Note Taking – Yesterday & Today

Skilled note taking is a critical skill for the Investigator. A client reminded me of this when he described a meeting with a Crown Prosecutor. The case in question resulted from an investigation that was conducted two years ago. The Crown went over his report and notes with a fine tooth comb in preparation for the trial.

Note taking has a long history. I see it in the margins of books, in notebooks, and this blog is a form of note taking for me. I’m in the process of writing a book and that entails a different form of note taking.

I found an New York Times article about 250 academics and civilians gathered at Harvard for a more self-conscious exercise: a chance to take notes on note-taking.

The article mentions the “Anxiety over the potential mindlessness of note-taking took on particular urgency during the digital annotation session, at which panelists debated whether the Internet and social media had ushered in a golden age of notes or doomed us to watch all our fleeting thoughts — if not our brains themselves — sucked down a giant digital drain, beyond the reach of future historians.” This is of particular interest to the Investigator.

The Investigator still needs to create clear paper-based notes to avoid having his work “sucked down a giant digital drain, beyond the reach of clients, prosecutors, and defense council.

18th Century PDA

If Moleskines are a throwback to a time before PDA’s, then 18th century version of the PDA is the pocket notebook  made of sturdy brass stock with 4 old ivory pages and a pencil can be written on with pencil, smudged off with your finger, and used over and over again. It closes into a 1-1/8 inches by 4-1/2 inches by 3/16 inch thick package. It seems like an 18th century version of the Magic Slate.

Three Dimensions of Note-taking

I have written previously on taking notes using audio, images, and handwritten notes.  Quite a while back I wrote about video notes using a simple camcorder called the FlipUltra.

Kodak Zi8

Now the Kodak Zi8 seems like a  better pocket-sized point-and-shoot video camera.  The digital image stabilization provides better video than the Flip. It has some hardware and software advantages over the Flip. It needs SD or SDHC memory cards which I see as an advantage even if it makes the Zi8 cost more.

Three Dimensions of Note-taking

I have written previously on taking notes using audio, images, and handwritten notes. Now I am contemplating taking video notes using a simple camcorder called the FlipUltra. This seems like a briefcase-friendly device for this purpose. The problem with the alternatives is the size and weight of the device.  This simple plug-and-play device is good for conducting interviews, taking street scenes, and other recordings that use-up less than 60 minutes of recording time. Using the FlipUltra should be a lot easier and give better results than using my point-and-shoot Lumix camera and of course, longer recording time.

Open Channel D

The Pen Communicator from the Man from U.N.C.L.E. TV series would connect agents Napoleon Solo and Illya Kuryakin with U.N.C.L.E. headquarters in New York City if they said the phrase “Open Channel D”.  It also included amnesia inducer and electronic scanner functions.

Now we have the Pulse smartpen that records conversations and indexes them to what you write using special notebook paper. It doesn’t take much imagination to think of ways one might use this during investigations.

The Commonplace Blog

The Commonplace Book is a written scrapbook filled with things one learns, but doesn’t want to forget.

The name, commonplace, is a translation of the Latin term, locus communis, which means argument or theme for general application. The theme of my Commonplace Book is the concepts and facts that I have learned and the books I have read.

The Confidential Resource is a modern analog for a Commonplace Book with the theme of Sources & Methods for the Investigator.

Moleskine & Customer Service

A few weeks ago I sent Moleskine a picture of a small defect in a large notebook. It’s still usable, but the cover material was not properly affixed.

Today, I received a replacement notebook mailed from Italy. A lot of companies could learn from this simple form of customer service. This company understands that while building their brand is important, building a relationship with the customers is more important.

Indexing a Moleskine

I use a lot of the large squared Moleskine notebooks. Sometimes I need to mark sections of the book for easy reference. Those little half grid-squares at the outside edge of the page are ready made for the purpose.

I use my razor sharp pocket knife and cut a few of the partial grid-squares away on the edge of 4 or 5 pages to mark the start of a section. I usually make this inverted tab about 4 or 5 grid-squares long and use a Pilot Hi-Tec-C to label it. If I don’t need to label the inverted tab, then I just use a single hole punch to make the inverted tab.

For less permanent markers I use book darts.

Waterproof Paper

My notebook is in a ziplock bag, my small digital camera is in a small Pelican case, I’m soaking wet, but my directions to this place are waterproof.

MicroGlaze is effective for protecting most paper surfaces. Just rub a tiny dab on any paper surface and spread it very thinly over the area to be protected (a small make-up sponge seems to be the best applicator). The area is now water resistant and will resist dirt, stains, spills, and smears. MicroGlaze is unobtrusive and is hard to detect on a paper surface.

Of course I always rub a piece of paraffin wax over the address labels printed on the inkjet printer to prevent them from running if they get wet. I have gotten so used to doing this I now do it on all outgoing mail by habit.

Waterproof notebooks are specialty items that I once needed and today you can even get waterproof copier paper. To write on these waterproof papers, you may find that only the Fisher Space Pen works.

Paper Versus Binding & Ink Versus Paper


I read an article by Craig Courtice in the National Post entitled The Cult of the Moleskine and it got me a thinkin’. What makes a good notebook? Certainly not stories about famous people using it. A notebook is paper, binding, and a cover.

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