Maintaining a Laboratory Notebook

Maintaining a Laboratory Notebook

Collin Purrington offers some great tips on the necessity of maintaining a laboratory notebook. While directed mainly at scientists, I could see it applying to anyone interested in Open Source Hardware development or simply working on difficult, long-term projects. [Via @cenmag]

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MAKE_sci_GEN_190px.gifA 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.


The Maker’s Notebook, published by Make: Books has been designed to meet the requirements for laboratory use and is available in the Maker Shed.


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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

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