As a scientist, the idea of a "research notebook," or its functional equivalent, has been well ingrained into me. However, it's not clear to me if this is a universal phenomenon, or if it's limited to the sciences.

For students working in the humanities and other fields—such as literature, economics, or philosophy—what is the working equivalent of the laboratory notebook? If not, what is the preferred method of keeping records in those fields?

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    This isn't really an answer to your question as written, since I can't address what happens in the humanities, but I see the tradition of lab notebooks as being very specific to experimental sciences. For example, in pure math (and most of applied math) there is no professional obligation or tradition of keeping detailed records of research activities. The research papers are themselves the primary research output, rather than just descriptions of experiments carried out in the lab. Any record keeping beyond the published materials is completely at the discretion of the researcher. Commented Apr 29, 2012 at 0:31

4 Answers 4


I asked my wife, which works in art history/egyptology. So first, "it depends of how the person works" ;).

However, it seems that many people are making a large number of thematic reading synthesis, research notes (as we do) and she also pointed out the importance of her personal database, where she stores archaeological artefacts, their descriptions, the related bibliography, personal notes about them, their relations, etc. According to her, this is THE most important thing for her work.


From my impression, the nearest equivalent would be an academics' text source repository. This could be a library of theoretical works personally owned (and almost certainly monographic rather than papers). It could be a set of commonly referenced canon texts spread across four or five libraries in their region that they consult. It could be the items above plus documentary series such as archives, cultural texts.

The objects manipulated, day to day, in conducting humanities research are texts; whether these are straight texts, or the meanings developed from physical records, or the meanings developed reflecting on terse problem statements.

In my experience, some scholars keep detailed notes, and others don't. I try and keep my notes and sources in a deep text searchable database with what meta-data I can cheaply acquire. There is no standard for keeping a repository, and the way in which a scholar learns to keep an adequate repository is idiosyncratic.

There isn't a disciplinary standard for keeping a repository, above and beyond "study skills" type courses which aren't mandatory or systematised. To evidence of the adequacy of the "experiment" equivalent scholars demonstrate their mastery over the relevant texts by providing evidence of firmly supportable readings through citation and footnoting, or by quality argument.

  • Thanks for sharing. Can you elaborate on what platform you use to maintain the deep text searchable database or how did you set it up? I find it a constant issue that the software around isn't designed for a open notebook portable uses. Any references you can recommend on this?
    – puslet88
    Commented Nov 8, 2015 at 21:57

Personally I've not heard of a dedicated "research notebook" in my discipline history, as may be used in the sciences. Like Sylvain Peyronnet's answer it very much depends on how a person works.

In history, as Samuel Russell's answer alludes to, most of a person's ideas or arguments are gleaned from primary documents. Because of this it becomes very important to be able to keep a track of the primary documents that may be relevant to your area of research. Personally I use Mendeley to keep track of everything and the notes/annotations I make in that go someway towards forming my research arguments later. I note though that even the use of software like Mendeley is not common in my department.

I believe one of the advantages of the research notebook is that it can keep track of when work was conducted by date, something that I have never heard mentioned in the Humanities. The disadvantage of this is that there is no way of proving when you may have had an idea based on your readings.

  • With respect to the last paragraph, the plot of Ian McEwan's novel Solar revolves around a physicist that falsifies a research notebook to backdate certain results and claim priority on them. So, even in the hard sciences, research notebooks are mostly used as a record of what you did on a specific date (which can be helpful when trying to replicate experiments or write up results), rather than as a notarized register of activities open to everybody for inspection. People in the humanities (at least the ones I'm familiar with) keep track of their day-to-day activities in other ways.
    – Koldito
    Commented Feb 16, 2015 at 12:49

I think you really need to understand research methods humanities, and this varies field to field.

One (but not the only) approach are Qualitative Data Analysis(QDA) methodologies used widely enough to support a small industry of software vendors delivering (often very expensive) QDA tools. Examples include Atlas-Ti, NVIVO, QDA Miner and Tinderbox.

These tools provide the closest thing I can think of to a 'research notebook' for academics in the humanities.

Understanding what people say is a QDA example in Tinderbox, representative of the sort of work done in QDA tools.

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    I don't understand how this answers the question. Could you please expand your answer? Commented Mar 13, 2016 at 14:27
  • A labbook is not first and foremost a place to calculate: it's a log of activities. Commented Mar 13, 2016 at 19:36
  • I've provided an example of what I believe to be the nearest functional equivalent to a "research notebook", bearing mind that how researchers work can vary depending on what the project requires.
    – Stephen
    Commented Mar 13, 2016 at 21:12
  • @dmckee the tools listed do log activities, hopefully sufficiently to make the research reproducible.
    – Stephen
    Commented Mar 13, 2016 at 21:13
  • @massimo-ortolano Does my update help?
    – Stephen
    Commented Mar 13, 2016 at 21:55

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