Taking Note: What Commonplace Books Can Teach Us about Our Past

Tips & Stories

Taking Note: What Commonplace Books Can Teach Us about Our Past

Posted by Taylor Pipes on 26 Feb 2016

Posted by Taylor Pipes on 26 Feb 2016

This is the second post in our series, “Taking Note,” outlining the storied history and styles of note-taking. Throughout the coming weeks, we’ll explore how the practice of taking notes can improve your creativity and all the work you set out to accomplish.

Reading and writing are intrinsically linked on the lifelong quest to discover new possibilities, validate ideas, soak up knowledge from others, and inspire new opportunities for our work.

One of the best ways to ensure that these two pursuits remain forever linked is to capture our thoughts in a place where they can constantly be read, reviewed, analyzed, and studied.

Behold, the power of the commonplace book, a system with deep historical roots. As author Steven Johnson says:

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. In its most customary form, ‘commonplacing,’ as it was called, involved transcribing interesting or inspirational passages from one’s reading, assembling a personalized encyclopedia of quotations.

The practice remains the perfect way to harness the colossal amount of digital content we see. And technology has provided us with flexible frameworks capable of helping us capture, curate, and retain information. As Ryan Holiday notes, commonplace has plenty of utility in our modern life:

A commonplace book is a central resource or depository for ideas, quotes, anecdotes, observations and information you come across during your life and didactic pursuits. The purpose of the book is to record and organize these gems for later use in your life, in your business, in your writing, speaking or whatever it is that you do.

Commonplace in Historical Context

History is full of historic figures and literary luminaries that tapped the power of the commonplace book to capture and record vital details about everything around them.

Here are a few notable examples of commonplace in practice:

  • Carl Linnaeus used commonplace as a way to organize and catalog the taxonomy of the “Systema Naturae,” the precursor to binomial nomenclature and the order of the species.
  • Julius Caesar tracked his lifelong pursuit of reading in over 1,200 pages of commonplace writing.
  • John Milton amassed one of the most distinct manuscripts of reading and political theory of any Renaissance poet.
  • Thomas Jefferson deployed two versions of commonplace—one to help his academic and legal endeavors, and another to keep track of his reading.
  • During the seventeenth century, students at Harvard and Oxford were expected to keep their own commonplace notebooks.
  • Bill Gates publishes notes from personal reading on his blog.
  • President Ronald Reagan compiled stacks of notecards full of concepts, quotes, and ideas that were part of his presidency and speeches.
  • Lewis Carroll incorporated articulate drawings related to anagrams, ciphers, and labyrinths.

Screen Shot 2016-02-23 at 10.51.29 AM
A view into Lewis Carroll’s commonplace shows his musings on ciphers and detailed handwritten charts exploring labryinths.

Commonplace to Manage Information

The rise in popularity of the commonplace book occurred during a point in the sixteenth century when the mass distribution of information catapulted an entire generation into a tizzy.

As much as the mobile device has changed the way we connect to content today, the printing press abruptly thrust all manner of religious publications, periodicals, satire into the public discourse, accessible in ways that had never been previously imagined. That brought a wave of fear, not just related to the dizzying array of subject matter, but mainly from the overwhelming flood of information. Never before had so much written knowledge been so widely available. This period essentially ushered in the modern introduction to information overload.

Order was restored as industrious folks from a plethora of educational backgrounds and social circles sought to create a system for managing the influx of content. Their solution was the commonplace book. Printing made paper and notebooks readily available which served as a tangible catch-all record designed to collect knowledge and ideas as a source of self-reflection and lifelong learning.

The Case for Putting Things in Order

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.”

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:

  1. Understand why we collect information,
  2. Commit to remembering content we choose.

We extract only those Things which are Choice and Excellent, either for the Matter itself, or else the Elegancy of the Expression, and not what comes next.

By making a concerted effort to keep a consistent order, Locke argues that students of commonplace would be able to retain important information.

Yet it is of Service to have Collections of this Kind, both that Students may learn the Art of putting Things in Order, as also the better retain what they Read.

A commonplace book by poet Walt Whitman, from the U.S. Library of Congress.

Treasuring Information for Generations

At the height of commonplace prominence during the Age of Enlightenment, many leveraged the system as a way to create a private network of information that they could cultivate and grow. As needed, they could thumb through the pages—oftentimes memorizing the contents—and apply these gems and nuggets of wisdom to life. It was the perfect tool to curate knowledge with the direct benefit of self-reflection and personal growth.

The best commonplace books were so treasured, they were gifted in dowries and handed down for generations. Some of the most illustrious examples have been published into books and preserved in archives from Harvard to the University of Texas.

In its purest form, it was an ever-growing physical, encyclopedic notebook of knowledge. In its function, it was the precursor to the way we we surf the web. Commonplace “was a kind of solitary version of the original web logs: an archive of interesting tidbits that one encountered during one’s textual browsing,” notes Steven Johnson.

Famous English writers like Francis Bacon and John Milton created commonplace systems that matched the reading style of the day. At that time readers, while voracious and hungry for knowledge, did not consume books in a traditional narrative arc from cover to cover. They sought out chunks of information that aligned with their specific course of studies or interests.

Applying Commonplace in Modern Times

Today, we are bombarded with content, much of it lacking in depth and quality. Despite having unprecedented access to apps, mobile devices, products, services, and tools to get work done, many people feel more disconnected and digitally disheveled than before.

Sort of harkens back to the informational disarray that brought commonplace to the forefront.

It may seem an esoteric practice, but commonplace has re-emerged among digital explorers as a modern solution to information overload. Like letterpress, typewriters, and writing by hand, a new creative class of authors and knowledge workers are employing commonplace as a way to find deeper connections to their work and life.

Here’s how:

1. Collect quotes

2. Manage mobile inspiration

Devon Henderson, a graphic designer from Indiana, mainly uses Evernote for commonplace. She leans on all the inspiration she discovers around her as a way to bring new life to ideas and add a new dimension to her work.

Citing a recent post by Tiago Forte on the Evernote blog, Devon says, “I think it’s important to connect seemingly unrelated things–that’s where creativity comes from. So being able to store all sorts of items in Evernote really inspires me to take on new projects and directions by connecting and bringing together ideas from all around my life.”

Devon uses a simple four-notebook structure, one of them focused entirely around commonplace. In it, she captures things that influence her desire to learn.

“Anything I save to Evernote with the purpose of learning, education, or knowledge collecting goes in my Commonplace notebook,” she says. “I frequently like to browse through it, seeing new items I collected, re-discovering quotes I’d saved and loved, and re-reading notes I took from books or articles.”

Devon can add content from anywhere, and her tagging system helps manage where ideas should flow.

“I am able to quickly reference items I’ve saved on mobile using tags that narrow things down, and then by browsing. I like having to look at my items dozens of times–it helps me remember they’re there. When I’m starting a new design project I can create a temporary tag for it, tagging inspirational shots saved from Dribbble, or quotes embodying the project’s scope, or screenshots of color palettes,” she said.


In addition to her digital commonplace, she totes around a physical notebook where she can write ideas, forcing herself to add the most complex and interesting concepts, ideas, and quotes by hand.

She ties her analog and digital systems together with Scannable, and spends each Sunday reviewing her material—something that is pivotal to the mental bridge to the material that has accumulated.

“I make sure to regularly engage with my digital Evernote version, too–taking time every Sunday morning to sip coffee and browse through recent notes,” Devon said.

3. You are what you read

Reading is the axis around which the commonplace revolves.

Diana Kimball, a product manager at Quip, constructed a system to help string together digital reading using a combination of Amazon Kindle, Clippings.io, IFTTT, and Evernote. Together, those services help pull annotations, clips, and highlights. The stuff that matters the most can be saved, tagged, annotated, and analyzed anytime, anywhere.

4. A place for writing

For author and paperless expert Jamie Todd Rubin, commonplace is the perfect way to record a detailed literary history that he can apply to his writing as well as everyday life.

He originally discovered commonplace after reading a biography about Thomas Jefferson. The system perfectly mirrored Jamie’s interactive reading by combining handwritten notes and digital annotations together. Now, his reading and connections with the writing has gone to newfound heights.

“These days, I mark up books with no qualms. I highlight passages, and write notes in margins, and in doing so the book becomes my own. The author’s thoughts and my reactions are caught on the page together. Capturing these markups, quotes, and thoughts is the most common way that I use Evernote as a commonplace book. My commonplace notebook is a kind of literary diary of my reading,” Jamie said.

The lifeblood of Jamie’s reading—the quotes, margin notes, and reactions, form the foundation of a single Commonplace Notebook in Evernote. Jamie considers these items much like a diary, so he sorts the notes chronologically.

The contents of his commonplace are as eclectic as whatever Jamie is reading and the tools at his disposal. For example,

  • Snapshot of a passage highlighted in a book
  • Screenshot of a highlighted passage on Kindle
  • Manually typed note about an attention-grabbing quote

“It sometimes serves as a creative engine, flipping through the notes in the Commonplace notebook, and seeing the variety of things I’ve captured there, many of which I’d forgotten,” Jamie notes.

Jamie recognizes that the importance of commonplace, not just for him, but for generations that came before, is the provenance of his system. There is a value to the content and information he captured, and that is underscored by the work he took to get it there. This stuff made the cut for a reason. Perhaps, a generation from now, the digital commonplace will have a new lease on life for another member of his family.

“With all my notes finding their way into Evernote, they complete part of the picture of me, and along with everything else that’s there, provide a pretty good look into the life of someone living in the 21st century. I’ve often thought how it might be interesting for my kids, thirty or forty years from now, to have access to all of this stuff I’ve created and be able to sift through it at will, and perhaps discover things they never knew about me.”

Built for a Lifetime

Life is your biggest project.

Along the way you’ll have a career, or a variety of jobs and positions. Maybe there will be a family. You’ll meet incredible people, visit spectacular places, and make lifelong memories. And, each step of the way, you’ll be learning, reading, writing, and absorbing.

There’s no better system that is built for the way you learn then commonplace. Just imagine what some of history’s biggest and brightest proponents of commonplace could do with the system if they had a shred of the technology available to us?

Wonder, no more. There’s no greater time than the present.

Next week, we’ll present an example of how you can create a commonplace system with Evernote. It’s the perfect recipe for tapping creativity and staying inspired in your work.

How do you use commonplace? We’d love to hear your story. Share it with the Evernote community in the comments or on Twitter.


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13 Comments RSS

  • nelson estrada

    This is awesome. Very old school yet I think needs to happen more in modern times. We are sometimes have such a short attention span that we need to take the time to look back and reflect on ideas, quotes, and all that good stuff. Love this article keep ’em coming!

  • Lee

    I use Evernote to outline short stories, plan for leading discussions, record thoughts about what I’m reading and write poetry. I’d be sunk without it!

    • Pat Barry

      Hi Lee, I’ve just downloaded Evernote, and plan on using it for outlining short stories too. Is there anywhere I can get a tutorial on the process, also putting photos into it (of characters). any info would be much appreciated, I’m not very tech savvy

  • Herm

    What a great post on the lengthy roots of the commonplaces collection!

  • Kurt

    I first came across the idea of a commonplace book back in about 1980 in a (then) 50 or 60 year old book by Theodore Graebner, “Pastor as Student and Literary Worker” (Concordia Publishing House). On top of the notebook of handwritten extracts he directed folks to index the extracts in a separate volume to increase findability; essentially that added tags or keywords with references to which volume of commonplaces and which page in that volume you’d need to search out. Evernote does that and more! [now if I could just discipline myself to use it more assiduously . . . . .]

  • Jayne Bodell

    Fantastic article! I plan to Evernote it. I would like a suggestion on how to hand down my digital commonplace book to the next generation.

  • Scott

    One thing that would make Evernote better is to make it more paper-like than notepad-like. Allowing editing like what the old Circus Ponies’ (now defunct) Notebook had or Notability has it would make Evernote perfect!

  • David R

    Great stuff. I’ve been using Evernote a couple of years, and one of the first notebooks I started was one called “Scrapbook,” for just this sort of purpose.

    One more “historical” commonplace keeper: Hamlet.
    “My tables,–meet it is I set it down,
    That one may smile, and smile, and be a villain.”
    (Act 1, Scene V)
    “Tables” being writing tablets–his commonplace book.

  • Stephanie

    A turn-of-the-last-century educator named Charlotte Mason, had her students and her teachers keep Commonplace notebooks. She kept one herself. Many homeschoolers and other educators are coming back to Charlotte Mason’s philosophies and practices in their own schools. Among many of her wonderful ideas, she advocated reading classic literature as a main component of education. The Commonplace was a great tool when reading these books.

  • Kim Durham

    I was already using Evernote as a commonplace notebook, even though I didn’t know there was a name for it. How fascinating! Thank you for the history and wonderful article Taylor!

  • Thomas

    Cool topic, but I would like to respectfully point out that the Julius Caesar who wrote 1200 pages of commonplace writing was Sir Julius Caesar, a British judge, not the Roman Julius Caesar who would come to mind for many reading this article. A slightly misleading oversight, no doubt.

    • Davidson

      Good exercise for the reader: what years did Julius Caesar and Sir Julius Caeser live? stick that in your commonplace book.

  • Jen

    What a fantastic article this is. Not only did I love learning about the history of the commonplace book but I had been wondering how to corral and constrain all of the various bits of information I had been dropping into Evernote recently – and this article has inspired the answer. What a relief!