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A Guide To Starting A Commonplace Book

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We are living in the golden age of the internet, where everything one might want or need is available at our fingertips. Sites like Pinterest, Tumblr and Notion give us the ability to save anything we might like, but at the same time, the decline of websites like Twitter are a useful reminder that you do not truly own anything that is saved on those sites. Rather than saving your important data in the cloud, you might choose an older form of information storage, such as the commonplace book.

It may come as no surprise then that in this digital age, it is becoming more and more common to revert to older methods of writing, journaling and memory keeping. Saving your journal, planner or other notebook online is only useful so long as you can continue to access it. Twitter shows us that nothing is really permanent on the internet.

So today I want to share an older form of knowledge management, one that has been used for hundreds of years in thousands of different ways; the commonplace book. This was a type of journaling specifically used as a way for a person to save information they found and store it in a single place. Though yes, you could use Notion to do the same thing today, but a notebook is far more likely to still be around in 50 years’ time.

So today I want to share exactly what a commonplace book is and how you can use it to save the things which are important to you

What Is A Commonplace Book?

The commonplace book was a historical practice which involved saving information, passages or quotes to create a personal collection of information organised under relevant headings. These collections were known as miscellanies, anthologies or commonplace books.

Though common placing is becoming more popular again in the 21st century, it was particularly useful in times predating mobile phones and instant access to information through the world wide web. This absence made it essential for individuals to maintain a curated collection of information in an easily retrievable format.

Page in commonplace book showing notes about calligraphy.

The owner of a commonplace book would take fragments of text from a variety of sources and copy them down into relevant sections of their notebook. Continuing to refine these collections and adding their own thoughts and ideas throughout the process. In turn, generating new thoughts and ideas as the owner continually repeats this process.

The benefit of using a commonplace book came through the act of writing things down. This served as a way to aid one’s memory, essentially imprinting what the owner had read in their mind. Research has suggested that writing down information truly does have an added benefit. Generating words, through written or spoken speech your brain is more active compared to reading alone.

It may come as no surprise that students were encouraged to keep a commonplace book as a way to aid their learning.

How To Begin A Commonplace Book

The first key to starting a commonplace book is understanding the difference between it and similar forms of journaling. In another way, what is it you’re planning to write about?

Saving your thoughts and ideas can sound very similar to journaling as a form of self-reflection. These two forms of writing had very different origins.

Writing as a form of self-reflection is a relatively modern invention. Coming from Christian religions where it was used as a practice with the ultimate aim being spiritual redemption. Protestant diaries have long been used as a receptacle for inner thoughts and feelings, using it as a place to account for their time, both for themselves and to God.

This habit of journaling as a form of self-reflection competed with the commonplace book. Which was also used as a form of self-reflection through collecting the learnings of others.

Schoolchildren were taught to keep a commonplace book as a way of self-improvement. Increasing their knowledge, not just by having “good thoughts” but through the process of organising, digesting and arranging what they had learned into subject areas.

Though these two ideas sound very similar, they take a very different approach to self-improvement. The commonplace book asks you to consider what you have read, using it as a way to organise your thoughts. While journaling in a diary is more introspective, where you are the subject and your own experiences form the story.

What To Save In Your Commonplace Book?

The actual content of your commonplace book is going to depend on you and your interests. What is obvious is that the commonplace book works particularly well for creatives. It gives you a place to collate inspiration and externalise your ideas.

Writers might choose to use a commonplace book to save research and inspiration for writing projects. Students may choose to save things relevant to their field of study. However, you still may come across the problem of deciding what is relevant enough to save. Sometimes it is clear to see what will be useful later, but other times you may have an excerpt or piece of information which isn’t particularly relevant.

Commonplace book lying open on white background.

The best method of common placing is saving everything which resonates with you. It could be something you find interesting, or that sparks an idea. You don’t need to immediately see how it will be useful later on. These nuggets of information could turn out to be relevant later or go on to spark other ideas.

The simple fact is – like bullet journaling – using a physical notebook will help you refine what you want to keep. Though yes, you can use a digital commonplace, or print out articles or notes. The commonplace book was something intended to be written by hand and this makes it very easy to choose what is important enough to save. Can you muster up the effort to write this piece of information in your commonplace? If the answer is yes it must be important enough, but if the answer is no maybe the information isn’t useful.

What Type Of Notebook To Use?

I don’t want to get into the real nitty gritty of what specific type of notebook you need because the commonplace book isn’t about that. It made sense to me that I would combine my commonplace book with my sketchbook. I tend to view my sketchbook as the visual equivalent of a commonplace book. Yes, it’s a place for my ideas. But it’s also something I refer back to often and I also keep a lot of visual research in it too. Not too dissimilar from a commonplace book.

You could choose to have one notebook as a commonplace book. Or combine some other notebook with elements of common placing. It has become more common recently to see people combine their commonplace with a daily diary, either combining the two or repurposing the diary entirely.

Two notebooks open to pages showing examples of common placing.

One of the most interesting aspects of this is that it has historical precedence. In past years keeping a diary was more common, and indeed expected so one could “keep account of their time”. Young girls were gifted daily diaries but did not always need a diary to manage their day-to-day lives. As such, they chose to repurpose the diary, using it as a commonplace book where they would write the words of others rather than their own.

In this digital age, it would be wrong of me to entirely discount digital equivalents of the notebook. Obsidian and Notion are two pieces of software which are flexible enough to work as a digital commonplace. And even have some advantages over a notebook because of their digital nature. If you’re looking for something a little more social (because social media and commonplace books have always been intertwined) Tumblr is a good alternative.

How To Organise Your Commonplace Book?

One of the most contentious parts of using a commonplace book is how to organise it. Many people throughout history have come up with methods for organising the information in commonplace books. Some are better than others but none are perfect.

The most popular methods you could try for organising your commonplace book are listed below. The best method will largely depend on what you choose to save in your commonplace book and how you intend to retrieve that information later.

Systematic Indexing

Systematic indexing was the traditional method of organising a commonplace book throughout history. This method organised notes under a preconceived system. The author would divide their commonplace book into sections like you would usually find in a textbook.

Sometimes these headings were taken directly from another book on the same topic as that which the author wanted to write about in their commonplace book.

This method was typically used by students who wanted to take notes on a limited range of topics. Using the commonplace book as a way to memorise more effectively through the act of writing what they had read or heard.

This method of organising a commonplace book works well with a limited topic. It may be you want to learn more about a specific subject which can be broken down into multiple areas. However, as you learn more about the subject you may find that there are pieces of information which does not fit well into the preassigned headings in your commonplace. Not to mention the resulting notes which may not be useful later down the road.

As such, if you need a more flexible method for organising your commonplace book you may be wise to choose a different indexing style.

Alphabetical Indexing

The alphabetical indexing system works well if you know you will be referencing the information in your commonplace book regularly. However, there are also some drawbacks to using this system.

The alphabetical system works by dividing your notebook into sections. One for each letter of the alphabet. As you make entries in your commonplace you decide on a heading, maybe a keyword or something important about the note. You organise these listings in alphabetical order within the notebook based on these headings.

While yes, this does create an organised system, depending on how much you use your commonplace book, it could leave you with large sections of your notebook blank. It could also leave you in a position where one section of the notebook is full. Leading to you inserting more pages or starting a new notebook for that one specific part of the alphabet.

Index-based Approach

Working with an index which lists the contents of your commonplace book is a very convenient and the most common type of organisation system used today. With this system, notes are entered one after another as they occur until the pages are filled. Writers would often add a keyword or heading in the margin of the page to make it easier to understand the content of the note.

Megan Rhiannon, an illustrator and designer has improved upon this method through the use of coloured dot stickers. These stickers quickly allow you to see the topics on any given page by assigning specific topics to each colour. That way it is easy to see at a glance the subjects on each page.

Commonplace book open to page.

It is possible to improve on this colour coding method by also using an index at the front of the notebook. If you’re familiar with the indexing system in a bullet journal a commonplace index would work similarly.

As you work through the notebook you can go back to the index adding new entries for important keywords and headings. From there you would continually go back to the index adding new page numbers to each keyword as it appears through your notebook. Essentially threading the same subject as it appears in your commonplace book.

The John Locke Method

While many humanists who used a commonplace book were content with limited well-known topics. It was the flexibility of the commonplace book, where one could add as many new headings as they wanted, which made it the perfect tool for early modern physicians and natural philosophers.

The sequential or index-based organisational method was less wasteful compared to alphabetical. However, the English philosopher John Locke sought to improve upon this method. While also maintaining the commonplace book’s flexibility and organisation which aided later retrieval of information.

The centrepiece of John Locke’s “New Method” for common placing was the idea of sorting entries alphabetically based on the initial letter and first consecutive vowel. Notes on one topic or heading were kept on a limited number of pages. These pages could be found in the index which was organised alphabetically.

Showing the pages where each letter combination appeared within the commonplace book. The advantage of this method was that writers did not need to anticipate space potentially being needed in the index. It also led to a situation where observations and contradicting information organised under the same topic would appear on the same page. Leading to a more sceptical attitude towards authoritative claims.

Will It Help You Be More Productive?

The issue with commonplace books is that yes, you will come across people claiming it will help you be more productive. And that isn’t really the truth.

You can use your commonplace book to store information that you may come to rely on later. So it will make the process of finding that information faster. But (personally) I don’t think that’s enough to look at it as a productivity hack. Like most things, the commonplace book is a tool. It just depends on how you use it.

Commonplace book showing notes written on page.

I loved using my commonplace book while writing my dissertation. Though yes, I did eventually get a good mark for my dissertation. I can’t say the commonplace book was the reason for that. However, as a place where I could collect research and ideas. It proved to be an extremely useful resource when it came time to write my dissertation.

Rather than thinking of the commonplace book as a productivity method. Try to see it as a habit, one which will build with time. Your commonplace book will grow and change depending on your needs. As you continue to add entries in your commonplace book you will learn how it works best for you.

Finally

The commonplace book, like similar ways methods of keeping a notebook, is not a fixed thing. There are numerous ways people have used a commonplace book throughout history. It would be wrong to say one use is the “right” way.

The important point is this, you use the commonplace book in the way which makes the most sense for you. Yes, it’s a place for you to save important pieces of information. But now we have the internet in our hands, a physical form of information storage isn’t needed as much.

There are still ways that the commonplace book can be useful. Use it as a place to store research and ideas. Think of it as a resource of your favourite things. Maybe you don’t need Pinterest if you’ve already got a bank of inspiration sitting on your desk. Your commonplace book will be there when you need it. That’s what makes it valuable.

Resources

Building A Second Brain by Tiago Forte [link]
John Locke’s “New Method of Making Commonplace-Books” [link]
The Accidental Diarist by Molly A. McCarthy [link]
Writing On The Wall by Tom Standage [link]

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