A Commonplace book (or commonplaces) are a way to compile and store knowledge, usually by writing information into books, notebooks, card catalogs, or in more modern settings on one's own website.
The general concept of the commonplace book dates to the 1500's (though earlier precursors exist) as books became more common in society. Often due to the exorbitant cost of texts, readers would read and take notes from them into their commonplace books for future contemplation, providing direct quotations at a later date, or future reference prior to returning the book to its owner or passing it along to another. In some sense they became repositories for marginalia, highlights and notes one wanted to keep after the possession of a book was released. Commonplaces are frequently used by readers, writers, students, and scholars as an aid for remembering useful concepts or facts they have learned. Each commonplace book is unique to its creator's particular interests.
A variety of means and methods for compiling and organizing commonplaces have been devised over their hundreds of years of use. An early how-to book entitled A New Method of Making Common-Place-Books (1706) was written by philosopher John Locke in which he provided techniques for entering proverbs, quotations, ideas, and formulating speeches. Locke gave specific advice on how to arrange material by subject and category, using such key topics as love, politics, or religion.
The Indieweb site as a Commonplace book
Given the prevalence and variety of post types on indieweb sites, their form and function often makes them de facto modern day commonplace books. Traditional commonplace books can often be found to have notes, the equivalent of bookmarks, reposts, articles, sketches or diagrams, reviews, recipes, lists of things read, and quotations which have direct correlates of indieweb post types.
The ability to tag, hyperlink, and search indieweb sites adds to their general usability in a way that traditional handwritten commonplace books lacked. Rarely, if ever, were commonplace books written in chronological order like journals or in reverse chronological order like blogs. More sophisticated search and archive pages (temporal or by category, tag, or topic) preclude this structural need now.
Commonplace books can be contrasted with other early written forms like diaries, journals, scrapbooks, and travelogues. Some of these functions are served by traditional blogs and personal websites while other post types along the lines of a "life log" or features of quantified self sites round out some of what may also make an indieweb site.
- Kevin Marks In many conversations with Kevin, one will begin to notice a pattern. He will often not only have previously thought about the topic at hand, but at one time or another he'll have written a blog post about it detailing those thoughts. He'll then do a quick search of his site(s) and proffer the link which not only contains an/the(?) "answer", but likely a lot of other additional thought and material above and beyond that one is likely to be interested in as well.
- Chris Aldrich I speficially state on my homepage "I use this website as my primary hub for online presence and communication and to some extent as my online commonplace book." The primary categories on my site give a bit of an index overview of some of the material I "collect" and in which I'm interested. I often post quotes, quick recipes, bookmarks of things I want to read in certain categories, and notes/highlights/marginalia from books I've read.
- Aaron Davis uses a secondary website entitled Read Write Collect to collect ideas, articles and thoughts which supports his primary website.
- Ian O'Byrne has a "Breadcrumbs" website on which he states: "This website is my digital commonplace book."
- Greg McVerry Captures all his annotations, bookmarks, and links to read articles from his blog. He also captures all class activity as a teacher.
- Frank Meeuwsen has indicated that he's using his personal website as a commonplace book
- Add yourself here… (see this for more details)
Given the classical definition of a commonplace book and modern day use cases, some of the following silos could be considered commonplaces:
Examples in the Wild
- Nelson Minar "A few folks have subscribed to this blog recently. Welcome! I am not writing for you. I am truly, only, writing work notes for myself. Stuff I learn and don’t want to forget."
This weblog is mainly for myself, used as a commonplace book in which I put ideas, quotations, facts, and citations that I might want to use later. That’s why the topics are diverse and often esoteric. I’m not trying to build an audence or get a lot of hits on a counter. My impression is that most visitors arrive because search engines have led them to here and I’m one of the few websites in the world that address some key word they’re interested in.
Since I am not writing for other people, especially (you will see the exceptions—things such as posts I also use as comments on other blogs, excerpts from letters or articles I have written or will write, and so forth), please do not think I am deliberately trying to offend someone or that I am cleverly pushing a hidden agenda. I’m not, simply because I don’t expect enough people to read this blog for such efforts to be worthwhile. Actually, I probably shouldn’t even fix my typos, and perhaps I’ll stop doing that. You’re weclome to read, and I’ll try to write well simply to avoid getting into bad habits, but I’ll not expend more effort than if I were writing this into a hidden fil in my PC.
- Chris Lott maintains a digital online commonplace book on a subdomain of his primary site at https://commonplace.fncll.org/. He also indicates he has two newsletters which he maintains as distributed commonplace books.
- Dr. Kay Oddone used her WordPress site to blog through her Ph.D. as an open and linked learning commonplace book.
- See also PhD and beyond: A WordPress adventure! Blogging my PhD on WordPress created new learning opportunities & expanded my professional digital identity. Now as a lecturer my blog includes an open learning space for students & other learners.
- 2019-02-26 Update: Creating and managing a lifestream as an Early Career Academic
- The internet itself could be though of as a massive living and ever-growing commonplace book which can be digitally queried to provide the answers to nearly every conceivable question.
- Steven Johnson describes Charles Darwin's commonplace book (Youtube)
- Francis Bacon
- Ben Jonson
- John Milton
- John Locke
- H.P. Lovecraft
- Harvard Views of Reading, Readership, and Reading History | Commonplace Book with many examples including:
- personally annotated books owned by John Keats, Herman Melville, Hester Lynch Piozzi, and others
- William Wordsworth's private library catalog
- commonplace books used by Joseph Conrad, Washington Irving, Victor Hugo, and more
- Brianna Privett gave a presentation at WordCampUS 2017 on "The Story of Your Life: Using WordPRess as a Memory Warehouse".(slides, video)
- 2012-01-23 : 'Commonplace Books': The Tumblrs of an Earlier Era
- 2013-08-28 : How and Why to Keep a Commonplace Book
- 2015-10-08 : What Is A Commonplace Book & Why You Need One
- 2016-04-13 : The Commonplace Book as a Thinker’s Journal
- 2017-07-08 : Bookmarks, favs, likes - backfilling years of gaps (archived)
- 2019-03-04 : Delete Never: The Digital Hoarders Who Collect Tumblrs, Medieval Manuscripts, and Terabytes of Text Files
- 2019-03-09 : How I built my Commonplace Book
Related sessions at IndieWebCamps