Monday, June 7, 2021

Commonplace Books: History & Follow up Tips


Writers use journals, notebooks, project file folders or binders to capture brainstorming ideas and plans. In the 1600s, commonplace books came about due to information overload; much like the pace of information flying about us in these days. In addition, it was thought (& later confirmed) that writing things by hand helped fix the teachings more deeply and expand observation skills.

Literary students found commonplace books essential for recording quotes, ideas, and snippets of essays or books they were studying.

Steven Johnson wrote, “Scholars, amateur scientists, aspiring men of letters—just about anyone with intellectual ambition in the seventeenth and eighteenth centuries was likely to keep a commonplace book. ‘Commonplacing,’ as it was called, involved transcribing interesting or inspirational passages from one’s reading, assembling a personalized encyclopedia of quotations.”

Many throughout history have used commonplace books. Writers read widely and write; we collect our thoughts in journals and notebooks daily. History continues with us!

Here are a few historical figures we can learn from to expand our routine:

Erasmus (1466–1536) is known as the father of modern commonplacing, popularizing the concept in his book De Copia in 1512. He subdivided his book into categories.

John Locke (1632–1704) wrote an entire book about the practice: A New Method of Making Common-Place-Books. Locke was a physician and philosopher who began keeping his first commonplace book during his first year at Oxford, 1652.

Thomas Jefferson (1743–1826) kept two separate commonplace books: one for legal notes and another for literary ones.

E.M. Forster (1879–1970) used his commonplace book to record quotes, comments on what he was reading at the time, interesting tidbits he overheard, and ideas for future novels.

Ronald Reagan (1911–2004) used a notecard system to record stories and jokes to use in speeches.

There is no rulebook for keeping a commonplace book. Your commonplace book is uniquely yours, a central storehouse of notes, words of wisdom, sayings that have impressed you, and practical how-to’s.

Capture ideas by notes, scribbles, doodles, diagrams, sketches, or pictures. Record quotes to remember and reflect upon later. Let your book become your treasure store resource. In the process, you might discover something of utmost importance to you. Write it your way; outline, diagonal snippets, and vertical standout points, whatever.

Historically, commonplace books were not chronological with a table of contents, etc.
I plan to organize mine by topical sections or categories.

Start with a variety of small or large bound books, binders or folders with loose sheets, or 3x5 cards. Whatever suits you and your style. Experiment and find what you like best, find the most convenient and useful method. It’s your commonplace, your everyday details and notes book: your personal resource of creativity and planning.

The History of Commonplace Books—links of interest:

•  John Locke’s method of indexing

•    Jenny Rallens, a classical schoolteacher, developed a method for teaching commonplace books. Find the Jenny Rallens Method here:  


John Locke 1685 to 1706 

Image Source:$5i
Follow this link for a wonderful record of John Locke’s book via images.     







 Deborah Lyn Stanley is an author of Creative Non-Fiction. She writes articles, essays and stories. She is passionate about caring for the mentally impaired through creative arts.
Visit her My Writer’s Life website at:   
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Karen Cioffi said...

Deborah, what an interesting article on the history of commonplace books, all the way back to the 1400s. I clicked on the link for the record of John Locke’s book. Most of us don't think about how long it took people to write in longhand. And no features like "find" to find something quickly.
I don't use a notebook (know I probably should) but I do have files and files of notes, quotes, interesting passages, and so on in my laptop.
Thanks for sharing!

Carolyn Howard-Johnson said...

So, tell me how I got through an English lit degree without knowing this term? Lol.
Thank you, DeborahLyn!
Best, Carolyn

Terry Whalin said...

Deborah Lyn,

Thank you for this fascinating article. I've been in publishing for decades and never heard about commonplace books. There is always more to learn in this diverse business.


deborah lyn said...

I love your comments and feedback. Thank you!
As you may know, I make & use altered books. I've been so thrilled to study & share Commonplace Book use that I dedicated a new (altered) book just for commonplacing! Thanks again.

Susan K Beatty, Author said...

I love the idea of “commonplacing”.” I learned about Commonplace books a few years ago, but your article added so much more depth to what I knew. Thank you. Another author and I even brainstormed some ideas for using commonplacing and a commonplace book in a novel or two. Due to the precedence of other projects in our lives, we haven’t written them yet. Someday. Great article, Deborah!

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