You want to keep some kind of a research journal, log, notepad, binder, or electronic file.
I am blessed with an excellent memory. In my work research and in my play research, I frequently find myself thinking, "I don't need to write this down. I'll remember it. I've spent six weeks up to my eyeballs in it, how could I forget it? It is burned into my neurons."
Six months later? I've totally forgotten it, need it again, and have to redo everything I did the first time because I didn't write it down. I vow to keep a better log book, and compulsively write down everything I do for two weeks. And then... "Well, all I did today was change some code. Am I going to write down every single change?"
Yes, Johnny. Clearly, I'm not going to write out the old "function_x" and the new "function_x" but I can note that I "changed function_x to take pointers-to-ints instead of ints."
Ahem. Back to the SCA.
Ideally, your log book is a record of all of your hard work. It does not have to be pretty, or even make sense to anyone except you. While it is your primary documentation, it is not the documentation you will submit to a competition or for publication in your A&S journals. It is the whole enchildada, all the dead-ends and fever dreams and plugging, plugging, plugging away at a problem until you hit upon the right combination of ideas and objects that solved it. It reflects your personal style and your "why" and "what," so there is no one true, Platonic form that it must take. In fact:
Form follows function. Scientists and engineers need to keep paper lab notebooks for legal purposes, but you are not thusly constrained. If your trusty laptop goes everywhere with you, an electronic document can serve as the place where you jot down your work. If your are a photocopy queen (or king), a three-ring binder might be the ticket.
You can use several repositories, if you like. Maybe you maintain an HTML document to record all the useful Internet links you've found (or a folder on your computer to save the pages, in case they disappear!), a binder with photocopied documents, and a notepad that lives in your workshop. But the idea is to be able to find the information later, so try not to have too many places to look for it.
Write now. The day you do the work is the day you should make a note of it. Things you may include in an entry:
- The date.
- The place, if it is noteworthy.
- The full bibliographic information of a book or article you are reading and its library call number (so you can find it again later)
- A short summary of the book or article, and/or your opinion of its worth
- Particularly relevant quotes from the book or article. Note their page numbers.
- Useful search terms that you used in a library catalog or Internet search
- Things you want to remember that came up in a conversation that you had
- Contact information of other researchers
- Information on retailers that sell your supplies
- Problems you have encountered in your work
- Your thoughts on different ways to solve the problems
- Records of what worked and what didn't work
- Inspirations and ideas that pop up unexpectedly
- Your lists of subgoals and their due dates
- Length of time of practice sessions
- Material covered in practice session
- Record of experience at a competition
Index it. This helps you find things. If you are using an all-electronic format, you may be able to use a "Find" utility to locate references within your document. If you are working on paper, you will need a different way to organize things. Some ideas:
Chronologically: This is how I maintain my work log. In the front of my notebook, I leave some blank pages. Every few days, I look back and see what I did, and then update the index with the dates, topics, and page numbers. It looks something like:
8/26/07 - 9/06/07....... Reading papers on Topic X ...... 113 - 125
On pages 113 - 125 are a list of all the papers that I read on Topic X, their citation information, and their summaries. I don't need to list them all individually in the index.
Topically: I believe this is gkaczn's preferred method. This is your regular book index style, where you make a list of topics and note on which pages there is information on those topics. Leave yourself room to add new topics! This would look like:
--- Topic X, 113 - 125
--- Topic Y, 90 - 92
Physically: You can use binder dividers or other techniques to physically segregate your notes. Paper reviews go in the orange folder, A&S judges' feedback goes in the green folder, photocopies of primary sources go in the red folder, and so on. Be sure you have some method for sorting for the inevitable filing system-breakers, the notes or records that don't easily fit into an existing folder.
Electronically: Like physically, only everything is on your computer. There are many project management software packages out there that you can use, or you can just make storage folders for your electronic documents, downloaded PDFs, and scanned images.
Even quick-n-dirty research can benefit from a log. As I am writing this, I am thinking of several interesting and useful websites I saw a few weeks ago about braids. Did I write down their URLs? No, because surely I will remember that I saw them by following luscious_purple's post to janinas_nest and she linked to... um... well, it was before Pennsic and she was writing about her Bayeux pouch... I could probably find that post again... and then I think that page linked to the one I'm thinking of... maybe.
Wouldn't this be much simpler if I had written down the URL? Even though I am not a string diva, and even though I don't have a textile arts project currently active, this information fit exactly into my "why" and "what" for braiding and cording. It was worth making a note of, and I should have done that.
Don't be like Teleri! Keep your logs up to date!