It’s easy to go through life without making records of every minute experience, but for some it can be an important tool for mindfulness and personal satisfaction to jot down any idea, piece of information, or observation that piques your interest.
It may be that you already keep a journal of one kind or another, such as a diary or dream journal, but there’s another habit which writers, travellers, and philosophers have kept for hundreds of years.
This practice is called commonplacing, or keeping a commonplace book. It’s a method of storing every single piece of information that you find interesting enough to record in one place, so that you can easily find it and refer to it in the future.
What is a commonplace book?
A commonplace book (or commonplace) is a way for an individual to store knowledge in one location. Usually this will be in the form of a physical book, although in modern times some people prefer online cloud-based note taking tools.
Commonplaces are similar to scrapbooks in how they can become a disparate, fragmented collection of different ideas. They can therefore appear messier than a typical diary or notebook, but instead of being organised chronologically they are divided by topic or subject headings. This is so they can be used like an index, with each bit of information easy to find. Some might have a more complex series of subsections.
While, like diaries, commonplace books are typically for personal use, some have been published, such as HP Lovecraft’s.
What should be stored in a commonplace?
The purpose of a commonplace depends entirely on the user. The benefit is that they can be customised completely to fit a unique need, or repurposed whenever necessary.
Typically, commonplace books were used to record quotes, adages, poems (or extracts), prayers, recipes, and anything else that could be of interest to the individual. These could be sourced from books the user is reading, observations they make while taking a stroll, or even conversations they overhear.
The history of commonplace books
The origins of commonplaces date all the way back to Ancient Greece, where lawmen and politicians would keep an assortment of arguments in a commonplace that they could refer to during debates. The term “commonplace” can be identified to originate from Ancient Rome, as it is a translation of the Latin term locus communis (meaning “a general or common topic”).
While note-taking has been an important tool for philosophers and writers, the act of commonplacing became more established during the Renaissance.
John Locke’s A New Method of Making Common-Place-Books
While commonplacing became a popular way for many Europeans to document their findings when travelling abroad, the method was also formally taught to students at Oxford University by the 17th century.
The process became more widespread and formalised once philosopher John Locke included a description of his commonplacing method in his influential An Essay Concerning Human Understanding. Later, in 1706, he cemented the concept with his book New Method of Making Common-Place-Books.
Locke described techniques for the recording of quotes, speeches, and ideas, and even provided advice on how to separate material into different categories – everything which we know today as key aspects of commonplacing. Popularity for it grew as a result of the technique’s ease of use and ability to order everything, while allowing space to meander with new discoveries.
Who uses commonplaces
Writers and philosophers are the most common people to use commonplace books, going back to significant figures such as Marcus Aurelius whose Meditations originated as a collection of private thoughts, notes, and quotes.
However, commonplaces can be used by anyone, especially those who benefit from collating notes or enjoy having a record of their experiences and ideas. Since the early modern period, scholars, scientists, and politicians have also practised the method.
Commonplacing has continued to be popular even if it has evolved over the centuries. While it was used by authors like Ralph Waldo Emerson, Mark Twain, and Virginia Woolf, Ronald Reagan and Bill Gates are two more recent proponents of the technique.
The benefits of keeping a commonplace book
It helps you beat writer’s block
While anyone can use and benefit from commonplaces, it’s a particularly powerful tool for writers . By having a wealth of materials to refer to, it’s possible to find a quote, adage, or other nuggets that provides the inspirational catalyst to get you over obstacles such as writer’s block.
It can save hours of frustration
Have you ever had a song lyric, poem, or saying that you can only partially remember, or that’s on the tip of your tongue? Maybe you recently learnt a new word, but the definition has already slipped your mind.
All these things are often causes of frustration, and while it might be possible to (re)search for your answers online, it is quicker and provides a great deal of satisfaction to be able to look them up in a commonplace of your own.
It makes you a better reader
As your commonplace grows and grows, you’ll begin seeing common points of interest and, perhaps more importantly, more room for growth. With all the perspectives that you have gathered into one place, they can help guide you to pursue new opinions and viewpoints, whether that’s in what books you choose to read, podcasts you listen to, or people you seek conversation with.
How to start a commonplace book
There’s no single, correct way to use a commonplace book. After all, they are all unique to the individual and should therefore be entirely adapted to suit your purposes. What’s most important is finding an approach that you find easiest to keep using with ease, and that doesn’t frustrate you to the extent that you give up.
The main thing to decide is how to categorise your commonplace. This will depend on your intentions for it. If you’re a writer, you might want to record meaningful quotes and divide them into poems, novels, philosophy, interviews, and biographies. You may then decide to organise them into subcategories. These could be themes, like love, religion, politics, and family.
If you’re a blogger or other content creator, you might prefer to tailor your commonplace to be more focused around your interests. If you like to travel it could be categorised by country, or if you write about movies it could be organised by genre.
Popular methods of keeping a commonplace
These are the three most popular formats for keeping commonplace books:
Using notebooks will be the most familiar form for many, as it’s easy to adapt experiences of diary-keeping or journaling. The physicality of taking notes with paper and pen means that you take more care with what you add to the commonplace, and the act of writing helps you memorise the material better than typing.
The downside is that this medium can prove to be inflexible. Pages and categories can be rearranged (without some skillful DIY), and you will eventually reach the point where you fill up your notebook and have to decide how to proceed (either by starting on a second or by adding supplementary paper for new materials).
A similar, but more flexible, method to using a notebook is instead keeping a collection of note cards. While these may not present such a neat, single location, you can have one piece of information per card and rearrange it infinitely. Buy a pack of index cards and you can include numerous dividers to keep them all organised by section, or each use different-coloured cards to indicate the topic.
The challenge with note cards is keeping them all together, as it’s easy to keep adding cards indefinitely and quickly lose track of them if they’re not well-indexed.
For the most modern approach, there are numerous apps and pieces of software designed to make note-taking easy, such as OneNote or Evernote. You’ll probably have used them before, but often the full capabilities are much greater than they first appear.
Having a digital commonplace has one major advantage: the majority of tools available are cloud-based. That means you can access them wherever you are, on any device, and update them instantly. Being able to pull out your phone and quickly add a note while you’re out and about is invaluable, and saves you carrying around a thick notebook or box of index cards.
That said, some writers will never give up on using a physical notebook. The scratching of ink on paper is a feeling that cannot be replaced by going digital.
Whatever your approach and intentions, commonplacing is an invaluable tool to keep a record of anything and everything that might interest you. Unlike keeping a diary, which is introspective, it allows you to engage with the external world much more thoughtfully.
Keeping a commonplace book can require determination, but the more you put in the more rewarding it is. Commonplacing is a life-long process, and once you make it a habit you’ll wish you’d have started sooner.
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Commonplace book FAQs
When were commonplace books first used?
Commonplace books have been in use for hundreds of years, with origins in Ancient Greece and Rome. But the technique was popularised and formalised by philosopher John Locke in 1706.
What’s the best way to keep a commonplace book?
While notebooks remain common tool for journaling and scrapbooking, many people nowadays use digital methods for commonplacing. Apps make it easier than ever to keep notes all in one place in a way that’s easy to categorise and refer back to.