Nowadays we capture and share our days on social media, and talk about going (back) to analogue by using a physical notebook, bullet journal or we keep notes digitally with note taking apps like Evernote, Onenote or even digital planners. Some of this plethora or notes is very topic specific, some not so valuable, or even distracting.
The Zibaldone or Commonplace Book is making a huge comeback however. Traced back for centuries, the commonplace book is meant for curating and sharing knowledge. It’s not a private journal or diary, it’s not study notes or a full post. What it is is useful information curated or collected by somebody and shared. Many famous authors, scientists, artists and other creatives have kept and published their Commonplace Books over the past few centuries, and following form, the Balanced Creative website is dedicated to being a central digital point of call for myself while capturing and studying the knowledgebase of creative topics.
What is a Commonplace Book?
Some names for this concept: zibaldone (Italian), commonplace book, memo book, memorandum book, adversaria (Latin), Commentarii, locus communis (Roman) or biji (Chinese).
When I was very little (under ten) I started a commonplace book, which I have packed and moved with me over life. At that time I was being given a new diary every year as a Christmas present, but only managed to journal or diarise for a few weeks into any year. Journaling my everyday still does not come easily for me, I am better at documenting on specific topics.
But that little commonplace book was such a joy that it remains with me forty years later. It’s full of quotes I liked at that time – many from Spike Milligan (which tickled my childish humour). I also have little sketch-doodles in there. It also documents the latest childhood jokes doing the rounds, and has a sense of my studies, my interests and what life was like back then. It also, of course, captures my very neat childish handwriting.
As a commonplace book it doesn’t do much for knowledge sharing, but that’s only part of what makes a commonplace book. What it is is a legacy I can share with my daughter, just like the scrapbook photo albums I created when she was born.
A history of the Commonplace Book
The latin term adversaria is more probably recognised in the word adversarial or adversary. The adversaria was basically a page with two sides, a debit and credit like a balance sheet. But in one column you could find notes and comments, and these note pages became known as adversaria.
In Ancient Greek and Roman times, Romans kept notes of ideas, quotations and maxims. These collections were called locus communis. Commonplaces were categories in which orators could place ideas, arguments, and rhetorical turn of phrases for later use. Emperor Marcus Aurelius kept one, and it became known as his “Meditations”.
From the 3rd Century Chinese people kept notes and ideas in collections called biji – A book of biji can contain anecdotes, quotations, random musings, philological speculations, literary criticism and indeed everything that the author deems worth recording. The genre first appeared during the Wei and Jin dynasties, and matured during the Tang Dynasty. There are two biji genres – one is towards fiction, but the traditional form translates as “notebooks”.
In the middle ages and early modern period the florilegium (gathering of flowers) collected passages from religious and theological works (Harvard Libraries).
These all led to the fourteenth century where commonplace books or zibaldone came into their own. In Italian, zibaldone translates to “heap of things” or “salads of many herbs.” The concept began with Venetian merchants who started noting down all their trading activities but also their traveling experiences and ideas. An early example is the Zibaldone da Canal, dated 1312.
These books were written in the vernacular, meaning that they were for everyday use and not intended as formal documents (which would have been in Latin). In Florence and other Italian cities, people kept ricordi (records), and libri segreti – secret or private books. These were mostly to document business information and almost always written by men. In these books, people recorded business transactions, family births and deaths, observances of city life and political events, technical information, and other references needed for later. The books were put together in no particular order. Content was added as it occurred. These books have provided highly important for historians.
While the Italian merchants traveled, the concept passed through Europe. By the eighteenth century, they were known in English-speaking countries as commonplace books, a translation of the Latin locis communis.
Erasmus wrote the guidebook on commonplace in 1512. His De Copia spelled out the commonplace template by instructing that “he who seeks to be learned should track down and read from as many authors as possible… “This method,” he notes, “will also have the effect of imprinting what you read more deeply on your mind, as well as accustoming you to utilizing the riches of your reading.”
English Enlightenment philosopher John Locke further cultivated the importance of commonplace as a tool for selectively acquiring knowledge by creating a highly-organized system. Locke began his commonplace during studies at Oxford in 1652, and his widely studied book, A New Method of Making Common-Place Books (1706), outlined the reasons for maintaining order:
- Understand why we collect information,
- Commit to remembering content we choose.
Locke gave specific advice on how to arrange material by subject and category, using key topics like love, politics, or religion. “Commonplace books, it must be stressed, are not journals, which are chronological and introspective,” he said
This led to the formal teaching of commonplace books and study methods at Harvard and Oxford, where undergraduate students were required to keep commonplace books for literature or humanities classes, leaving thousands of them as a legacy for modern-day scholars to peruse.
Commonplacing continued as a study technique into the 20th Century.
As you can see, human society has been keeping commonplace books for eons.
The most recent equivalents in an analogue sense may be the travelogue diaries and reading log journals.
Today we see the concept being replayed out in some portions of the bullet journal trend such as the tracking pages, reading logs, idea pages, list pages, and in non-chronological development. Some bullet journal users do use their notebooks for planning, creating monthly or calendar date pages, whilst a cohort of active bujo keepers enjoy the creative decoration of their journals, which takes these types of bujos strictly out of the commonplace area, so let’s look at what the zibaldone is not.
Commonplacing also continues in ways that reflect available technology. Digitally, many of the notekeeping apps like Evernote or OneNote can provide a similar function, and we are using terms like personal knowledgebases, and things like tags to enable us to filter and find what we need.
Pinterest image shares, twitter, blogging, facebook quotes and social memes – they all have their places in our pursuit of documenting and sharing our learnings. But those documents can be scattered and cover multiple topics, via multiple people’s streams.
Recognising the legitimate concerns with some of these mediums regarding distractions, information overwhelm and longevity, it seems a renaissance towards analogue forms offers us all a useful tool for knowledge curation and legacy.
Well Known Commonplacers
Historically, many notable people have kept commonplace books:
- Dante, Petrarch, and Boccaccio all kept detailed zibaldone.
- H.P. Lovecraft kept a a commonplace book filled with “ideas, images, & quotations hastily jotted down for possible future use in weird fiction.” The book has been published. Excerpts are on Wired.
- Thomas Jefferson kept two commonplace books for literary matters and another for legal matters.
- Writer and activist Nancy Cunard kept a commonplace book full of quotes and poems by her friends.
- Mark Twain, Thomas Hardy, Francis Bacon, and John Milton all kept them
- Writer and poet Jonathon Swift explained in A Letter of Advice to a Young Poet that “the commonplace book keeps the remarkable in our memory”
- Ralph Waldo Emerson and Henry David Thoreau shared a commonplace book about poetry. They learned to do it at Harvard.
- George Washington, Benjamin Franklin, and General Patton kept commonplace books. President Ronald Reagan compiled stacks of notecards full of concepts, quotes, and ideas that were part of his presidency and speeches.
- Montaigne, who invented the essay, kept a handwritten compilation of sayings, maxims and quotations from literature and history that he felt were important. His earliest essays were compilations of these thoughts.
- Jane Austen and Lewis Carroll (Charles Dodgson) kept commonplace books. The web was full of shares of some of Carroll’s pages when the Ransom Center’s Alice’s Adventures in Wonderland exhibition included a commonplace book. Headlines saying commonplace books were forerunners for sites like Pinterest perhaps mastered the recent rediscovery of the concept.
- American suffragist Elizabeth Cady Stanton kept a commonplace book with “private notes, correspondence (to and from Elizabeth Cady Stanton), diaristic writings, literary transcriptions, and pasted-in engravings of various European tourist sites.”
- Scientist Carl Linnaeus kept commonplace books to help systematize his findings.
- Napoleon was known to keep a commonplace book.
- Bill Gates publishes notes from personal reading on his blog.
- Julius Caesar tracked his lifelong pursuit of reading in over 1,200 pages of commonplace writing.
- A few fictional characters have been portrayed as collecting notes in commonplace form. Sherlock Holmes kept notes like this.
- In Lemony Snicket’s A Series of Unfortunate Events a number of characters including Klaus Baudelaire and the Quagmire triplets keep commonplace books.
- In Michael Ondaatje’s The English Patient, Count Almásy uses his copy of Herodotus’s Histories as a commonplace book.
What’s important about what we see in these previously published books is that the author’s voice and ideas come through alongside passages and knowledge they may have taken from somebody else. Zibaldoni are personal knowledge sharing.
Because commonplace books can take many forms, it’s possibly easier to start with what they are not. Later I’ll discuss how to create one.
Commonplace books are not –
- journals or diaries – commonplace books are meant to be shared, not kept for private thoughts. A journal records events of a person’s life; a commonplace is meant to be used in a different way, as it compiles knowledge, often along a certain theme. John Locke writes: “Commonplace books, it must be stressed, are not journals, which are chronological and introspective.”
- planners – dates and times can be recorded, but if you’re creating a full monthly calendar of appointments and tasks in advance then this is not a commonplace book.
- sketchbooks or visual journals – although sketches, diagrams, maps and doodles do have their place.
- ephemera scrapbooks or image photo albums – pure collections of ticket stubs and lovingly decorated family photos do not contain the author’s ideas or juxtaposition of knowledge and studies which commonplace collections can offer.
- public curations or complete libraries of knowledge by teams – commonplace books are designed to document portions of interesting knowledge by one individual person. That person can add in their own learnings and thoughts or comments, and juxtapose the knowledge – but it’s not a wiki ie. other people shouldn’t add or change the information with their own objectives.
Digitally we – and many of us are doing this – can keep our own commonplace books using note-taking systems like Evernote or OneNote which make taking web information, combining notes and filtering to find what we want easy.
But there is a growing body of studies which confirm that the digital world – even our own expanding digital notesbooks – is full of distractions, and returning to using our handwriting solidifies our memory and learning. The growing trend back to analogue as in bullet journals and planners is a result of those findings.
How to do Commonplacing Well
Harvard University Libraries
A commonplace book “contains a collection of significant or well-known passages that have been copied and organized in some way, often under topical or thematic headings, in order to serve as a memory aid or reference for the compiler”
So we have what a zibaldone or commonplace book should not be. But how do we make one, then?
- Think legacy – you may not ever share this, it may remain private, but treat the book like you would when creating study notes or documenting a book you have just read and add your own thoughts to that work. Consider readibility.
- Take quotes and portions of what you have loved, what spoke to you in your everyday reading or studies.
- When reading, don’t be afraid to write margin notes into books you own. Take the best of these and copy into your commonplace book.
- Track things which interest you from your everyday ie television shows you are watching, or habits you are trying to create or break, shopping price lists to show the changes over time.
- Curate and organise similar things – you can create a page dedicated to a certain topic, or design a quick way to document the latest book you’ve just read.
- Don’t worry about chronology – stick similar ideas together, or create an index or contents page to find these similar ideas.
- Lay in or attach small relevant things – the odd ticket stub, photograph or brochure of flyer for an event you enjoyed attending.
- Don’t be afraid to doodle or sketch. Commonplace books are not about perfectionism. Mistakes can be simply crossed out, it’s part of the charm. And so are your drawings, which as they say, speak 1000 words.
- Make concise modern notes by using some of the ideas out of bullet journalling,
- If you’re learning or studying, don’t put all your study notes in there, but if it’s something that means a lot to you, copy in some crucial formula, tables, quotations or comments.
- If you want to keep track or find all the relevant parts of a topic, use an indexing method out of the bullet journal sphere or make up your own. Use highlighters and colours to pull out important words and titles.
- Various people historically have kept commonplace books on themes. If you have large interests in different areas, don’t feel confined to just keeping the one book. You may want one for travels, one as a reading journal, one for business and one for personal interests, for instance.
- Lastly, consider different mediums for your commonplacing. Most of us will be capturing and sharing many parts of our interests via social media sites like Pinterest (see link for one below) but remember – these don’t provide a ready legacy to pass down to future generations. Notebooks and even collections in index cards (as per Ryan Holiday. Robert Greene and others – see below) are options you should consider.
My Take on the Commonplace Book
At the beginning of 2019, like just about everyone, I personally took a look at forming some new goals for the new year. Knowing I wasn’t great at maintaining overall planners and even bullet journals, when I accidentally discovered the commonplace book, it felt kismet and just right. Two very exciting goals came from this discovery.
- During the year I will be creating a physical commonplace book. I’ve selected a lovely handmade Indian notebook to write this into. My teenage daughter has selected another Indian notebook to create her own in. She was already journaling (and taking copious study notes) but understandably wants those to remain private. So a commonplace book will meet a more public need.
- And then there’s this website, thebalancedcreative.net. It was created created a few months back with the intention of being a collection or curation of things, before I discovered the term or commonplacing. It now has an identity and specific objective.
References and Further Reading
This wouldn’t be a zibaldone or commonplace book without this entry pointing to my references of discovery, or as we say it nowadays – further reading. So here they are then, the many posts and places I formed this post from.
- Why I’m ditching the bullet journal and turning to a zibaldone or commonplace book – Pens Paper Plans
- 10 Commonplace Journal Ideas and Difference Between a Visual and Commonplace Journal – Quinn Creative
- A Brief Guide to Keeping a Commonplace Book – Notebook of Ghosts [Originally published in Dirge Magazine with the original title “Before Bullet Journals, There Were Commonplace Books” on January 8, 2017]
- Social Media: Nothing New? Commonplace Books As Predecessor to Pinterest – by Kelsey McKinney, Images Courtesy of Harry Ransom Center
- A new (to me) concept for keeping a notebook. – Shaunta Grimes – Medium. Note 1: This year (2019) Shaunta is beginning to document a daily digital commonplace book, again on Medium. Note 2: I don’t like Medium as a medium, as unless you pay a subscription membership fee, you can not read all the blog posts published on there.
- How And Why To Keep A “Commonplace Book” – RyanHoliday.net. Ryan Holiday was credited in an Austin Kleon tweet, which kicked off some of the commonplace book movement at least in writer’s circles recently. This is that post. Holiday uses index note cards for his commonplacing, as taught to him by Robert Greene, who uses notecards to master the theme topics for his non-fiction books.
- The Commonplace Book or Knowledge Box Note card system – Luna Enya Drakon
- Wikipedia entry: Commonplace Book
- Taking Note – Commonplace Books – Evernote
- What is Your Personal Table of Contents? and Turn Your Notes App Into a Personal Knowledge Base — Tiago Forte on Building a Second Brain and Tiago Forte on Taking Notes for Creative Thinking – Doug Toft – discusses the idea from an idea or infopreneur viewpoint.
- The Commonplace Book: You Only Retain A Fraction Of The Wisdom You Encounter If You Don’t Have One Of These – Ethan Maurice
- Strategies to Keep a Commonplace Book and The Commonplace Book as a Thinker’s Journal – Critical Margins
- Commonplace Book Collection on Pinterest