What Is A Commonplace Book & How To Use It

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I want to talk about something a little different today. I know my blog mostly focuses on bullet journals. But there are also other forms of journaling out there. One type of journal I’ve become fascinated with recently is the commonplace book.

I’ve come across people talking about commonplace books before, but I’ve always had the impression that a commonplace book was a notebook where you wrote things you wanted to remember. Though this is true, the commonplace book is a little more complicated than that. And what I find most interesting, historically had a specific purpose. 

So today I want to share exactly what a commonplace book is and how you can use it. Because I’m extra like that, I also want to share the 21st-century version of the commonplace book and chances are you’re already using it. 

What Is A Commonplace Book

Historically the commonplace book was used as a tool to record and digest information. Some commonplace books have been found from before the 16th century. A precursor to the commonplace book was used in Italy as early as the 14th century. Known as a zibaldone, it was a combination of diary, ledger and scrapbook. These volumes were used as a way to record life. 

Renaissance humanists began using commonplace books as a form of study and note-taking. Historically how smart you were was linked to how much you could remember. We don’t have quite the same views now that everyone has a Google machine in their pocket. But in the past being able to remember lots of “stuff” was important and the commonplace book was used to help with this. 

In the 16th century, Erasmus of Rotterdam set down a series of rules which would help the user manage the information in the commonplace book. These rules described how literary texts should be organised under specific headings. The act of writing quotes in the commonplace book would aid the owner in recollecting the information gathered through study. Through the commonplace book, the act of reading and writing became linked as the reader used their commonplace book as a way to understand the world. 

How To Use A Commonplace Book

The exact way that you use a commonplace book is very personal, though Erasmus set down specific rules, as you will soon see, those rules could be changed and in fact, the way people have used commonplace books have changed over time. Commonplace books were commonly used in an educational setting. Universities like Oxford and Cambridge would teach their students how to keep commonplace books and was an important part of education. 

I’m currently working on my dissertation and I can see how a commonplace book could be useful. I wrote an essay for my dissertation module about commonplace books. So I decided to try using one while working on my dissertation and it has been extremely helpful. Part of the dissertation process involves doing lots of research around a topic.

I’m finding it extremely helpful to collate this information in a notebook, essentially making it a commonplace book. There are lots of ways to do dissertations, and the way you choose can depend on the type of research project you are working on. After talking to some other graduates I know that the amount of research you do depends on the subject. A science student whose research involves a practical part might not be required to do so much research. But as I’m doing an art course, research is extremely important. 

And this is where the commonplace book comes in. For my particular module, it was recommended that we treat the research project the same as any other design project. So using a sketchbook as a place to collate research and ideas. This method is very similar to the commonplace book. You could almost argue that the only difference is the type of book that the information is contained in.  

Why Use A Commonplace Book

Though commonplace books are extremely useful in an educational setting. There are several reasons why you might choose to use a commonplace book. One of the main advantages of the commonplace book is that it gives you a singular place to save anything which might inspire you. Originally this was intended to be pieces of writing, quotes and passages, but you could also use it as a place to save images which you like. In this way, the commonplace book could be useful for artists and other creatives. 

Though Pinterest is extremely popular, the advantage of the commonplace book is that you have everything in one place. This way you can go back and look at previous thoughts and ideas, removing the need for you to remember something which could inspire a new piece of art or writing. 

There’s a very good reason for using a physical commonplace book rather than a digital alternative. Writing is good for your brain. Writing by hand engages your brain in a way which typing on a keyboard doesn’t. There’s a reason why writing can help with mental health. We know now that teaching children how to write helps with brain development. 

Physically writing ideas and other bits of information into a notebook helps you process that information. In doing so you can create connections between those pieces of information. For me, this helps when writing a dissertation. But this could also be useful if you’re working on a novel or some other type of research project. 

The Modern Commonplace Book

You might be reading this and thinking that you like the idea of commonplace books, but they seem very complicated. This is the interesting bit, chances are if you have a social media account, you are already using it in a very similar way to how commonplace books were used during the 17th century. 

Human beings are social people and have always looked for ways to connect with others. Twitter and Facebook are simply the newest forms of social media. From a guy on a horse delivering a letter to telegrams and now the internet, people have always looked for ways to connect. 

The printing press was invented in the 16th century and this created a cultural revolution. Suddenly it was much easier for people to learn how to write because books were more widely available. Ironically the invention of the printing press made writing by hand much more common. And people wanted to use this skill, keeping a commonplace book was just one of the ways they did this. 

People began to write down poems and other quotes they wanted to remember in their commonplace book. But this is where things got interesting. People began to share those books, so others could copy those poems into their own commonplace book. This became so popular that writers could have their work shared through commonplace books. If you’re starting to think this sounds familiar, you would be right. Social media sites like Twitter and Tumblr work in the same way.  

Though social media works similarly to how commonplace books were used historically, they are lacking because they are digital. Commonplace books were created as a way to learn from others, a huge part of this system was based on the idea that you write down words by hand. It has been shown that writing by hand aids memory if you truly want to remember something writing by hand can help. Of course, with social media all you have to do is hit retweet, Erasmus would say that this means you’re not giving those words the attention they deserve. 


I’ve seen lots of people in the past talk about keeping a commonplace book but had never considered the history behind this simple tool. If anything I think I’m really lucky that I get to research topics like this as part of my dissertation. 

One of the things I find fascinating about the commonplace book is how similar it feels to the bullet journal. There are also lots of ways in which they are different. But I can see how easy it would be to use the bullet journal system in a commonplace book. It’s also interesting how they share concepts. Using Goodreads to save book quotes isn’t the same thing as writing one down in a commonplace book, the fact you have to physically write the quote down is important. And this is the same with bullet journaling, you assess just how important a task is when you intentionally decide to migrate it to a new day. 

Do you use a commonplace book? Or do you want to try one? Let me know in the comments. 


  • bookishluna

    I just started writing a blog post about this same subject! I came across this about a month or so ago while researching note taking systems and loved the history and how customizable it is. I decided to give using one a go for a bit longer before posting about it and seeing how it truly worked for me. The history of this tool is really quite remarkable, it has been used all over the world and for such a long period of time and is still relevant and how it evolved.

  • Julie

    I have been keeping journals for 25 years – I realize now that I was using them as commonplace books as well – but the info is mixed into my journals. Any suggestions as to what to do with all of the info ? I started tearing it out but I’m not sure of the best way to manage and organize it. Thanks for your article!

  • sabrinachantelle

    This reminds me of in Jane Austen’s “Emma” when Emma and Harriet were making a book of riddles they and other people knew. I’d never come across that idea as an activity before, and I didn’t know what a commonplace book was when I read it, but it does sound like this. 🙂

  • cherylturtlemoon

    I’ve just today transferred all the bits of information from my Filofax into an A4 ring binder. I have been using this system for a few months (hence needing a bigger place to keep everything) and I don’t know how I ever did without it!!! excellent post, and I hope your dissertation went well !

    • Emma

      Thank you! It would be fascinating to see how you can use a Filofax as a commonplace book. I imaging the rings would make it much easier to group pages on the same subject.

  • Susan Listenfelt

    I’m more than half way through to achieving my Bachelor’s in Creative Writing/English. Commonplace Books have won me over!!! I can’t tell you enough that it’s been one of the keys to successful learning, academic planning, and personal use! 😊📚📚📚

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