Wednesday, 19 March 2014

Geographers' gadgets: notebooks
Sadly this image doesn't come on a notebook...
by Jane Bunting

This week is kind of quiet around the Department - the second years are away on their overseas field study weeks, along with just over half the academics, the first years have mostly gone home for a break (hopefully with plenty of reading to catch up on, since it is technically reading week for them) and the third years are working away on their dissertations.  Watching the different teams get their equipment together and listening to students (and colleagues) swapping the usual "my trip will be more work/more fun/sunnier than your trip" banter reminded me again of just how varied our subject is.  We study... well, pretty much anything that comes our way.  Geographers don't just study the world, we poke our noses into every corner of the world of study.  However, the field trips also point up things we have in common.  The students are going overseas to experience places on their own terms, to try to observe objectively what happens, to compare it with what happens in other places, and then to understand something of why and how it happens, whether "it" is a piece of public art, a type of agriculture or a distinctive rock formation.  Observation, then trying to understand what we see, then trying to explain that understanding to other people, lies at the heart of the business of being a geographer.

Stationery lust objects.  I WANT THEM ALL.
Asked to write a post at short notice, I decided to write about some of the tools I use as a GEESologist, then realised that just the list would take up most of the post!  So perhaps we can have a series, along with the "my story" series... we all have our favourite pieces of kit.  I get that "ooooooo, Jane waaannnnttttt" reaction some women get at the sight of Jimmy Choos to a really well-made collapsible quadrat, to almost anything in the latest Nikon microscopy catalogue or Van Walt field soil sampler catalogue... and to a really decent notebook.  Last week one of our colleagues arrived at the Departmental Meeting with a brand new Moleskine notebook - a rich red, A5 one.  At least half a dozen people watched with varying degrees of envy as he removed the plastic, snapped back the elastic, and smoothed open that first all-important page. One of the nice things about working as a GEES-ologist is being around other people who share some quirks with me!
 As a youngster, I had a bit of an obsession with stationery, and would regularly spend my pocket money on notebooks, pens, stickers and so on.  I especially liked notebooks, and often made my own by cutting scrap paper to size, sewing a binding, making and decorating the cover...  Actually that should be in the present tense: I like notebooks.  There are about twenty empty notebooks of various kinds stashed in a drawer in my house and another 30 or so around the office at work.  Notebooks are neat, and I like to know I'm not in danger of running out any time soon.  I'm clearly not alone: in searching for images for this post, I came across a blog devoted to notebooks - oh dear, another procrastination location for me!  

One essential supply item for the undergrad field trips is the issuing of the Field Notebook, a.k.a. Field Diary.  This emphasised to me that, like all scientists, our most basic toolkit consists of our ability to observe what is actually there in the world, and to record our immediate observations for later consideration.  I find myself frequently telling students that they need to have "something to write ON and something to write WITH" for classes, field trips, meetings etc. and the same is definitely true of the professional GEESologist, even if some are beginning to transfer these functions to a virtual electronic notebook.
A page from Lyell's 1840 field notes

a page from Darwin's field notebook
The notebook tradition is quite well established - the picture on the right is a page from Darwin's notebooks kept during the Voyage of the Beagle, and on the left a page from Lyell's 1840 notebook.  Clearly the tradition of quick sketches and crossings out has a decent history!  Darwin wrote:
'Let the collector's motto be, "Trust nothing to the memory;" for the memory becomes a fickle guardian when one interesting object is succeeded by another still more interesting.'
Technology, I'm pleased to say, HAS moved on a little - the mechanical pencil (removing the need for carrying a pencil sharpener in the field), the gel or cartridge pen  (ink without the bottle!) and best of all the waterproof notebook all make it easier to take notes under field conditions - but observation, and the recording of observation, is still and always will be at the heart of the GEES-ologist's toolkit.

No comments:

Post a Comment