(Portions of this text were contributed by Philippe Guyot-Sionnest.)

What is a lab notebook?

The notebook should be a record of what you did in the lab. It's main purpose is as a permanent reference that will help you (and potentially others) to understand how an experiment was run and what was observed. It will be critical if you write up a report or return to continue the experiment at a later date.

A proper lab notebook should include (but is not limited to) the following:

  • a summary of the physics questions being probed;
  • descriptions of procedures and apparatus used (including sketches when appropriate);
  • details of instrument settings (e.g. high voltage and gain settings, switch positions, and software settings);  
  • sketches of scope traces and pulses observed (to scale and with units);
  • qualitative observations and quantitative measurements (with uncertainty estimates and units);
  • reference to and description of all electronic files saved;
  • notes on problems encountered (and solutions devised, if applicable);
  • initial reactions to or discussion about results (when possible);
  • preliminary calculations or plots; and
  • notes about analysis to be done later.

Instructors (TAs, staff or faculty) will check the notebook.

You should select a solid bound notebook, quadrille-ruled, with pre-numbered pages with or without tear-out duplicate pages. Pads of tear-out graph paper or spiral bound notebooks are too flimsy and not acceptable. It is safest to select something that is clearly labeled as a laboratory notebook. Good and bad examples are shown in Fig. 1.

Three examples of GOOD lab notebooks: bound, permanent, prenumbered pages. Anything like the examples shown will work fine. Three examples of BAD lab notebooks: loose, non-permanent, non-numbered. These should be avoided.

Digital Notebooks

A digital notebook is allowed ONLY if it can be made as complete and permanent as a hard-bound notebook. This means your notebook must include the ability to make sketches and should have a “history” feature that tracks changes and stores a permanent record of everything done in the file.

Students wishing to keep a digital notebook must get permission prior to starting the lab. There is a very high threshold for allowing digital notebooks!

Keeping a notebook

On the front of the notebook (or inside the cover), write your name, email and phone number, so that it can be returned to you in case you misplace it. Your notebook should be dedicated just to work done in the physics instructional laboratories. Do not mix class notes or notes from a research lab in with your experimental course notes.

Every day that you use your lab notebook, write the date, the name of any partner(s) present and the name of the experiment you are working on. Write legibly and organize your notes as carefully as you can. (The second part comes through practice; initially your notebook may appear more stream-of-consciousness and hap-hazard than you'd like, but this will improve over time.) Again, a lab notebook is a permanent record of the work done, so it should be thorough and complete. In addition to raw data, it should include details such as apparatus settings (e.g. applied voltages, PHA gain settings, or wiring diagrams) and comments. All measured quantities should include uncertainties and units. All results should have accompanying comments.

Although not relevant in these instructional lab classes, notebooks in a research laboratory have legal value and there are rules to keeping them. Consider the following guidelines as you complete your own notebook:

  • It must be impossible to tear out a page without leaving evidence.
  • If you make a mistake, put a line through the mistake and write the new information next to it.
  • Never erase or obliterate an entry.
  • When you finish a page, put a corner-to corner line through any blank parts that could still be used for data entry.
  • Every bit of every page must be legible and filled, either with information or with a mark that voids the section.

The gold standard is to ask oneself, “Could I understand my work and recreate this experiment (or write the lab report) one year from now using only the lab manual and lab notebook?” If the answer is “no,” then more detail is needed. The lab manual for some experiments are meant to draw attention to some particular issues. When performing an experiment to address this issue, summarize this issue in writing in the notebook so that you can look back at that page and understand why you were doing that measurement or analysis. 

Storing digital files

When storing files, chose a naming scheme and stick to it. You may use whatever naming convention you like, but here is an example. The file name “gsa001aa” would be a file of someone with initials “GS”, referenced in notebook “a” on page “001”. The first file on that page is named “aa”, the next is “ab”, and so on.

The details of the file in relation to the experiment should all be written in the notebook. It is not sufficient to say, for example, “data saved in Excel”. Instead, indicate the conditions under which the data was taken, and detail the structure of the file – e.g. “a table of data with columns corresponding to X, Y, Z and dZ”. You do not need to (and in fact should not) print out files and append them to your notebook.


A full example notebook is available here:


Let's look specifically at a few example snippets.

Example 1

  • Begins with a title and date
  • Sketch of the apparatus and notes about important properties of the device

Example 2

  • Careful (to-scale) sketches of oscilloscope traces
  • Notes on amplitude, width, timing, etc.

Example 3

  • Sketch of PHA spectrum features
  • Notes on apparatus settings
  • Clean table of data

Example 4

  • Confusing data leads to some “back-of-the-envelope” calculations to figure out what's going on

Example 5

  • Fits were done in software, and are printed and taped into the notebook
  • Comments and calculations appear on the sidebar