What is a Laboratory Notebook? - Types & Best Practices

Instructor: David Wood

David has taught Honors Physics, AP Physics, IB Physics and general science courses. He has a Masters in Education, and a Bachelors in Physics.

What is a laboratory notebook? Learn why scientists keep lab notebooks and how they use them. Learn some best practices, so you'll be ready to create your own.

What is a Laboratory Notebook?

Science involves collecting huge amounts of data in order to better understand the universe. That data has to be collected somewhere. You could type it all out carefully, or create beautiful, elaborate tables with titles that would rival the best work of calligraphers, but all of that takes time. When you're in the heat of an experiment, you often need to act quickly.

Science is all about collecting data
Science is all about collecting data

A laboratory notebook is the main working document in any research or experiment. It's the first place you record all of your work, including hypotheses, experimental setup, data, calculations, and early analysis. This can be helpful for many reasons from organizational to legal, including providing proof that you completed the work for intellectual property and copyright purposes.

Alexander Graham Bells famous lab notebook showing his successful telephone experiment (1875-6)
Alexander Graham Bells famous lab notebook showing his successful telephone experiment (1875-6)

Best Practices and Uses

Unfortunately there are no official rules for how to write in and keep a lab notebook (as they're commonly called). Different universities and private companies have different rules and procedures. However, there are certain features that are extremely common: the notebooks are usually bound and ruled and have numbered pages and dates for every entry. Entries are usually made as and when they happen, and never after the fact. Many lab notebooks include a table of contents and voided blank pages. When two experiments are being completed at once, you can move back and forth between them, or divide the page into columns. And when a mistake is made, a line should be drawn through it - nothing should be erased, and all markings should be permanent and in ink. Finally, your contact details are important to include in case the notebook is lost.

Example of a lab notebook entry
Example of a lab notebook entry

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