my Fieldnotes?

  1. Patricia, this is an interesting development. Maybe if something comes of it we can promote the new CoPAR on Savage Minds?

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