What’s a commonplace book?

Although nobody has asked me this question about my blog subtitle yet, I feel somewhat compelled to mention it.

I first learned about commonplace books in my Honors Composition class during my freshman year in college.  Though I can’t remember the exact definition, the concept has stuck with me over the years.  The Historical Society of Pennsylvania has a definition that best matches my interpretation.  A commonplace book is

a manuscript or typed volume kept by an individual containing literary passages, quotations, recipes, poems, or passages from other sources that the individual thought worthy of recording.  These tend to be highly eclectic, may or may not include commentary by the individual, and may or may not be on a common theme.

The commonplace book I kept for my class contained a mix of quotations, comic strips, advertisements, poems, and other assorted clippings of interest. I’m not sure it would photograph well, so I’ll just share one quotation that’s particularly applicable to our cpd23 efforts.

“All,” be they dull or bright, more or less able, be their will powerful or weak, become blameworthy if they refuse to advance in learning. -Ivan Illich, In The Vineyard Of The Text

I really appreciate little tidbits of information like this, and it was fun to have a place to collect them. I continued to add to my commonplace book for at least a couple of years after the class. In many ways, I would say I haven’t really stopped keeping a commonplace book — it has just gone digital. Unfortunately, though, much of the content has been spread out among multiple tools. Sometimes I just use browser bookmarks, or I might share a fun quotation via Facebook or Twitter. The closest digital reproduction might be my Evernote “commonplace book” notebook, as it allows me to scroll through the entries (and search them = bonus!).

It seems to me that blogs can also serve as a type of commonplace book.  Actually, if I remember correctly, one of the purposes of keeping a commonplace book is to inspire future writing. I have never really done that with any of my clippings thus far, but it seems there’s no time like the present.

Do any of you keep commonplace books? What do you think of the idea?


13 Comments on “What’s a commonplace book?”

  1. Niamh says:

    Really interesting post! I’d never heard of the commonplace book, would probably have called that a scrap book. I see what you mean about blogs filling that space now and Tumblr blogs in particular seem to encourage this.

  2. Erin says:

    Never heard of a commonplace book either, but like the concept. I’ve got the low-tech version of a couple little notebooks where I jot down quotes/poems, web addresses, or recipes I like. It’s definitely a new way to think about blogs and facebook that really makes a lot of sense!

  3. Melanie says:

    I wasn’t sure what a commonplace book was, but earlier, I did pause momentarily at your blog title – thanks for sensing the question mark and explaining! I also want to commend your use of direct questions to get the discussion rolling (note to self for my own blog). I’ve kept distinct sketchbooks, journals, scrapbooks, and other note/jotty books, but sometimes they do overlap. I’m particularly intrigued by the primary “collecting” purpose of the commonplace book. Say what you will about all the technology tools that provide similar utility, the simplicity and persistence of one book (or series of volumes, as the case may be over time), is a beautiful thing.

  4. Miss Scarlet says:

    I’ve never heard of commonplace books, either, but it’s a great idea! I think I view my blog as a sort of commonplace book, though I suppose it’s just specialized in one (loosely interpreted) subject.

  5. Nicole Brock says:

    Thanks for all of your comments! I think scrapbook is a closely related word. The Wikipedia entry (https://secure.wikimedia.org/wikipedia/en/wiki/Commonplace_book) gives a little more of the history. I like how the practice may have been formally taught in universities, kind of like my experience.

  6. laurenwallis says:

    I. Love. Commonplace Books. Disclaimer: This is about to get nerdy.

    Like many librarians, I am an English major at heart, and my master’s thesis led me to some eighteenth century commonplace books that were kept by women who liked to write poetry and circulate it in manuscript. Have you looked at Milcah Martha Moore’s Book? Google it.

    I’ve thought of blogs as modern-day commonplace books, and you articulate this idea very well. Self-publishing has been powerful for centuries, and it looks like it will continue to be!

    Thanks for your comment on my blog!

  7. Yes, I kept a common place book for a year or so – I took cuttings, quotes and pictures from the newspaper – pretty much anything which interested me. I didn’t know at the time that that was what it was, however. Looking back on it a while later gave me pause for thought – it’ a good way of tracking your own ideas and development. Perhaps we an use it as a learning tool in education? PGCS students are required to reflect, but I can see it working elsewhere.

    • Nicole Brock says:

      I think they did start out as learning tools in education! I didn’t do much reflection in my previous commonplace book, but that’s where I’m hoping the blog can help. Not everything I clip will be worth commenting on, but some may have a good story!

  8. Nicole,

    I’m still taking time to look at more of the 23cpd blogs and specifically looked at yours because you had commonplace book in your title. I was glad and intrigued to come across the concept many years ago because I’d been doing something similar much of my life. For awhile I enjoyed finding and reading other commonplace books. My best to another Commonplace Book aficionado.

  9. […] at least a few of these ideas, but so far, I’ve mostly just been using it as an electronic commonplace book. I’ve clipped quite a few quotations and comics that amuse and inspire, but I can’t say […]

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