Home Chemistry excerpt: Keeping a Lab Notebook

Home Chemistry excerpt: Keeping a Lab Notebook

People sometimes ask us what’s the big deal with the Maker’s Notebook. Why should they care about a book largely filled with blank pages? Well, obviously we think there are all sorts of reasons to care. We spent a lot of time designing a book optimized for makers. It’s hard-bound, sturdy, contains high-quality engineering graph paper, has 20 pages of useful (and/or entertaining) reference material in the back, it’s beautiful (we think), etc. But one of the main things we were conscious of, and got lots of input on, was making the book laboratory-compliant. You may not be aware of it but science and engineering labs technicians, inventors, and others doing research, experimentation, and design that might become novel discoveries or products, have to keep notebooks that meet certain legal standards. For example, they must have pre-numbered, non-removable pages. They must have a place to date, sign, and have witnessed each page of work. So we made our notebook to conform to these standards.

In this Flashback column, we excerpt the “Maintaining a Laboratory Notebook” section of Bob Thompson’s Illustrated Guide to Home Chemistry Experiments. This section details everything you need to know to keep a laboratory notebook (and a Maker’s Notebook) to a professional standard.


Maintaining a Laboratory Notebook

A laboratory notebook is a contemporaneous, permanent primary record of the owner’s laboratory work. In real-world corporate and industrial chemistry labs, the lab notebook is often a critically important document, for both scientific and legal reasons. The outcome of zillion-dollar patent lawsuits often hinges on the quality, completeness, and credibility of a lab notebook. Many corporations have detailed procedures that must be followed in maintaining and archiving lab notebooks, and some go so far as to have the individual pages of researchers’ lab notebooks notarized and imaged on a daily or weekly basis.

If you’re just starting to learn about chemistry lab work, keeping a detailed lab notebook may seem to be overkill, but it’s not. Although this book provides tables for recording data and spaces for answering the questions it poses, that’s really for the convenience of hobbyist readers. If you’re using this book to prepare for college chemistry, and particularly if you plan to take the Advanced Placement (AP) Chemistry exam, you should keep a lab notebook. Even if you score a 5 on the AP Chemistry exam, many college and university chemistry departments will not offer you advanced placement unless you can show them a lab notebook that meets their standards.

Laboratory Notebook Guidelines
Use the following guidelines to maintain your laboratory notebook:

  • The notebook must be permanently bound. Looseleaf pages are unacceptable. Never tear a page out of the notebook.
  • Use permanent ink. Pencil or erasable ink is unacceptable. Erasures are anathema.
  • Before you use it, print your name and other contact information on the front of the notebook, as well as the volume number (if applicable) and the date you started using the notebook.
  • Number every page, odd and even, at the top outer corner, before you begin using the notebook.
  • Reserve the first few pages for a table of contents.
  • Begin a new page for each experiment.
  • Use only the righthand pages for recording information. The lefthand pages can be used for scratch paper. (If you are lefthanded, you may use the lefthand pages for recording information, but maintain consistency throughout.)
  • Record all observations as you make them. Do not trust your memory, even for a minute.
  • Print all information legibly, preferably in block letters. Do not write longhand.
  • If you make a mistake, draw one line through the erroneous information, leaving it readable. If it is not otherwise obvious, include a short note explaining the reason for the strikethrough. Date and initial the strikethrough.
  • Do not leave gaps or whitespace in the notebook. Cross out whitespace if leaving an open place in the notebook is unavoidable. That way, no one can go back in and fill in something that didn’t happen. When you complete an experiment, cross out the whitespace that remains at the bottom of the final page.
  • Incorporate computer-generated graphs, charts, printouts, photographs, and similar items by taping or pasting them into the notebook. Date and initial all add-ins.
  • Include only procedures that you personally perform and data that you personally observe. If you are working with a lab partner and taking shared responsibility for performing procedures and observing data, note that fact as well as describing who did what and when.
  • Remember that the ultimate goal of a laboratory notebook is to provide a permanent record of all the information necessary for someone else to reproduce your experiment and replicate your results. Leave nothing out. Even the smallest, apparently trivial, detail may make the difference.

Laboratory Notebook Format

Use the following general format for recording an experiment in your lab notebook:

The following information should be entered before you begin the laboratory session:

Enter the date at the top of the page. Use an unambiguous date format, such as 2 September 2008 or September 2, 2008 rather than 2/9/8 or 9/2/8. If the experiment runs more than one day, enter the starting date here and the new date in the procedure/data section at the time you actually begin work on that date.

Experiment title
If the experiment is from this or another laboratory manual, use the name from that manual and credit the manual appropriately. For example, “Quantitative Analysis of Chlorine Bleach by Redox Titration (Illustrated Guide to Home Chemistry Experiments, #20.2)”. If the experiment is your own, give it a descriptive title.

Write one or two sentences that describe the goal of the experiment. For example, “To determine the concentration of chlorine laundry bleach by redox titration using a starch-iodine indicator.”

Introduction (optional)
Any preliminary notes, comments, or other information may be entered in a paragraph or two here. For example, if you decided to do this experiment to learn more about something you discovered in another experiment, note that fact here.

Balanced equations
Write down balanced equations for all of the reactions involved in the experiment, including, if applicable, changes in oxidation state.

Chemical information

Important information about all chemicals used in the experiment, including, if appropriate, physical properties (melting/boiling points, density, etc.), a list of relevant hazards and safety measures from the MSDS (the Material Safety Data Sheet for the chemical), and any special disposal methods required. Include approximate quantities, both in grams and in moles, to give an idea of the scale of the experiment.

Planned procedure
A paragraph or two to describe the procedures you expect
to follow.

Main body
The following information should be entered as you actually do the experiment:

Record the procedure you use, step by step, as you actually perform the procedures. Note any departures from your planned procedure and the reasons for them.

Record all data and observations as you gather them, inline with your running procedural narrative. Pay attention to significant figures, and include information that speaks to accuracy and precision of the equipment and chemicals you use. For example, if one step involves adding hydrochloric acid to a reaction vessel, it makes a difference if you added 5 mL of 0.1 M hydrochloric acid from a 10 mL graduated cylinder or 5.00 mL of 0.1000 M hydrochloric acid from a 10 mL pipette.

If your setup is at all unusual, make a sketch of it here. It needn’t be fine art, nor does it need to illustrate common equipment or setups such as a beaker or a filtering setup. The goal is not to make an accurate representation of how the apparatus actually appears on your lab bench, but rather to make it clear how the various components relate to each other. Be sure to clearly label any relevant parts of the set up.

Include any calculations you make. If you run the same calculation repeatedly on different data sets, one example calculation suffices.

If appropriate, construct a table or tables to organize your data. Copy data from your original inline record to the table or tables.

If appropriate, construct a graph or graphs to present your data and show relationships between variables. Label the axes appropriately, include error bars if you know the error limits, and make sure that all of the data plotted in the graph are also available to the reader in tabular form. Hand-drawn graphs are preferable. If you use computer-generated graphs, make sure that they are labeled properly and tape or paste them into this section.

The following information should be entered after you complete the experiment:

Write a one- or two-paragraph summary of the results of the experiment.

Discuss, if possible quantitatively, the results you observed. Do your results confirm or refute the hypothesis? Record any thoughts you have that bear upon this experiment or possible related experiments you might perform to learn more. Suggest possible improvement to the experimental procedures or design.

Answer questions
If you’ve just completed a lab exercise from this or another book, answer all of the post-lab questions posed in the exercise. You can incorporate the questions by reference rather than writing them out again yourself.

In the Maker Shed:
Illustrated Guide to Home Chemistry Experiments
Our Price: $29.99
For students, DIY hobbyists, and science buffs who can no longer get real chemistry sets, this one-of-a-kind guide explains how to set up and use a home chemistry lab, with step-by-step instructions for conducting experiments in basic chemistry. Learn how to smelt copper, purify alcohol, synthesize rayon, test for drugs and poisons, and much more. The book includes lessons on how to equip your home lab, master laboratory skills, and work safely in your lab, along with 17 hands-on chapters detailing multiple laboratory sessions.


Maker’s Notebook

Our Price: $19.99
From the creators of MAKE magazine comes the Maker’s Notebook. Put your own ideas, diagrams, calculations, and notes down in these 150 pages of engineering graph paper. We’ve also included 20 bonus pages of reference material, from useful stuff like electronics symbols, resistor codes, weights and measures, basic conversions, to really useful stuff like the amount of caffeine in different caffeinated beverages and how to say “Hello, World!” in different computer languages! The covers of this hardcover book are printed in cyan “Maker” blue with a white grid debossed front and back. Grab one today!
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18 thoughts on “Home Chemistry excerpt: Keeping a Lab Notebook

  1. Stephen says:

    “Even if you score a 5 on the AP Chemistry exam, many college and university chemistry departments will not offer you advanced placement unless you can show them a lab notebook that meets their standards.”

    Although it’s a good explanation I feel it needs mentioned – people who want to take AP Chemistry (and maybe even then to work in the industry) don’t need to buy a custom designed lab notebook just to boost their applications.

    Keeping a neat, ordered, consistent lab book is all you need to be that cherry on top of a sparkling university application. It’s a great sign to be able to show that not only do you have the smarts you also have the dedication and focus to record your research properly. Having a good reporting style from before university reassures everyone who sees it that you won’t try to mumble through coffee stained notes that even you don’t understand anymore. That’s awful if your mysterious compound has just managed to cure a rat with cancer.

    It’s highly possible to use your own notebook – keep the same rules as Make gives you here but simply number it yourself, use consistent rules about storing data, new page for each task, don’t use it for writing about anything else and so on. It’s completely acceptable to do it that way and the prestigious university of your dreams won’t think any less of you for it.

    That said, actually setting up a lab book is an incredible amount of work and I’d think of this product as a labour saving device, you can either buy your own notebook and do the set up work yourself or you can take a shortcut, buy the Maker’s notebook and just get experimenting and learning. It’s not something that will actually help you get you into university though as only your own content and dedication will do that. It’s being able to show you can keep a methodical research log that’s impressive, and the standard that he talks about is not related to owning a preprinted lab quality notebook. I think that’s obvious and it’s not something that Make at all claim but I’d like to have it on record that a preprinted lab notebook is not a required part of a university application. If you want to save a lot of hassle and maybe have page numbering etc that looks a bit neater than you can manage with a pen then go for it but it’s not essential at all.

    Beyond that, awesome, it’s a really nice product, but maybe a little less useful if you happen to study law, sadly (I write in blank notebooks these days) and remember that the more notebooks Make sell the less they need to charge for the magazine :)

  2. Gareth Branwyn says:

    Good post, Stephen. Thanks.

    I wasn’t at all trying to imply that one needs a Maker’s Notebook for any of what I said in the intro, or what Bob talks about in his piece, just that it’s another one of the things we factored into the design. So if you want to use it for a lab or inventor’s notebook, it meets those requirements.

  3. Joe says:

    At Bell Labs, we were told to record any new, potentially patentable ideas or results in our notebooks and then show it to a colleague, who would sign and date the entry themselves along with the line “witnessed and understood.”

  4. Kosan says:

    > have to keep notebooks that meet certain legal standards.

    US legal standards that is. One day even the makers of Make will recognize that there is a world outside of the USA and following US legal standards don’t help you there.

    For the ones interested, read up on “first filed” vs. “first invented”.

  5. http://www.hhhh.org/wiml/ says:

    After reading about some research department encouraging its researchers to do more bloggy/webby types of communication, I’ve been wondering how many of the functions of a traditional lab notebook could be served by keeping a detailed lab blog. If you’re concerned about legally establishing precedence or priority I don’t know if it would be as good as a paper notebook, but for the purely scientific aspect of recording your work so you can see what you’ve done it might do pretty well. You could also easily attach photos of the setup, filesful of collected data, and so on.

    1. Bill says:

      I agree that a blog with videos of your work will provide ample support for your ideas, keep you organized, record date and time and save paper as well. If your lab were to burn down, you have your work protected on a server (that has a back-up) in cyberspace.

  6. Stephen says:


    Absolutely, I have never read a single comment that the Maker’s notebook is even intended for application polishing for people applying to higher education. I’m all for the Maker’s notebook and I really like the fact that it and products like it exist. I’ve numbered the pages of one or two jotters in my life and I was very conscious that my life was passing me by – it’s incredibly boring. That’s even before you think about the extra content in the pages, it’s a good idea.

    That said I’m pretty strongly against the people feeling that buying things will help their chances of getting into university. It’s a very stressful part of a young person’s life and a lot rests on it and extending that stress to materials too is an unnecessary addition. A professional looking application with good grades and extra touches will help anyone’s chances.

  7. garethb2 says:

    >That said I’m pretty strongly against the people
    >feeling that buying things will help their chances
    >of getting into university. It’s a very stressful
    >part of a young person’s life…

    Couldn’t agree with you more. Not to mention hugely expensive (speaking as a father who cuts checks for a son’s very expensive art-school education – don’t get me started on the cost of art books and art supplies!).

  8. SP says:

    I never had to show a lab book when I applied to colleges, but now that I’ve graduated and am working in a lab, I wish everyone was required to! It’s a serious job skill in science, but alas it doesn’t show on resumes – letters of recommendation, maybe.

    @Wim: as a lab rat, I like the idea of a lab blog.
    -SEARCHABLE ARCHIVES in a standard format
    -tags for different projects
    -embedding & linking to data/protocols instead of tossing emails
    -the ability to update posts
    -my boss getting updates by RSS instead of interrupting me…

    Data entry would be annoying (it would be an days-end ritual, complementing the paper lab book) but yes, I like it very much.

    It would be an inward-facing management tool though, very much firewalled, and it would probably have to be blessed by IT and some Dean or Chair or something.

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Gareth Branwyn is a freelance writer and the former Editorial Director of Maker Media. He is the author or editor of over a dozen books on technology, DIY, and geek culture. He is currently a contributor to Boing Boing, Wink Books, and Wink Fun. His free weekly-ish maker tips newsletter can be found at garstipsandtools.com.

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