Writing fieldnotes

Field notebooks
Field notebooks, a photo by Lye Tuck-Po on Flickr

The one on top is from 1993. The bottom one c. late 1990s. The rest are from 1995-1996. Almost everything in these books has been digitized or typed up, but I still keep the originals. Why, I don't know.

My original note-taking practices were slightly complicated. I carried cheap jotting pads in my pockets continuously throughout fieldwork. At night, I'd write up from these jottings. Those notes went into several books sized like the ones above: 6.5" x 8" (or 16.5cm x 20.5cm). The paper quality isn't high, but weight is negligible, the size is right for backpack-based fieldwork, and the books are easily obtained from Chinese stationery stores in the small towns near where I spent most of my Batek fieldwork hours. I had several categories of books:

(1) A logbook for maintaining task lists (tasks completed today and tasks for tomorrow)
(2) An alphabetical book for vocab (language)
(3) An overall notebook for everything else (topical notes)
(4) A personal journal / diary

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A page from the vocabulary book
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Cambodian fieldnotes
I also had notebooks with detachable pages (same size as the above) for "special" topics like my mobility and kinship records. I didn't use pre-printed questionaires or forms; as data on each of these topics came in I'd sort and then clip them together. Whenever I reached electricity and/or my laptop, I'd type up stuff. I threw away most of the jottings once they'd been transcribed and then typed.

Later, from 1998 onwards, after I went to Japan, I fell in love with 2"x4" Kokuyo bound notebooks, and I've used these ever since. I write everything in them — jottings, tasks, fieldnotes, personal ruminations. Since then I've almost always been near a power outlet or, when I haven't been, I've used portable solar power (PV) systems, first in Cambodia and then in Sarawak. No more the nightly transcription of jottings into progressively larger and neater notebooks. Now I transfer notes directly from bound notebooks to MacBook Air.

In Batek rainforest I used zipper storage bags to protect the notes from the elements, and I continue to do so. I've taken these notebooks up and down forest paths, swift-flowing rivers, and logging roads, across lakes, into air-conditioned rooms, through clouds of dust, water sprays, and painful raindrops. Plastic becomes one's best friend under such conditions. But nothing can protect my notes from my own forgetfulness. Once, upon returning to Cambodia after a mid-year break at home, I discovered that I'd left two of the books in the plane's seat pockets. I didn't discover this potentially jailable offence until several hours later, in the hotel. My one redeeming grace was that I had scrawled my name and tel number on the covers of the books. A frantic call to the airport, and a welcome response from the Malaysian Airlines people: "Yes, the cleaner found your books and we have been trying to call you to come and get them." ("Trying".. because I had, of course, forgotten to switch on my phone.) I leapt onto the back of a motodop (motorbike taxi), rushed back to the airport, and, sure enough, the notebooks were waiting for me in the Malaysian Airlines office, rather than stuffed among random gloves and socks in some Lost-and-Found jumble.

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Batek fieldnotes: a sketch of me writing
What stands out in my memories of the old days was how firmly the Batek protected my fieldnotes. Sometimes while writing in the lean-to I'd be distracted or called out to see or photograph something or speak to somebody. I'd drop the notes and rush out. Inevitably somebody would call me back to put away my papers — not because I was untidy, but to keep the notes safe from infant or toddler hands. Other times I'd be engrossed in writing and some older kid would warn me if one of the babies was moving too closely to the papers and books spread out around me. If a toddler attempted to play with my writing materials, he/she would be scolded by the older kids.

I never asked anybody to do this — I think possibly the Batek invest paper-based work with high status, and possibly they cared about my work as much as I did. And all of this seemed to have a lasting effect, in a cultural-transmission kind of way. In 1999 whenever I'd sit down to write, a bunch of six-year-olds (who would have been among the first set of babies trained to treat my notes and books with care) would troop over and ask to look at my manuals of plants and animals. They'd huddle up, pore over my books, point out stuff of interest to each other (it was always the same books every time). I kept an ear out, but mainly I was busy with my own work. After an hour or so their parents would call them back for dinner. Before rushing off, they'd carefully close and pile up the books in the middle of the lean-to. Not a single page was ever torn off and all those manuals remain firmly attached to their covers.


  1. Haha... you're a natural-born anthropologist, Tuck-Po! :-)

  2. Touched by your account of the toddlers and babies who grew up to be appreciative and respectful six-year-olds.

    (Hi, Tuck Po! Greetings from CH from your old Section Two colleague in the early 1990s. Regards, Joon Yee.)


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