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?
- +1 Tantek Çelik: reason: those using "digital garden" mean something in particular (see https://www.technologyreview.com/2020/09/03/1007716/digital-gardens-let-you-cultivate-your-own-little-bit-of-the-internet/ ) and seem to have no attachment or affinity with "commonplace book" (which is also quite an academic-sounding phrase/term). Even if they are conceptually similar, there is a very different attitude about them, and frankly even their metaphors are quite contrasting: dead tree vs. living plants — Tantek Çelik 14:11, 3 April 2021 (PDT)
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.
- 1 Split page question
- 2 Brief History
- 3 The IndieWeb site as a Commonplace book
- 4 Examples
- 5 Platforms
- 6 Presentations
- 7 Books
- 8 Articles
- 9 Sessions
- 10 See Also
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.
- Ton Zijlstra calls his blog a commonplace book, in combination with Evernote, where the blog is a selection from Evernote/ thinking out loud space. He is looking to ditch evernote though.
- Neil Mather has a commonplace at https://commonplace.doubleloop.net/ that is just basic in emacs using orgmode and org-roam and publishing it as static HTML from org-mode; My holy grail would be something like TiddlyWiki but in emacs.
- Maxime Vaillancourt has a digital garden at https://maximevaillancourt.com/notes built with Jekyll and Netlify with an article about how to replicate it at https://maximevaillancourt.com/blog/setting-up-your-own-digital-garden-with-jekyll as well as a demo template at https://digital-garden-jekyll-template.netlify.app/ and an open source version on Github at https://github.com/maximevaillancourt/digital-garden-jekyll-template
- Add yourself here… (see this for more details)
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
Sharing ideas, in any form, is what the web empowers us to do. This is my online journal and commonplace book.
- Josh Sullivan has a TiddlyWiki hosted via GitHub Pages at https://github.com/joshcsullivan/joshcsullivan.github.io. He specifically calls it an online commonplace book in the subtitle of the site.
- Aggregations of multiple examples:
- Alan Smith, example of a "digital garden" which actually looks like a garden view from above with various plots of content
- Marcus Aurelius (121-180 CE)' Meditations began as a private collection of notes, thoughts, and quotations.
- Francis Bacon (1561-1626)
- Ben Jonson (1572-1637)
- John Milton (1608-1674) (Digital copy at the British Library)
- John Locke (1632-1704) (Digital copy from Harvard Library)
- Isaac Newton (1643-1727) developed the calculus in a waste book, a digital copy of which can be found in the Cambridge library.
- James Boswell (1740-1785)
- Georg Christoph Lichtenberg (1742-1799) kept an extensive series of waste books, which he called sudelbücher, throughout his life. Published after his death, these notebooks were admired by Tolstoy, Einstein, and Andre Breton, and Nietzsche and Wittgenstein acknowledged them as a significant inspiration for their own works. Excerpts of them have been published in English translation.
- Charles Darwin (1809-1882) Steven Johnson describes it on YouTube
- E. M. Forester (1879-1970)
- Virginia Woolf (1882-1941)
- H.P. Lovecraft (1890-1937)
- Sir Alec Guiness (1914-2000)
- 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
- 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
- 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.
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.
- https://anagora.org/, an open source community-based digital garden project
- nvultra - Searchable, portable, MultiMarkdown notes app (private beta in Summer 2020)
- trilium hierarchical note taking application
- Obsidian, https://obsidian.md/ - multiplatform app for plain text markdown files
- While not open sourced in terms of code base, Obsidian can be downloaded and used for free. It runs on many platforms (a mobile beta is in the works in Feb 2021), but saves data as text in markdown files to a location specified by the user where it can easily be migrated to any other platfoms or use cases. The user has full ownership and control of their data. At no time does Obsidian own or control the user's personal data.
- “Obsidian+Github Pages” for digital gardeners? also includes links for other services and platforms as well as plugins, tools, and methods for creating SSG-based websites
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.
- Roam Research
- Amplenote - to-do lists and note taking
- RemNote - note taking and spaced repetition
- Are.na - has the tagline "Tools for Thinking, Together"
- Highlighter.com is a silo-based personal knowledge bank where you can save the best ideas from your books to your own library.
- Memex, a silo bookmarking and annotation platform
- Nototo, a visual note taking application
- Simple Note from Automattic
- Brianna Privett gave a presentation at WordCampUS 2017 on "The Story of Your Life: Using WordPress as a Memory Warehouse".(slides, video)
- Chris Aldrich presentation "Using WordPress as a Digital Commonplace Book" at #HeyPresstoConf20 consisting of 15 tweets about commonplace books:
- 1512 : Copia: Foundations of the Abundant Style (Latin: De Utraque Verborum ac Rerum Copia)
- A best-seller widely used for teaching how to rewrite pre-existing texts, and how to incorporate them in a new composition. Helped to popularize the use of commonplace books into the Renaissance
- 1706 : A New Method of Making Common-Place-Books
- Describes a popular method for commonplacing and indexing
- 2017-02-24 : How to Take Smart Notes: One Simple Technique to Boost Writing, Learning and Thinking - for Students, Academics and Nonfiction Book Writers
- Book which has helped to popularize the concept of Luhmann's zettelkasten method
- 1945-07 : As We May Think
- 1992 : Kommunikation mit Zettelkästen (German)/ Communicating with Slip Boxes (English translation)
- Published in print in Ein Erfahrungsbericht, in: André Kieserling (ed.), Universität als Milieu. Kleine Schriften, Haux, Bielefeld 1992, ISBN 3-925471-13-8, p. 53–61;
- 2010-04-22 : The Glass Box And The Commonplace Book (Hearst New Media lecture at Columbia University, subtitled “Two Paths For The Future of Text.”) (archived)
"In its most customary form, “commonplacing,” as it was called, involved transcribing interesting or inspirational passages from one’s reading, assembling a personalized encyclopedia of quotations. It was a kind of solitary version of the original web logs: an archive of interesting tidbits that one encountered during one’s textual browsing."
- 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
- 2020-08-29 : A note taking problem and a proposed solution
- 2020-09-03 : Digital gardens let you cultivate your own little bit of the internet
- A growing number of people are creating individualized, creative sites that eschew the one-size-fits-all look and feel of social media
- 2020-11-16 : Why do I insist on keeping archives in my note apps? (archived)
Related sessions at IndieWebCamps
- spaced repetition
- Commonplace book on Wikipedia
- Zettelkasten (German for "card file")
- Memex (Wikipedia entry)
- Indieweb for Education
- Indieweb for Journalism
- use case
- life log
- quantified self
- Kinds of posts
- archival copy
- backlink (or bi-directional link)
- Digital Gardeners Telegram group
- 2020-06-10 The Study: Issue #32 — Keeping a Commonplace Book
Commonplace Book is NOT: … a journal, … your collection of morning pages., … a stream of consciousness rambling of your thoughts.…
NOT using these apps as your permanent commonplace book repositories though. Apps die and technologies change, but…
…paper is forever
- tl;dr for an online commonplace book (maybe needs curation / deliberation details) https://twitter.com/brb_irl/status/1292255926150299648
- "have a thought, make a webpage" @brb_irl August 9, 2020
- "I use my blog to save all the bash commands, python code, that I keep looking up over and over again. My latest post: using grep in bash https://maneeshasane.com/programming/2017/11/using-grep.html" @maneeshasane November 19, 2017
- https://tomcritchlow.com/wiki/wikis/, a page with lots of additional tools, examples, and information on wikis, commonplace books, etc.
- “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.” https://www.wired.com/2007/09/st-thompson-3/
- “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
- http://gordonbrander.com/pattern/ appears to be an interesting example of a personal wiki with articles which backlink to each other with a rather elegant UI at the bottom of the page.
- Information definition of digital garden in the wild: https://twitter.com/RobertHaisfield/status/1258785966459764738
- "In many digital gardens (basic def: public personal wiki, densely hyperlinked within itself, looser than a blog), you'll notice that if you hover your mouse over a link, it shows you a preview of the page it links to. BeSci/HCI explain why this is great 👇 https://twitter.com/JoshWComeau/status/1249028653985513472?s=20" @RobertHaisfield May 8, 2020
- digital garden example: https://garden.colingorrie.com/
- Gatsby starter kit for combining Roam Research tooling and Gatsby to create a digital garden: https://github.com/mathieudutour/gatsby-digital-garden
- “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.” https://piperhaywood.com/rietveld-brigham-didion/
- The first Dutch Obsidian meetup Notes about some common patterns from a Dutch Obsidian meetup which included many IndieWeb practitioners.
- digitized example: https://digitalbookhistory.com/colletscommonplace/ a digital version of Susanna Collet's Commonplace Book made with Digital Mappa
- Example: 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 http://hubevents.blogspot.com and books I've been reading. This is something of an electronic commonplace book.