Joseph Grinnell and Field Note Practices

 by Marybeth Shea

Overview: Let’s begin at the beginning. What does Joseph Grinnell say about taking field notes?  Read his 1912 article in The Condor (version hosted by JStor; you will need to log on through the campus library system). He notes that cards will not work, even though card systems work well for in-house collections. Grinnell writes about his system in rather spare prose that connects many highly detailed examples.  This screen capture (page 105) shows that he begins with a location description as a preface to animal and plant observations.

By 1912, Grinnell’s method was both his standard and that of the Museum of Vertebrate Zoology at the University of California Berkeley (MVZ) (Grinnell directed MVZ for many years.)  His field notes of around 1908 show these patterns but by 1912, Grinnell’s system was solid and began to shape field note practices in all areas of scientific field work.  Further, Grinnell saw how the artifacts of field notes should be integrated into the cataloging and archival work of museums. The mature Grinnell method that contains fiend and archival work has four components:

  1. a field notebook, which includes dated field observations while working to collect information;
  2. a field journal, which includes elements of the notebook but reflect post-field time to reflect, reorganize, plan, and make sense of field observations within the larger knowledge context of the researcher and the field;
  3. a species account, and
  4. a catalog of specimens.

MVZ still uses Grinnell’s approach in creating records for specimens within their collections, including a custom, three-hole punched paper stock: 8.75 x 6.5, Ultimate White 24# Strathmore Pure Cotton Wove, 100% Cotton, acid-free paper.[1]

Grinnell’s elements always include:

Location with map references, sketches if necessary, and the path taken during the field observation trek; he appears to have carried a compass and perhaps an altimeter.

Weather notes all conditions with focus on light quality and temperatures; he appears to have carried a thermometer)

Time noted throughout, especially if viewing a new species or interaction.

Abbreviations that make sense to him. Take away? Get clear on definitions and make a glossary until you are sure or if collaborating, agree on abbreviations and symbols.

Refer to the visual at the beginning of this guide, and now discussed here, are the sections of field notes from his field journal.  Grinnell divided his tasks and information into four aspects:

Field notes, made on the trek as they are being experienced by the naturalist.

Journal entries made in pen at the end of the day, from the field notes.

Species accounts, within the journal at the end of the field notes, with particular focus on specific species, and finally,

the Catalog, where details about collected artifacts are first written. Catalog work foreshadows the data needed to accompany specimens, particularly species but also other natural objects. Typically, you keep a catalog for each trek, numbering from 1.

A caution for current field work:  be careful as collecting objects is typically against state and federal land laws.  You will need a field collection permit.[2] 

We should note also that Grinnell and others often collected animals, plants, and rocks along with field work. These artifacts of collection -- including biological specimens -- are also part of field work and noted carefully in many components of these “best practices” of field note-taking. Grinnell eventually used photographs in his work[3].


In a recent article for the Smithsonian Magazine, Steven Lubar estimates how Grinnell’s notes and artifacts together form an incredibly rich data resource:

Grinnell’s California collection included not only 100,000 specimens but also 74,000 pages of field notes and 10,000 images. “These field notes and photographs are filed so as to be as readily accessible to the student as are the specimens themselves.”

Grinnell thought that this data might end up being more important than the specimens.

From Lubar’s August 2017 feature, an excerpt from his forthcoming book. Here, Lubar was likely referring to Grinnell’s 1910 prediction:

At this point I wish to emphasize what I believe will ultimately prove to be the greatest purpose of our museum. This value will not, however, be realized until the lapse of many years, possibly a century, assuming that our material is safely preserved. And this is that the student of the future will have access to the original record of faunal conditions in California and the west, wherever we now work. He will know the proportional constituency of our faunae by species, the relative numbers of each species and the extent of the ranges of species as they exist to-day.  

From Grinnell in Popular Science Monthly. (NEED CITE; LIBRARY OF CONGRESS)

Incidentally, Molly Glass wrote a two-part short story (part 1) called “The Grinnell Method” that appears in the online literary journal Strange Horizons.  Glass’s details reflect her naturalist experience. Read more about Glass on her website including this brief note about her short story featuring Grinnell’s approach.

Grinnell’s transects re-examined: Working with Grinnell’s notes, MVZ researchers and graduate students revisited seven of Grinnell’s early locations on his California transact work.  This work is worthy in so many ways, but also as a way to consider changes over time, including those due to regionalised climate change effects.

MVZ hosts this web exhibit of Nassim Bahat’s “Summer of Transcription” where he works from Grinnell’s notes to study the 1924-1929 Lassen transect work of Grinnell, family, and Jean  This Lassen transect is one of the geographical study areas that Steven Beissinger and others re- surveyed  (2006-2009) for the anniversary of MVZ and in celebration of founding director Joseph Grinnell’s foundational work in field biology.

The MVZ Final Report was submitted to NSF in July 2012, and can be downloaded here.  For a quick summary of key findings, look at the bottom of this MVZ page on publications.

Modern material/resources for following the Grinnell method


Rite in the Journal notebook (forestry supplier @$14.25) Also see Rite in the Rain site

Field Notes “Expedition” waterproof in grid format (I use this type: 3 for $12.95)

Waterproof loose leaf sheets, 7” by 4 5/8” (100 for $14.95) that require a waterproof 3-ring binder ($11.30) Note: formerly The Ben Meadows Company, now Forestry Suppliers.

From Mohawk, a paper supplier, this MVZ archival paper (You can request the custom size and the three hole punch.)

Digitization of field notes, emerging practices

App or Paper (blog by biologist at ABA)



Birdlog (retired), rising Phoenix-like as eBird

leafSnap (University of Maryland helped build this ap)

Resources and sources:  (how working biologists use the Grinnell system; some examples)

  1. Excellent 2012 8-page PDF summary of the Grinnell technique from Washington University in Saint Louis. Pennsylvania naturalist Donna Long’s pages include hot links and images.  If you only read one summary before you head out to work, Long’s would be that. Highly recommended. You will also see a variation on field notes that is very useful for casual naturalists: nature journaling.
  2. Duke University is archiving and studying Jane Goodall’s Gombe research notes.  You can request access to some portions of the digital archive.  More here at Duke News.
  3. A Scoop it curated set of articles on field note practices (science writing student project from 2013-2018, by Marybeth Shea’s students at the University of Maryland).

This guide was first written for a graduate course called “Classic Readings in Ecology,” Fall 2017, for K. Engelhardt of UMCES/Appalachian Research Laboratory at Frostburg State University.  The guide was adapted for use in science writings to think about genres within science, as well as document design that grew out of field note taking practices.

Additional sources

Lubar, S. (2017) Inside the Lost Museum published by Harvard University Press, November 2017 publication date)

Herman, S. (1986) The Naturalist's Field Journal: A Manual of Instruction Based on a System Established by Joseph Grinnell  Amazon sells used paperbacks starting at 1K. Yes, $1000.00

Canfield, M.R. (2011) Field Notes on Science and Nature. Harvard University Press.

[1] (2017) Personal communication by email: Christina Velazquez Fidler, Archivist, Museum of Vertebrate Zoology

3101 Valley Life Sciences Building

University of California

Berkeley, CA 94720-3160

TEL: (510) 642-3567

[2] At the time of Grinnell’s work, the work of scientists was not monitored in this way.  However, collecting eggs was becoming of concern because of hobbyists.  Bird eggs had been widely collected since Victorian times (2016 Atlantic Monthly) for cabinets of curiosity (A Brown University web exhibit with good bibliography).

[3] Grinnell took photographs, in a day when film developing was done by a laboratory and not returned for weeks. His notes also include film details about rolls and when sent to the film processor.