The Commonplace Book: Part I

Milton's Commonplace BookOver at the PigPog Blog is a great post about Storing Nuggets of Information, calling for ideas. This is something I've been struggling with for many years myself, and have only lately been making any sort of headway. When I think about all the years of WordPerfect files, text files, photos stuck between pages of books, MS Office files, sundry (often ancient) forms of databases, scraps of paper in drawers, JPGs, PSDs, PCXs, shoeboxes of articles, OOo files, CorelDRAW illustrations, Commodore 64 Paperclip files, and so on, it's a wonder I have any sort of retention at all except for memory. Half of the files I've gathered over the years are locked in obsolete proprietary formats gathering dust on 5.25" or 3.5" floppies, probably never to be seen again. (For the record, none of my current computers even have a floppy drive). I've had to face the fact that many of these potentially valuable scraps of information have been lost forever.

There is a possible solution for this dilemma, though, and one that comes from a bygone age. For many centuries, it was one kept faithfully by the learned, the artistic, the scholarly, and even the merely curious. I'm referring to the Commonplace Book.

On a computer, the best program I've ever seen for handling this sort of thing is undoubtedly DEVONthink Pro (which is only for the Mac, alas -- see a little review of how I use it here. It keeps almost everything within a directory-based structure, indexes RTF, MS Office files, HTML, PDF, JPGs and many more formats, has great back-up and export options, and is transparent with the file system (e.g., you can even mount an FTP site and drag an image straight to the server from DTPro). The biggest deal for me, though, as a writer, is the whole idea of concordance ("what's related?"). It can suggest any number of other articles or scraps of information by topic matter, and the more you feed into it, the smarter it becomes.

But paper is entirely another matter. A well-organised set of filing cabinets helps, but unless impecably maintained, it soon becomes an unfocussed system filled with unimportant or irrelevant material.

Enter the "commonplace book" system (a literal translation of the locus communis, referring to a theme or argument of common application) that started around the fifth century BCE, became very popular during the Renaissance, and continued through to the early part of the 20th century.

From the Oxford English Dictionary:

Commonplace-book. Formerly Book of common places. orig. A book in which 'commonplaces' or passages important for reference were collected, usually under general heads; hence, a book in which one records passages or matters to be especially remembered or referred to, with or without arrangement. First usage recorded: 1578.

The general heads mentioned would be a topic-oriented approach, the choosing of which would be attuned to the mind of the keeper, and hence ideally suited to the needs of an individual rather than a collective. It then becomes an extension of our personal interests and pursuits.

So here we sit, amongst the vast and towering constructions of a digital world, and yet we perceive there is a potential need for something like this. Why? Well, while it's true that many of us receive a good portion of our information online (especially if one is an I.T. professional), we still receive many little bits of data during the day in our offline hours as well. We still see TV news shows, we still read magazines, we still peruse newspapers, we still chat with friends, we still rush about the world persuing our individual lives and sensing stimuli. Because we rarely think to take down these valuable bits of information we encounter, they often disappear forever.

Time was when readers kept commonplace books. Whenever they came across a pithy passage, they copied it into a notebook under an appropriate heading, adding observations made in the course of daily life. Erasmus instructed them how to do it. ... The practice spread everywhere in early modern England, among ordinary readers as well as famous writers like Francis Bacon, Ben Jonson, John Milton, and John Locke. It involved a special way of taking in the printed word. Unlike modern readers, who follow the flow of a narrative from beginning to end, early modern Englishmen read in fits and starts and jumped from book to book. They broke texts into fragments and assembled them into new patterns by transcribing them in different sections of their notebooks. Then they reread the copies and rearranged the patterns while adding more excerpts. Reading and writing were therefore inseparable activities. They belonged to a continuous effort to make sense of things, for the world was full of signs: you could read your way through it; and by keeping an account of your readings, you made a book of your own, one stamped with your personality. ... The era of the commonplace book reached its peak in the late Renaissance, although commonplacing as a practice probably began in the twelfth century and remained widespread among the Victorians. It disappeared long before the advent of the sound bite." --Robert Darnton, "Extraordinary Commonplaces," The New York Review of Books, December 21, 2000

Besides the aforementioned writers, many other significant or learned people down through the centuries have kept them, including heads of state, artists, academics, lawyers, technicians, gardeners, clergy, and even quite ordinary families (and those lucky few who have preserved their family's commonplaces now have a treasure that they undoubtedly cherish). You'll see them repeatedly in the stories of the time. In Sir Arthur Conon Doyle's tales, Sherlock Holmes kept a large and sprawling commonplace book upon his shelves, essentially his own home-grown encyclopedia of people, places, crimes, and pertinent facts, like the colour of mud from various locations, or the consistency of tobacco ashes. In the middle of a case, Holmes would rush to his commonplace, haul down a book, and read out a newspaper article concerning (say) the disappearance of a hydraulics engineer a year prior. His attic of a brain remembered vague references, but the books held the details that allowed him to pursue his work. And so it was for everybody that used them.

Pay careful note to the bit in the last quote relating how people "read in fits and starts and jumped from book to book" -- doesn't this remind you of how the Internet and modern information overflow affect us every day? We can't stop the world and digest it in an orderly flow from beginning to end; we must make sense of it as it winds and unravels before us, and therefore need some sane place to collect it, dissect it, analyse it, reference it, learn it.

One might argue that an effective filing system with cabinets and folders serves much the same purpose, but with a somewhat less personal touch. There is, however, another fundamental difference, and it relates to the level of disposability of information. A filing cabinet system is a place with expanding folders where we can toss any mildly interesting or potentially useful piece of information. For example, we might file away a booklet with Internet usage statistics for 2003, or the tax guide for 2004, or a price quote, or a magazine article about the current crop of sinus medications. It is something that holds larger pieces of reference information, and that should be purged every now and then --about once a year, by the opinion of many organisational experts.

A commonplace book, on the other hand, is for keeping small but valuable snippets of information: phrases, sentences, paragraphs, small articles cut from the newspaper, sketches of locations, references to recommended books, meaningful chunks of statistics, inspirational quotes, handy measurements, geneological diagrams, biographical notes, and so forth. Contrary to what one keeps in a filing system, the commonplace book is an important source of finely-tuned information to help digest subjects, expand one's mind, and turn to for help on a particular topic. We don't generally need to purge such a thing; in fact, the greater the resource we build it, the more beneficial and cherished it becomes. It often makes fascinating reading on a dreary winter's night, or when you're facing some sort of mental blockage.

To all those who yearn for a non-digital way of collecting and organising helpful nuggets of information, I'd suggest considering a commonplace book as a way of keeping your data and inspirations in order. A little organising and collecting now will lead to huge dividends in the future.

In Part II of this article (coming very soon), we'll have a look at a few ways to set up a modern equivalent of the commonplace book.

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Excellent topic! The timing

Excellent topic! The timing is perfect -- I just got a new notebook and was wondering how best to use it.
Can't wait for part II.

electronic commonplace book choices

After putting StickyBrain and DEVONthink Pro through their paces, I finally settled on AquaMinds NoteTaker as a much more useful application. NoteTaker, like the other two, allows me to use Services in the Safari menu option to copy selected items to a selected page that I have previously set up in one of several notebooks. Because it is in book form, it is automatically easy to organize. Perhaps I never caught on to the secrets of DEVONthink Pro, but I've been extremely happy with NoteTaker.

Whenever I get a notebook to a point where I feel it is finished and/or usable, I can convert it into the reader NoteViewer, then copy it onto a CD so I'll have the information for future reference.

I've had my own version of this Commonplace Book in the past, keeping them in lab notebooks - though I'd never heard of the Commonplace Book. I'm waiting with interest to see your version.

I'm always passionate about books and paste and paper and pens. I was seduced by my first Moleskine notebook in the Savoy Hotel Gift Shop in London, December, 2000, and haven't looked back at the lab notebooks since. I noticed that Ricky Gervais on Extras this week pulled out a Moleskine notebook from his shirt pocket. I could tell by the elastic he had to remove before he could open it.


I used NoteTaker for a while and quite liked it, especially the export of outlines to a handy website. I stopped using it when I started hitting a particular wall: that of only being able to use Libraries, Sections, and Pages, and not really drill down any further. For example, I had a Library with notes for my novel. Sections were for characters, plot notes, conflicts, backstories, and so forth. Then I might have a page on (say) each character. But I constantly found myself wanting to drill down even further, and often needed a structure two layers deeper with regard to a character or a backstory. True, I could have put such things on the same "page" and collapse the points, but flipping through the pages looking for such things became a little cumbersome. I loved the notebook metaphor, but I guess I tend to require a deeper taxonomy for collecting my snippets. I turned to DT (then Personal) to experiment with this, and found --to my delight as a writer-- the concordance and the media library management tools (including indexing PDF files as regular text for searching). The product has since grown very much, and the DTPro version is abolutely stunning in its capabilities. (You see... I'm not just a paper guy. ;-) )

Now, I'm not saying that either DTPro or AquaMinds NoteBook or Circus Ponies' offering or Tinderbox or Hog Bay Notebook (great, IMHO) is any better than all of the others. Each one is a rich application with tonnes of pros and cons, and every Mac-using individual should download the trial versions of each of them to experiment, to see which one suits their needs best.

(As an aside, GTD users may wish to try out Pascal Vernier's GTD template for DTPro. While I haven't put it through its paces, I did take a look at it, and it's very intriguing and well put together.)

all my best,

An electronic version of the commonplace book

Excellent article. I've been keeping my own computer-based version of a commonplace book for many years without knowing it's name! I've used a number of PIM/outliner applications including ECCO, Keynote, Maple, Whizfolders, and (my current favorite), GemX TexNotes. TexNotes lends itself to the easy organization of thoughts, notes, files, images, weblinks, etc. that is implied by the concept of a commonplace book. In truth, I would be lost without my TexNotes files (which I periodically summarize and print for inclusion in my paper organizer).

TexNotes on the cheap

FYI, anyone thinking of getting TexNotes or any other GemX software might consider doing it now. All of their software is being offered at a 50% discount until January 5th, 2006.

Disclaimer: I have absolutely no affiliation with GemX. I just happened to notice the sale at their web site when looking for a bookmark manager.

Common-place book

By friend and colleague, Sherlock Holmes, had a horror of destroying documents, especially those which were connected with his past cases, and yet it was only once in every year or two that he would muster energy to docket and arrange them thus pasting extracts from newspapers into his common-place book. See "The Musgrave Ritual" (see


I'm really looking forward to the second part of the article, yet in the mean time, I'll give an idea that occurred to me. To counter-balance all those digital commonplace books, here is something that uses paper and pen in the form of an idea box (anyone recognize where I adapted this idea from ;). Every time you have an idea, put it on an index card, and then throw it in the box. Then, whenever you have a problem that you want to solve, take out those cards and use them to jumpstart your brainstorming process.

The nice thing about this type of commonplace book is that it is highly portable, dynamic, and it can be made as sophisticated as you want.

Here are some ideas to mix and match when you set up the idea box .

Noguchi filing system:

After I discovered this, I started seeing the potential for it in almost every context. Write a title and date on every new index card, and then place it at the front of the box. Every time that you access an idea, move it to the front when you are finished. Whenever the box fills up, take all the cards that are in the back (that you want to keep) and file them away in a reference system. This way, you don't need to create arbitrary filing categories, and you have in front of you only what you are actually using.

Categorical Idea Boxes:

Whenever you write down an idea, tag it with a category name (i.e. organization, writing, etc.), and then file it in the corresponding idea box. Each time that you want to solve a particular type of problem, go to the corresponding idea box and use the cards as guides. Combine this with the Noguchi filing system, and you have an eminently workable system.

Traditionally Organized Idea Boxes

Whenever you write down an idea, give it a category, and then put it into the idea box in a section devoted to that category. Since all you really want to do is to differentiate one category from another, you just need is some type of place holder. If you want to buy something, the Container Store sells some very nice index card organizer tabs. Alternatively, you can also get away with flipping an index card on its side and cutting off a chunk. Either way works, as long as you can clearly differeniate one category from another.


Number every index card, and give it some tags. Then, provide the number of the last index card that was in each of those tags. If you keep all the cards sequentially, then you can find any given idea pretty quickly by going through all the ones in its category.

Any way, these are just some ideas that you can use to put together you own commonplace idea box. They are all different, yet the one thing that they have in common is the principle that you only need a small subset of your ideas in front of you at any given time. Rather than your having all of your ideas in front of you, all you actually need are a few that are relevant to your current problem. Enjoy. :0


Davistech, I have also become dependent on my TexNotes. Great program!

I am currently using Essential Pim Pro

I was using for the PC Essential PIM Freeware but was luckly to hear they were giving a license away on Halloween and got mine. Not that big of a difference to me between the free and the Pro Version.

It has a great Notebook feature that I keep all my Notes in - Easily Searched and I love the Task/Calendar Program.

I would recommend this to all.