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Where is your logbook? January 24, 2010

Posted by gordonwatts in logbooks, physics life.

This is old school:


What is new-school?

Some friends and I had a fairly heated discussion concerning logbooks the other day. As anyone who has been through a college (or high school) level lab-based science course knows, the importance of a logbook has been… well, drilled into your head. Use it to keep track of your experiments. It might be important in a patent dispute (this came up a lot during my high school lab courses for some reason), etc.

But now, in the modern age of computers and smart phones everywhere… I’m curious: where do you keep your logbook? In paper? An e-log? Do you keep plots in it? Do you even need a log book any longer? Just text files on a computer? What is the point of a log book now (as far as you are concerned)? Or any other log-book related thoughs. Please – dump them here.

Then I’ll collate them and tell you my opinion. And I’m sure you can guess that I have an opinion… 🙂



1. Michael Schneider - January 24, 2010

Good question – I’ve wondered about this too.

I use Evernote and paste screenshots of my plots into separate notes. I find this to be very fast and reduces the amount of time I spend documenting my work. I can also share individual “notebooks” in Evernote with collaborators, which I’ve sometimes found easier then trading emails.

2. Scott - January 24, 2010

Yes, good questions. I too required my physics students to keep log books and these were perused by me and graded more often than collecting formal “lab reports”. Now that I’m living on my sailboat and cruising the Caribbean I find that I keep a logbook (as sailors have for centuries) when we are making a passage and I use it when I want to figure something out. I can’t problem solve without a pencil in my hand. But when I just want to write and think and wax philosophically I prefer to type and keep a blog.

So both!

3. Michael Schmitt - January 24, 2010

This is a good point of debate, and it will be interesting to see how people respond.

I used to keep extensive paper notebooks when I was a postdoc. Later on, I tried to use various computer-based e-logs since that was what the younger people were doing. They have the advantage of never getting faded or lost, of retaining the actual images of plots, and of being accessible from any computer. But I found them awkward compared to a sheet of paper and a pen, and I was less systematic using such methods than when I had a paper logbook.

Nowadays I record my thinking on paper. Aside from serving as a record, a compact book that I can hold in my hand and thumb through allows me to review my thinking in a way that I cannot do with a screen and keyboard. Maybe that’s just me.

Perhaps with the advent of Kimble, Nook, etc., the two methods will be merged and the scientist can have all the advantages and none of the disadvantages?

4. Charlie - January 25, 2010

We’ve switched over to a wiki-based system for the last couple of projects. A universally accessible collaborative log has worked out pretty well. For stuff that’s hand-jotted, I just take a picture.

It has kinks, but it’s better, on the whole, for us than paper.

5. Emme - January 25, 2010

I’m lost.
I’m was never good at keeping a physical log book (too lazy to print the plots) and I tried several times to start a digital one, I tried elog, evernote, even google wave (love the drag and drop) but with no luck. Perhaps it’s me.
I eneded up using zotero to keep track of articles and delicious for the web links, and the weekly presentations I have to give for my results (the society of neverending meetings may be closely related to the death of the logbok, come to think of it). I
‘m still waiting for something that let me loosely collate all the stuff related to a single topic or idea, links, code, plots. Elog worked decently but was cranky and in the end I lost all the notes in a server crash. CRL (http://cepa.fnal.gov/CRL/documents.htm) seems a viable option but you can only get it if you are a DOE entity 😦
Can’t wait to read your summary,


Someone told me yojimbo is nice, but I don’t have a mac to try it.

6. Katie - January 25, 2010

I’m looking for a new way to organize my research notes! I was doing a traditional log book for a while, but I have 2-3 different projects so it got too confusing. I switched to loose paper I would then collect and organize together, but lugging around the notebooks got to be too heavy for conferences. Now I’m trying to move to electronic– I’m thinking about a tablet notebook so I can still draw. I really like Google Wave as editable logs/memos between collaborators, as Michael (#1 comment) does with Evernote. I need help with this, and it’s interesting to read everyone’s ideas!

7. tim head - January 25, 2010

A provocative question: What do ppl actually use their logbooks for? (Personal ones not control room or similar)

I am too lazy to keep a logbook. When ever I tried I just loose them, or stop making entries when things get hectic (which is also when you would need it most). The other problem I seem to have is that I am very bad at predicting what it is I want to look at again in the future, so I always have a record of stuff I don’t need.

I figured that the solution to this would be to make it as easy and automatic to keep a logbook as possible. So I rely heavily on the history of my browser, I frequently email people about ideas/thoughts/links/papers so that I have a record in gmail which I can search for (automatic time stamp and keywords).

This also means I am one of the annoying people who like emailing about ideas instead of talking, no automatic record. Also I get annoyed when people on mailing lists say “email only me with answers” or people reply in private. Just means knowledge is getting lost. Or don’t keep documentation/wiki pages up to date, sure I could note in my notebook what the most up-to-date procedure is for something but then the knowledge is lost in my notebook instead of being kept up-to-date and available to “everyone”.

For code and plots I make, I ended up writing a small script to which you pass the names of all files (or just *) you want to “logbook” and it will ask you for a “commit” message and email it to yourself. This way you get the full search power of gmail, can easily forward it to others and the amount of stuff you can store is basically infinite. It sends a copy to http://posterous.com/ which will do something “sensible” with all the attached files, it isn’t perfect but I didn’t have to write it myself. It also checks whether you are in a directory under version control and will make a commit using your “commit” message and add the SHA1 sum of the changeset to the end of the message.

So far this has been my most successful attempt at keeping a logbook.

8. tim head - January 25, 2010

oh ja I forgot: I think it is Gordan’s turn now!

9. gordonwatts - January 25, 2010

This is some great stuff. I’ll summarize it in a day or two, when the rate of comments slows down a bit. But if you want to know about me: I have a convertable Tablet PC (so I can write or type on it), and I use OneNote from Microsoft to organize everything (write with pen, cut/paste plots into it, etc.). I’ve been doing this for almost 6 years now and I’m to about 5 gigs of log book. However, it isn’t perfect: one note is basically just on Windows (now moving to the cloud with the 2010 release I think), and so getting a plot on a linux root session into it isn’t as easy as it should be, etc.

10. Caleb Lampen - January 25, 2010

I have been using a tiddlywiki for the past few years. http://www.tiddlywiki.com. I also use the version at MPTW: http://mptw.tiddlyspot.com/

Its a single html page that you can just download to your computer, and start using as a local wiki. The MPTW version (http://mptw.tiddlyspot.com/) turns every tag into an entry in the wiki, automatically creating a nice hierarchical structure for project based notes. It has many plugins for nice customization, so everyone probably uses it differently. I usually create singular entries for important notes, and otherwise create journal entries under the project they’re for. You can even get an encryption plugin which selectively encrypts entries, which is nice if you store sensitive material.

With a variety of plugins, it makes for a very flexible notebook, and searchable! The biggest downside over something like onenote is that it doesn’t support drag and drop images, so I don’t usually store my plots there.

11. gordonwatts - January 26, 2010

Caleb – do you have an example of you use posted somewhere?

12. HD - January 31, 2010

We have a small lab, about 5 people. I installed a WordPress blog on my desktop machine about 4 years ago, gave everyone accounts, and the paper logbooks went into the file cabinet a couple of weeks later and no one noticed. We went from having to twist arms to get people to make entries in the paper logbooks to “If it isn’t in the (electronic) logbook, it didn’t happen”. Actual quote. Mantra, really.

I considered using elog or a wiki, but everyone seems to be pretty happy with WordPress and it suits the format of the work. Search sucks, but that’s understandable. It’s not so great for demonstrating calculations, but we generally write those up in LaTeX and archive them in the blog, as we do with papers, tech notes, posters, everything.

First task when a new person comes into the lab is to suggest that they sit down and go through the logbook.

Charlie - February 8, 2010

@HD: There’s a pretty handy wordpress.com TeX plugin. It might be portable to wordpress.org….


HD - March 30, 2010

I installed the LaTeXRender package, but it’s pretty persnickety. The WP.com LaTeX support isn’t available to WP.org, from the comments, and the author recommends LaTexRender. I haven’t had enough complaints to merit spending much time on it, as when necessary (more than a couple of lines), people just compile their formulas and post a jpeg of them.

ITAR and IP issues prevent us from using WP.com to host the lab notebook (and also keep us from using Google Wave for anything but the weekly journal club). I notice there are a couple of new LaTeX plugins now, maybe I’ll try those.

FWIW, we do a fair bit of white board sessions, and we simply take photos of those and post them in the notebook. Same with experimental setups. An eye-fi card sounds nice but logistically impossible – everything has to be password protected around here.

13. Kate - February 2, 2010

Initially I thought this was about log tables. Which is really quite a different matter to log books… Clearly I’m just too much of a maths geek.

Kate x

14. Martin - February 4, 2010

There is a text file called “Activity Log” on in clear view on my desktop. Every time I turn on my computer, I habitually double click the icon. I keep a record of what I do from day to day, and it also serves as a motivator when I write my goals down and try to achieve them.

I’m reading the comments about people who are too lazy to keep a record – but I think it’s important to keep track of your work! In my opinion, keeping a record should be as necessary as doing the work itself.

As someone who grew up chatting online with friends, typing notes is infinitely faster and erasing is so much easier. Full colored computer plots can just be copied and pasted, rather printed, cut, and glued (or worse, hand-drawn).

I think the computer logbook is as the way of the future as is using the computer to do particle physics rather than a series of photographs. It’s quite an exaggerated analogy, but it seems to make sense to do what is simpler and efficient.

On the other hand, turning on a computer might take longer than taking out your notebook – unless using your computer to do your experiment is as necessary as breathing!

I’m interested to see what your opinions are, Gordon! It would be interesting to see strong arguments in favor of pen and paper.

15. John BackusMayes - February 22, 2010

I have a rather haphazard attitude toward these things–I have a logbook, but I use it to remember things and occasionally to sort out and prioritize my thoughts. So it’s fairly sparse, and it certainly would be of no help in a patent dispute! Often I keep my old working areas around on my computer, and I use them if I forget what I did in my previous work. Like Tim, I find email is very useful as well, but I haven’t yet emailed code to myself.

I say haphazard because I worry that my lack of a formal record will someday come back to bite me, but so far I’ve been successful without it.

16. physicspet - March 14, 2010

Is this blog dead now?

17. gordonwatts - March 14, 2010

Yeah – fair question. It isn’t – but my time is used up with teaching and start of LHC and this blog has suffered. I need to make more time fo r it. 😦

18. Michael Schmitt - March 14, 2010

Yes, I hope you can. This was one of the more relevant and interesting blogs… 😉

19. You put *WHAT* in there? « Life as a Physicist - March 16, 2010

[…] 16, 2010 Posted by gordonwatts in logbooks, physics life. trackback It seems like I wrote the post asking folks what they used for their log book about a year ago. Ahem. […]

20. Adam Cox - October 10, 2010

I used to use Journler, but that has died. I’ve moved on to DEVON Think Personal. Although, I might upgrade to Professional since it allows you to have multiple databases. Journler was much better, but they both work the same. You can copy and paste pretty much anything into them, create subfolders for different analysis topics, meeting logs, daily log entries, etc… I still use a logbook with pen/paper from time to time, but my “official” logbook is whatever ends up on my computer.

Brian Blum - December 15, 2010

I agree with Adam.

21. Gordon Watts - October 10, 2010

Thanks for the pointer… can do you a by-date listing of your entries? Or does it always seperate them by type (as it appears to do in the image)?

22. Adam Cox - November 8, 2010

sorry for the long delay in my response. yeah – i do both. I have one folder for “daily logs”, and I just title them with the date. And then I have sub-folders where I keep more detailed information for each thing that I’m working on. In my daily log, I just say that I worked on “X” and I also post other things that I’m working on. Yeah, I guess this seems a bit antithesis to the concept of the software and the ideas of smart folders. But it works for me – the daily log gives me a quick reminder of what I was working on, and lets me set up a todo list for each week.

For each entry in the journal, it stores the created/modified dates and stuff… so, you can always just sort your logbook by date created if you want. there’s also a good search engine built into the program.

23. Log Book Follow-up « Life as a Physicist - January 5, 2011

[…] back in March I wrote a bunch of posts on logbooks: where do you keep your log book?, what do you keep in it? (and more of what you put in it). I can’t help it. The logbook is near […]

24. Roslan - February 9, 2013

It is time for someone to come up with a proper electronic “log-book apps” for scientific research (and make some money)

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