The Search for a Digital Lab Notebook

This post details my search for a digital lab notebook to replace my current system of "analog" notebooks, and why I don't think there is a good solution for this, yet. With the exception of a bunch of 'best practice' rules to protect any future patents / IP you may create, lab notebooks really haven't changed since... well... whenever somebody first started writing down their ideas in a notebook.

The Analog Notebook

I started keeping a lab notebook shortly after becoming a grad student and realizing I really needed to be writing down just about everything I thought of or designed, all of the meetings I attended and what went on in them, and just about anything else you might keep in a technical journal.

I started out with a small Moleskine gridded notebook, and liked it enough that I bought several more over the next few years. I liked these notebooks quite a bit because they were:

  1. Gridded (I consider this mandatory for engineering drawings)
  2. Small / portable (something I wanted at the time)
  3. Soft-cover (easier to lay-flat, in my experience)

Here's a picture from one of my early notebooks:

Old Notebook

There are some obvious downsides to the analog notebooks. One of the biggest, in my opinion, is search. The ability to search your previous notes for keywords, subjects, look through specific date ranges, etc., would be very useful.

I tried to make this easier with my notebooks by meticulously keeping a table of contents & indices. Each time I made an entry, I would add it to the table of contents, and add the page number of that entry to some applicable keywords in a hand-written index. Obviously not ideal, but it was suitable at the time.

I continued using that particular model of Moleskine notebook when I joined Ettus Research, but as my writings and collection of notebooks grew, it became unmaintainable. My system of contents and indices doesn't work across different notebooks, and it really was taking just far too long to keep track of all of it. The additional overhead with each entry was more obnoxious than it was useful.

The complete lack of the ability to search my notes finally drove me to try and figure out a digital option.

Lab Notebook Features / Requirements

For all of the analog notebook's flaws, it does have one huge incredibly important aspect that is hard to beat in the digital world:

It is extremely easy to draw free-form diagrams, schematics, art, etc., as
you are thinking through something.

Since one of the primary uses of a lab notebook is drawing out diagrams and ideas as you are working through something, that is obviously a fairly critical factor. Unfortunately, digital notebooks just can't match the ease-of-use in this category, yet. The best solution is something like a Wacom pad or a tablet with an e-pen and decent drawing software.

Other than that, though, a digital notebook, if designed properly, could bring
a lot to the table.

  1. Size: Obviously, a thumbdrive is smaller than 500 lab notebooks.
  2. Format / Ease-of-Sharing: Everything is easier to share when it's digital.
  3. Searchability
  4. Organization: You could easily get Wiki-like organization, linking note pages
    to each other as you wanted.
  5. Formatting: If you had something like
    Markdown formatting, you could not
    only easily format your notes, but even include syntax-highlighted code
    snippets, images, or even embed videos into your notes.
  6. Cross-linking to other resources: I buy some technical texts as e-books, now,
    for example - it would be very cool to be able to cross-link into other
    resources and references that aren't in your lab notebook.
  7. Accessibility: Stored "IN THE CLOUD", you could access it anywhere.
  8. Security: Some people think Da Vinci wrote backwards to thwart thieves. A digital notebook could be entirely encrypted.

My Attempt at a Digital Lab Notebook

I decided to try and find something that would suit me. Unfortunately, a "Digital Lab Notebook" program just doesn't exist, yet - at least not that I could find. I asked a number of my colleagues if they had any mode of digital notebook, and most of them said they would love to find something, but all still used bound paper notebooks.

Since I had started keeping a lab notebook, though, Evernote had become popular. I had actually gotten a free year of Evernote premium as a "Thank You" for donating to my local NPR station, so I registered and honestly tried to use it as a lab notebook for several months.

Unfortunately, things haven't gone well, and I'm calling it quits. Not on Evernote, entirely - it is definitely good for some things - just on trying to use it as a lab notebook.

My issues with it are:

  1. The editor is horrible. It feels like writing in MS Word. Imagine trying to work through a new idea in MS Word. The formatting is awful, it does things you don't want it to do because it thinks it knows what you want, it doesn't have any support for making / drawing tables (which I consider critical for a lab notebook), etc., - it really just isn't designed for the purpose.
  2. There isn't any support for hand-drawing diagrams unless you own an iPad and use Penultimate. I don't have an iPad, and wasn't going to buy one for something that might not work out, so this was a no-go.
  3. Because of #1 & #2, the only way to really get diagrams, charts, and tables into your notebook is to draw them on paper or a whiteboard, take a picture, and then put the picture in Evernote. The Evernote team has actually done a really great job of trying to make this as easy and straight-forward as possible. Evernote even has OCR capability for parsing text in your images. The problem is that it's just -not as good-. It feels like I am trying to force a use case on to the software that just doesn't fit.

I've decided Evernote is a great tool for keeping meeting notes and other things, but it's just not ready for this application, yet. After my experience with Evernote, I don't think that anything short of an application designed specifically for the purpose will do the job well.

So, What's Next?

I've decided to go back to analog notebooks until a better solution comes along. I just ordered a VELA Series-A Lab Notebook (I've since decided that if I'm going to do paper notebooks, I prefer big & hardcover), and I'm eager to give it a go when it arrives tomorrow.

I'm hopeful that someone else will identify the need for good digital lab notebook software, but I don't see it as very likely. It is, after all, a rather specific and somewhat pedantic itch to scratch. The hardest part, by far, is implementing free-hand-draw in a way that is as immediately useful as simply drawing on paper. I'm going to keep mulling over it. I am also in the process of learning Javascript and Ruby (I finally decided to invest time in learning how to make proper web applications) - trying to develop something like this might be a cool project to hack on once I get through my initial example / tutorial programs.

Anyway, if you have any ideas, thoughts, or suggestions, please let me know!

Ben Hilburn

Ben Hilburn

bits, nibbles, bytes, and words
D.C. Metro Area