How to digitize your lab notebooks

Anna Nowogrodzki:

When the coronavirus pandemic closed the University of Minnesota in St Paul, plant pathologist Linda Kinkel’s laboratory team cast around for tasks they could do from home. They realized there was one job they’d wanted to do for some time: digitizing the team’s 30-year-old collection of paper lab notebooks. “COVID really was what made us commit to the digital lab notebooks,” says technician Andrew Mann. “All of us being alone and needing access to former students’ experiments so we can write grants and plan our next experiments.”

Research groups digitize their old lab notebooks for a host of reasons. Digital records can be backed up so they are impervious to floods and fires, and encrypted to protect them from theft. They require no physical space, and can be used by multiple team members at the same time from different locations. The scanning process makes the text readable, accessible and suitable for archiving; if the software includes optical character recognition (OCR), scanned typewritten text can also generally be searched — although OCR is not error-free, so the resulting text often needs manual correction.

Some researchers scan notebooks using smartphone apps or physical scanners; others outsource the work to specialized companies. “Digitization is on the increase, especially after COVID,” says Jan Cahill, marketing director at Cleardata, near Newcastle upon Tyne, UK, which digitizes books and documents. Lab closures because of pandemic restrictions have highlighted the benefits of having documents remotely accessible by every team member simultaneously, Mann says. For Glenn Lockwood, a computer scientist at Lawrence Berkeley National Laboratory in Berkeley, California, digitization was about providing peace of mind. “It just helps me sleep better at night,” he says.