Field Notes are going to be highly personal, as you will be the only one using them, so make sure they’re useful for you. Below are several examples for different situations, including initial observations and post-interview fieldnotes. Graham’s examples have a folklore focus, while Griggs’s are interested in the history, so note differences accordingly.
Note that your field notes are for your understanding. As in the example below, some of the information may not be completely correct and need further investigation. Having it down for yourself to improve on and remember later is extremely vital. Don’t be afraid to be wrong if you are trying to capture your impressions at the time, as long as you can recognize your thoughts vs. facts when you read it later.
Example 1: Reviewing an interview
July 29, 2018: Haden Griggs’s interview with Anya Romanova
Interesting interview today. My background definitely influenced the results. I’ve known Mrs. Romanova for years, as my mother and she are old friends (not to mention my old babysitter). I arrived a few minutes early, but she was ready for me. Anya (strange to think of her that way), is sixty-two this year, and has lived in the West Valley area for twenty-one years now, having emigrated from Saratov, Russia, in 1997. I hadn’t seen her for a few years, and was actually initially nervous about an interview, but mom said she was excited when she asked her.
I arrived alone. I’d considered inviting mom, but she was busy today, and I think the interview would have actually been much harder had she come as I would have been caught between two friends with shared history and been left to try to interrupt and get things on track.
I was given a full Soviet emigre welcome, Anya had Salad Olivier on the table and chamomile tea already brewing when I arrived. There were some miscommunications, I think, about the purpose of the interview. My mom being a Soviet emigre worked both for and against me. I was able to ask about things that mom had mentioned and Anya lit up and was quick to comment on those things. The digital recorder, however, made her rather reticent on other topics, especially ones in terms of living under the USSR’s government. Several times, I got a halting response, followed by “Well, I’m sure your mama can tell you all about that.” When I pressed that I was interested in her experience, she usually changed the subject or said she couldn’t remember. She also seemed to be surprised with what I was unfamiliar with, Soviet daycare standards for example, or that canned peas were a delicacy (explains some of my own childhood vegetable experiences, ugh). She was also disappointed with my relatively weak Russian. She was proud as I praised her salad though, and I tried to emphasize the parts of my heritage that I have held onto better than the Russian language.
The most useful part of the interview was, surprisingly, after the interview. The moment the recorder was off, she asked if I wanted to see a family photo album. This is where the history really came out. She talked about her father’s service in World War II, her Mother’s university contributions as a math professor, and her own childhood with her five brothers. She also discussed raising her own children and their experiences while adjsuting to the US. It was disappointing in a way that I didn’t get it recorded, but I did get a good sense of Anya’s experiences. Her connection to her homeland, even though she had felt a need to leave. Both nostalgia and bitterness towards the Soviet Union (something that came through in Dimtri’s interview as well, not to mention what I heard all the time growing up). A worry about a loss of continuity of tradition and the toll of American life on her children and other children of emigrees (like I saw with me during the interview), and how she felt her husband had never been happy in the US. It was a complex picture, one that won’t really come through on the tape, and one I can’t ethically insert into the transcript. Still, I think knowing it and seeing it will help me frame my research better. I don’t think she would have shown her photos so readily to a stranger, so I think our shared background really helped her open up here, especially when I showed interest and didn’t try to get the recorder out again. She allowed me to take photos of some of the photographs she showed, which should complement the oral history project well. I wonder if there’s a way I can approach future interviews to overcome hesitations about being recorded. I’m not sure, and I’ll have to think about that.
Example 2: Participation and Observation
October 4, 2019
Tonight did not go at all according to plan. I showed up on time to the Quranic graduation, and had a promising start. Imam Sha’rawi greeted me warmly, and I sat down in a chair next to a man named Siad. We talked. He was kind, very talkative, once he established that I wasn’t an immigration agent. He told me I still have time to convert, and was keen to teach me.
Marwan, my community contact, did not make it. He texted me right before the 9:00 prayer to say sorry. I sat through two hours of talks in Somali and English, and learned some things. Namely: Where I would generally expect applause, instead, the Imam would say “Takbyr” and the audience would reply with “allahu akbar.” Sheikh and Imam seem to be used interchangeably here. Prayer overflow allows for women to be in the men’s section here when there is no room.
I feel like, more than anything else, the night helped me understand what it is like to be an immigrant. That’s a heavy statement, I don’t, obviously, really understand what it is like. But I got a taste of it today. I was surrounded by hundreds of people with a shared culture, religion, and language. They were nice to me, but didn’t engage with me too much. The one who was most talkative was the one inviting me to assimilate. I sat while others did religious rituals, feeling like an outsider for not participating, but also felt the need be honest that my intentions are not to convert. I was served food I’d never had, tried to eat in ways that wouldn’t offend but that were difficult, had to ask what was in my cup to make sure it wasn’t tea or coffee. I listened to a language that I wanted to understand, but couldn’t. I was invited to participate in prayer that I was too shy to do. I was the only white person present. It was an alienating experience. But it was instructive. It’s especially interesting to be surrounded by people who you know are good people, but not being able to fully bridge the gap. I imagine the people I work with go through many of the same experiences in terms of language, belonging, food, religion, and feeling like they stand out in Utah.
I spoke during dinner with a man sitting next to me. He was reading the Quran and eating at the same time, over it. Didn’t know you could do that, as the copy of the Quran I have instructs to avoid doing certain activities while reading it. He was polite and engaged with me. I spoke to a previous interviewee, Hussain, who didn’t want to talk much, although it was his son who had memorized the Quran and whose graduation it was. I also spoke with Yakob, who gave me Somali sweets, and shed some more light on the night’s proceedings. Apparently, most Somali children memorize the Quran by the time they are fourteen or fifteen, in Somalia, anyway. He said it is far more difficult here because school doesn’t emphasize the Quran, and the local Muslim-run academy only goes up to elementary or middle school (I think they complete middle school, but not sure on that).
The speeches had a theme. Granted, the audience was the youth, but the emphasis was (from the speeches I could understand), about the importance of maintaining and following, treasuring the Quran. It matches what Marwan told me the other day, about if you don’t have the Quran in your mind, then you’ll be open to anything. Imam Sha’rawi’s speech at the end was about the importance of raising the children in the faith, and how dangerous/sad it was to see children who had lost theirs. I imagine that’s a major concern in a transplanted community like this one.
The children are the least nervous around me, it seems. I have small children sit next to me, wave, ask why I’m not praying, how I am, etc. A couple of high school kids were hanging around my car, literally sitting on my back bumper. I was stuck in the parking lot, and couldn’t get out, so I sat and eavesdropped. It was interesting to hear oath’s in Arabic being mixed with talking about high school and calling each other the N-word. It must be difficult for the parents to want to keep their culture, but kids who want to assimilate. Obviously, it isn’t impossible to do both, but you are straddling both words.
I met a man named Mekail (I think) from Nigeria. He was friendly. I decided to ask him about participating in prayer, if it was permissible. He was excited to invite me inside. I started, but I was too afraid to participate, so I told him maybe in the future. I’m not sure how I feel about it, honestly. It’s beautiful to see, and I like the feeling, but I feel insincere praying with them when it doesn’t mean the same thing to me, and I want to respect the sacredness it is to them. I know that we say we worship the same God, but our understandings are very different? Anyway, for a night with few contacts, I did learn a lot. Especially how much I don’t know.
These examples courtesy of Andrea Graham have a folklore emphasis, as you can pick up with Andrea’s emphasis on craft and production. Remember, create field notes that will be useful to you and your project.
Example 3: South Central Idaho Survey (for Idaho Commission on the Arts)
Wednesday, August 23, 2006
I left Twin Falls a little after 9 for my appointment at 10 with Roy Abo west of Paul. As usual I got there early, so I drove the few more miles into Paul, drove around town, and turned back around. Roy lives on a farm west of town in a little brick house with lots of equipment around, and lots of stuff inside. Someone else was there knocking around but I never saw them—it may be one of his sons, or maybe a grandson. He has stuff stacked in piles, stacked on kitchen counters and tables, stacked on bookcases, art and photos on the walls. He’s a friendly fellow, 80 years old and very energetic. He was born and raised in the area and grew up a little south and east of Rupert. His parents came from Japan and left their two oldest daughters there. They apparently came first to California, where several more children were born, and then moved to Idaho after the Minidoka Dam made farming viable. He has a sister in Burley who is in her 90s, and four brothers, all in their 80s and 90s, and he is the youngest. He says there were quite a few Japanese families in the area, and even during WWII they were not moved to the camps because they were “local” and people knew them, and most people were friendly and accepting. He had been his class president freshman and sophomore years of high school, and in 1943 he was elected senior class president. However, someone in the community objected, so the principal came out to meet with his family, and he decided to resign so as not to cause any trouble. He doesn’t seem bitter about it. His wife was raised in Rexburg, and her school principal refused to promote her to the next grade because he didn’t like the Japanese, so she transferred to another school. During the war the Japanese were required to turn in their firearms and short wave radios, but the local sheriff returned the radios after the war was over.
One of Roy’s brothers, who lives in Colorado, had been making paper umbrellas and lanterns, and Roy asked him to teach him when he knew he was about to retire from farming and would have time on his hands. He started making them when he was 65 and is now 80. He has printed instructions, which he gave me a copy of, and also the patterns for cutting out the pieces. His brother sent him cardboard patterns, but he likes to use old plastic credit cards because they hold up better. He uses barber scissors because they are sharp and hold an edge. He started using paper placemats from the Idaho Dairy Association that he saw at the senior center, and which were being thrown away after one use; he asked them to save the good ones for him, and he has stacks of several different designs. He looks for a place in the design that has several different colors in rows that will make a good pattern. He folds a crease then clips the pattern on the fold and cuts each one out one at a time. There are spots marked on the pattern that he pokes with a pin; they indicate places to fold or cut. There is a series of short lines marked on the pattern, about an eighth of an inch apart, or maybe slightly less. He picks a distinctive spot in the design on the paper and moves each successive piece one mark along in alignment with that spot, which creates the design on the umbrella. The umbrellas take 72 pieces, and the pattern repeats six times, so it looks like a six-petaled flower or six-pointed star. The pieces are strung on very thin wire, size 29 or 30, which is pulled tight to make a circle. He then inserts a bamboo chopstick into the middle for the handle, and Asian toothpicks into the end of each folded piece of paper, which are glued in. The toothpicks have a carved end, and he has to go to Asian stores in Salt Lake or Ontario, Oregon (which apparently has a large Japanese population because of the good farming) to get them. He then wraps silver or gold thread around the ends of the toothpicks all the way around the edge of the umbrella. He puts pompons on the end of thin metallic cord to tie to the top of the umbrella.
He also makes paper lanterns. Their tops are very similar to the umbrellas, but they don’t get toothpick spikes. There is a center section, which has cutouts spaced around it for windows, then a base section which has four legs. They are also strung on wire and glued to a chopstick in the center. His wife figured out how to make the lanterns; she died about 8 years ago. The lanterns don’t cost anything because he finds the paper, a Chinese restaurant saves the bamboo chopsticks for him, and he trades finished lanterns for valve caps that he paints and puts on the tops of the lanterns. The umbrellas cost more because he has to buy the toothpicks, metallic thread and cord, and the pompons. He says he’s never made any money on them and mostly gives them away. He keeps track of exactly how many he makes, from what paper, and if he likes it or not. He also keeps track of who he gives them to, and when he gave me one of each he wrote down their colors and the paper they’d been made from. He has given away over 800 umbrellas and over 300 lanterns. The umbrella I got is from a Sea-Doo advertising brochure, and the lantern from one of the dairy association placemats. He likes to use shiny paper best, and has gathered out-of-date car and truck brochures from dealers; you need a lot of each image, so just magazines won’t work unless you have 72 copies of the same issue. He says he’s learned to see good rows of colors in pictures that will work well. He has saved a number of the brochures with the pieces cut out so he can make more if he ever gets more of the same publication.
He says it takes about 8 hours altogether to make a lantern, but he usually works in short spurts, while relaxing or watching TV. He has a recliner and all his materials at hand in his living room. It’s a slow process since each piece is cut and folded individually, and each one has to have the pattern shifted slightly. He got started when his brother brought some as gifts when he came to visit. The brother studied commercial art at the University of Idaho and has always had an artistic bent, even though he ran a service station to make a living. Roy also has little fish mobiles made out of ribbons, flowers made of six-pack holder plastic, pleated paper butterflies, and origami birds and flowers that his brother has made all over the house.
After high school Roy was drafted for WWII but had a bad knee that kept him out. However he was drafted for the Korean War, and was sent for electronics school. After he came home and was farming, he went to an electronics school in Salt Lake for four winters and became a TV repairman, which he did as a side business for about 15 years until they stopped using tubes in TVs. He farmed sugar beets, potatoes, grain, some hay, and I think had some cattle. He now has several gardens and gave me a bunch of Japanese cucumbers, squash and zucchini to take home. He also has tomatoes, cantaloupes, watermelons, and Japanese potatoes, which are long and thin and are eaten raw (maybe they are daikon?). When I left he also pointed out his peach and pear trees and some strawberries. He would be great for a demonstration or to sell at a craft show or fair.
When I left I headed out toward Hagerman, drove down the road by the Malad River for awhile, had lunch at the Snake River Grill, and checked out the Hagerman Historical Society Museum, which is in a nice old bank building. The highlights were a wedding dress made of an old WWII parachute and the interior accoutrements of a proving-up cabin arranged inside the old safe. There was also a Hagerman horse skeleton, the town’s claim to fame. And an interesting drawing of a siphon system a local farmer developed to get water from a spring in the side of the canyon up to his fields on top. He directed the spring water into a pipe which ran all the way down to the bottom of the canyon, was in some kind of holding tank, and somehow the air bubbles or something created pressure to push it back up past the elevation of the spring and up to the top of the rim where he could use it. I obviously don’t understand it, but it was pretty clever.
Driving back to Buhl on the Thousand Springs Scenic Byway I saw several farm produce stands, a sign offering bunnies and meat rabbits for sale (I guess they are two different things), people cutting hay, and big new houses being built along the river and canyon. I swung by Scott Horton’s welding shop, but he (or someone) was very busy loading metal onto a trailer so I didn’t stop. Stopped in at La Plaza, the Mexican restaurant I went to with Kelly last week, to get information on where the owner is from. She apologized for not getting me information on craft artists and said she was still working on it. She is from Aguascalientes in central Mexico and said her food is “from the country.” She says other restaurants adapt their food for what they think is American taste, not too hot, but she cooks the traditional food from her region. She says she knows she took a chance by serving something different, but it has been successful. The address of the restaurant in 1206 Main Street.
Then on to the senior center for the weekly spudnut making, which was bustling with activity back in the kitchen when I walked in. There were about 10 or 12 folks there frying spudnuts and spudnut holes and packaging the finished products in paper bags for people’s orders. I found the woman I’d talked to yesterday in the thrift shop and reminded her what I was doing, and she explained the whole process. They mix up four big batches of dough in a commercial mixer; the woman apparently in charge said not to give me the recipe (I didn’t ask for it, just the ingredients) but it has eggs, sugar, flour, potatoes, milk, yeast and oil. Sometimes they use potato flakes and sometimes leftover mashed potatoes from the senior center. The dough is allowed to rise, then rolled out and cut into doughnuts and holes (about 125 doughnuts per batch) which are allowed to rise again. Then they are deep fried in electric skillets, cooled slightly, and dipped in glaze, which is made from powdered sugar and water, and strung on dowels to cool. They get orders for about 30 dozen, which are counted out into brown paper bags with the customer’s names on them, and the rest are sold at the farmer’s market outside. They like the orders to be in by about 2:30. They cost 50 cents apiece, and the holes are $1 per dozen. This is the first year they’ve made holes; previously they cut out circles and punched out the holes by hand. They sell them from about July 4 through October at the farmer’s market and it’s a fundraiser for the senior center. They will skip next week, the week of the county fair, because they shuck corn for the Lion’s Club to sell at the fair and will be busy with that. They’ve been doing the spudnuts for about 8 or 9 years; it was the idea of a woman named Dorothy Maupin (?), the center’s former director. One man told me there used to be a spudnut store in town, but they went out of business.
It was a cheerful and organized process. Several people rolled out the huge blob of risen dough on a long metal counter and cut out doughnuts and holes, placing them on large metal trays. They were put back in the proofing oven, which has supports on the sides for the trays to slide in on. They only rose for 15 minutes or so, then were brought out so two women could fry them in the electric skillets, turning them with two-foot-long dowels. They were put out on cooling racks for a minute or so before being dunked in the glaze and strung on dowels over metal pans. Another woman across the room was frying the holes, which are tricky to turn and get evenly browned. The finished products were lined up on another table and a woman wrote the quantities ordered on paper bags so someone else could load them up. I took a bunch of pictures and joined in the good-natured kidding about breaking the camera and such. Several women remembered me from the quilt group yesterday, and one of the fryers was the wife of Dick Morris, the jewelry maker I’d been referred to—her name was Judy. They kept asking if I’d had a spudnut (I did get a hole when I first came in) so I finally had one—excellent, and very filling. I helped by getting out a few trays of spudnuts that were ready to fry, so I told them I’d earned my treat. I had a great time and it’s clearly an important community ritual.
Example 4: Crook County, Wyoming, Survey (for Wyoming Arts Council)
Friday, September 14, 2007
Drove through Hulett and found the cemetery on the far side of town, where I took lots of photos. There are a bunch of crosses made from metal signpost material and painted white, maybe for otherwise unmarked graves? I don’t know. There were three or four dark stones with incredible detailed scenes etched on them—must be some new technique. One had a Honda four-wheeler in an outdoor scene, and another had a John Deere tractor in a farm/ranch scene.
I then stopped at Deer Creek Taxidermy in Hulett and talked with J.R. Butler, and his very talkative and knowledgeable seven-year-old son Austin, about what he does—very nice guy, very helpful, and appreciated his work being seen as an art (since I said I was working for the Arts Council). When I first walked in I was greeted by the sight of about eight huge, naked, foam elk and bison heads lying around on the floor—kind of a surreal experience. There were deer and antelope and elk on the walls as well, and many antlers hanging in back in the work area. J.R. was out back talking to someone so no one was there at first, but he soon came in and I explained what I was doing.
He said first thing that he belongs to the Wyoming Taxidermy Association as a way to promote the art of taxidermy and to improve his skills. He has been in business here for 13 years. He is originally from Toledo, Ohio, but lived in Casper from first through sixth grade, and then in Las Vegas. As soon as he finished high school, he came back to Casper because he’d always loved it there. He went to Casper College, where he met his wife, who is from a ranch family in Hulett. They moved back here, and he didn’t want to work in a sawmill (the main local industry), and they knew they couldn’t support a family on a ranch, so he decided to try taxidermy. He liked to hunt and loved animals, so he went to a school in Helena, MT, for two months and learned the basics, then set up his shop, which is called Deer Creek Taxidermy. He goes to the Wyoming state competitions, as well as those of surrounding states and the nationals, and learns a lot from workshops there, as well as the comments of judges in the competitions. He had photos of his entry this year with all kinds of ribbons on it, so I guess he’s pretty good. Judges have to be qualified and meet certain standards, and some of the judging rules are pretty set, although there is some subjectivity in artistic presentation, I’m sure. J.R. says he is known for hidden things in the rocks and bases he makes.
His son Austin is a budding taxidermist as well, and this year entered a badger in the novice category, which won first place in Wyoming and at the national and a second place in Utah. Austin is a chatty little guy, and was tossing around all kinds of terms about deer tines and points and different kinds of mounts—he really knows his stuff. He helps his dad in the shop with small chores like roughing up the foam mannequins and cutting fur and such.
J.R. enjoys seeing the interesting stuff hunters bring in to the shop. The majority of his customers are from “back east,” folks who come out to Wyoming to hunt, and leave their animals with him to mount—it’s easier than hauling carcasses or skins home on a plane. J.R. will order the mannequins, which are made from urethane foam, based on measurements off the carcass. He has a big refrigerator out back for the animals, and a chest freezer in the shop with the prepared skins. Some hunters will have the meat dressed out and shipped home, but some also donate it through a program that sends it to women’s shelters and other needy folks; they just have to pay to have it processed, and the meat processors see that it gets to the right places—kind of a cool program. He also has regular customers from back east who will ship him their animals that they get back there. He has a lot of repeat customers, and has contacts with local outfitters who give him referrals.
The mannequins can be ordered in various basic poses—straight on, looking left or right, etc.—but he can alter them as well. The large ones like buffalo come in two or three pieces that are then glued back together. He makes the antlers on large animals detachable for shipping and getting through doors. Commercial mounts use the basic form, but for competition pieces you have to add in a lot of details, like oil glands in eyelids, since the judges are looking for proper anatomy under the skin. He does mostly deer, elk, pronghorn, buffalo, some longhorns, fewer moose, bears, fish, birds, sheep. He doesn’t do novelty pieces, because he thinks it belittles the industry (no jackalopes, I guess). He did a two-headed calf once, though. He likes to do “habitat” on his pieces—little environmental touches like stone bases, branches, active poses, etc.—which of course costs more if a customer wants it.
He says his business has grown every year, and last year he did 260 pieces. Right now you’d have to wait a year if you ordered a mount today. He recently hired another guy to help him in the shop. He will usually order about 30 mannequins at a time, and have that many pieces going at once in various stages. He has another building across the street where he builds crates to ship the finished work.
When he gets a carcass, he skins it—which he likes to do himself so it’s done the way he needs—cleans all the flesh off, and salts it to keep it dry. It is then sent to a tannery, usually one in California, although there is one in Newcastle (Jim Finley’s Tannery, phone 307-746-4542). The hides in the freezer have been tanned and rehydrated; they need to be wet when they are shaped to the form. Another taxidermist he knows is Parker Shoun in Sundance, who calls his business Deer Corral Taxidermy, and works out of his garage.
He says I should really get to a state taxidermy show sometime; next year the Wyoming show is in Sheridan at the Holiday Inn, on April 17-20. He says he’s not really a people person, so he likes that he only interacts with customers for a few months of the year, then can work alone the rest of the time. Austin could sure be his front man, though—that kid was a chatterbox, and smart as a whip. I took some photos around the shop, including one of Austin holding some bighorn sheep horns to his head.