commonplace book

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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.

Variations on this structural theme and the broader functional purposes and UI for aggregation/collecting, memory, learning, spaced repetition and similar patterns of knowledge related work include anthologies/florilegium, waste books/sudelbücher, wikis, Zettelkasten, second brains, and digital gardens. This page can serve as an aggregation point for some of these related ideas until or unless it becomes worthwhile to separate these to delineate some of the specific features they may have.

Split page question

Should this page be split, e.g. separating digital garden into its own page?

Brief History

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.

My website is I love my website. Even though it isn’t a physical thing, I think it might be my most prized possession.

It’s a place for me to think and a place for me to link.

Jeremy Keith in <A>


IndieWeb examples

  • 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.
  • Greg McVerry Captures all his annotations, bookmarks, and links to read articles from his blog. He also captures all class activity as a teacher.

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.

Sharing ideas, in any form, is what the web empowers us to do. This is my online journal and commonplace book.
  • Alan Smith, example of a "digital garden" which actually looks like a garden view from above with various plots of content
  • George Mokray
    • All mistakes are mine. Hubevents Notes are raw notes from some of the events attended from the weekly Energy (and Other) Events around Cambridge, MA at and books I've been reading. This is something of an electronic commonplace book.
  • Jake Reeder began collecting his notes and annotations of Jacques Derrida using paper and pen, but transferred them into the cleverly named website Return to Cinder. The site ultimately grew to include additional writers and works (thus also making it a personal library of sorts. It ultimately became valuable enough to Reeder that he turned his site into a note taking platform available for other users called Databyss which appears to be a silo note taking platform that allows users to "Write and cite, research and re-search, and never get lost in Databyss. Welcome to your new word processor."

Historical Examples

  • Marcus Aurelius (121-180 CE)' Meditations began as a private collection of notes, thoughts, and quotations.
  • Francis Bacon (1561-1626)
  • Ben Jonson (1572-1637)
  • Jean Paul (1763-1825), a German romantic novelist, kept an early version of a Zettelkasten made of slips of paper in bound books.
"In the event of a fire, the black-bound excerpts are to be saved first."
—instructions from Jean Paul to his wife before setting off on a trip in 1812 [1]
  • Virginia Woolf (1882-1941)
  • H.P. Lovecraft (1890-1937)
  • Niklas Luhmann (1927-1998), a German sociologist and philosopher, was famous for his use of the Zettelkasten (or "slip box") note-taking method. He created a zettelkasten of 90,000+ index cards, and credited it with making his prolific writing possible. His collection was digitized and made available online in 2019.
  • ...

Collections of Examples

  • 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.
  • ...


Open source

Below are some various non-silo or open source platforms which might be used for commonplace books, some specific examples of these in use may appear in IndieWeb examples above.

  • Foam, an open source second brain/Zettelkasten building tool for VS Code with graph visualisations
  • logseq is a privacy-first, open-source platform for knowledge sharing and management. Code on GitHub.
  • nvultra - Searchable, portable, MultiMarkdown notes app (private beta in Summer 2020)
  • trilium hierarchical note taking application

Non-silo, non-opensource


Given the classical definition of a commonplace book and modern day use cases, some of the following silos could be used as or considered commonplaces. Their uses and user interfaces could be used as examples for designing or building one's own digital commonplace book.





Related sessions at IndieWebCamps

See Also

  • “For example, I've been blogging for four years, which means I've poured out about a million words' worth of my thoughts online. This regularly produces the surreal and delightful experience of Googling a topic only to unearth an old post that I don't even remember writing.”
  • “Writing a blog entry about a useful and/or interesting subject forces me to extract the salient features of the link into a two- or three-sentence elevator pitch to my readers, whose decision to follow a link is predicated on my ability to convey its interestingness to them. This exercise fixes the subjects in my head the same way that taking notes at a lecture does, putting them in reliable and easily-accessible mental registers.”
  • “every single thing I post on here—whether it's a link, a blog post, or anything else—is really a “note to self.”” Associative trails
  • “the distinction between personal blogs and…whatever else it is that we do to try and share ourselves on the internet.” Commonplace
  • “The best personal blogs I've come across feel like a glimpse in to someone's personal notebook, something filled mostly with notes written with the author in mind first and foremost vs notes that have been written with a wider audience in mind.”