New Year’s Resolution: Taking Better Notes

Posted by Justin Franz
on Wednesday, January 10, 2018

My meager attempt at taking better notes and my Dad's meticulous notes from over 40 years of railfanning. Photo by Justin Franz.
I’m going to let you all in on a little secret: I’m terrible at taking notes. That might be a concerning statement from someone who’s employed as a writer, so let me clarify.

If I’m reporting a story for Trains Magazine or any of the other publications I work with, I take detailed notes. I’ve probably filled hundreds of 4- by 8-inch notebooks in the last decade. But I have a less than stellar track record taking notes while railfanning. So this year, one of my New Year’s resolutions (aside from eating better, being more organized and all those other promises I make to myself that are usually broken by February), is to take better notes trackside. One of the inspirations for this resolution is Trains Magazine’s legendary editor, David P. Morgan.

Morgan, who edited Trains for four decades from the the 1940s until the 1980s, was a proficient notetaker, jotting down everything from locomotive numbers to employee names. As former editor and publisher Kevin P. Keefe noted in his forward for “Confessions of a Train-Watcher” in 1996, those scribblings often came in handy.

“Trains Senior Editor Dave Ingles recalls a day in the office when he and David were discussing plans for an upcoming tribute to E7 diesels, published in January 1979 as ‘The Essence of the E7.’ Morgan mentioned that he'd seen what turned out to be Burlington Road’s first E7’s. A possibly skeptical Ingles wanted more detail, so David reached down into a desk drawer, pawed through a pile of notebooks, and yanked out a little dog-eared number held tight with a rubber band. It was a notebook David had with him on a trip out of Denver in 1945. More than three decades later it gave him the lead he needed,” Keefe wrote.

While we often cherish the photos we take and hope that they will someday be an important record of the past, they quickly lose value if there is no additional information to give them context. Which brings us to the second inspiration for my New Year’s resolution: My Dad.

My Dad has been shooting since the 1970s and has amassed thousands of images in that time. To give those thousands of images meaning, he has filled at least five massive notebooks with information about each and every shot; the railroad, the motive power, the train number, the location, the date, everything. Ask him when he shot Burlington Northern F-units on Marias Pass or the Utah Railway Alcos and he can flip open the notebook and give you the answer in a matter of minutes.

His meticulous note taking is actually one of the reasons I’ve never taken a lot of notes until now. For years, much of what I shot was when I was with him and so if I need information on a photo I took 10 or 20 years ago, I can usually call him up, describe the shot and he can fill in the blanks. But in the last 10 years, since I’ve moved west, I’ve done a lot less railfanning with my walking notebook… I mean Dad. For about a year after moving to Montana, I did take notes but that stopped at about the time I went digital. With a digital camera, I figured, the date would always be in the metadata. Things like train numbers and locations? Well, I’ve got a pretty good memory, my 20-year-old self reasoned.

That system works fine if you’re constantly shooting things you’re familiar with, but the moment you go beyond the backyard the photos start to lose meaning. So last fall, in advance of a weeklong trip to the Colorado narrow gauge, I purchased a notebook to record every train number, location and locomotive I shot, along with any other important details. Three months later and I’m still at it, jotting down a few notes every time I go trackside that will hopefully give the photos I take more meaning in the future. Here’s hoping I can keep it up in the New Year.

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