Closely related to this are commonplace books, which are perfect for curating information, ready for future retrieval and reflection…
Essentially a notebook or journal where you keep quotes, passages, and other bits of inspiration that you encounter in daily life.
With the sheer firehose of information we’re blasted by every day, this practice has become even more crucial.
So let’s dive into the topic – but before that, we better define terms.
What Is a Commonplace Book?
A commonplace book is a notebook or book in which quotations, poems, anecdotes, observations, and apt phrases are collected for personal use.
It can serve as a personal source of inspiration and reflection, or be used to organize and track ideas for academic or professional purposes.
What They’re Not
- Commonplace books are typically not long-form journals or diaries, as they focus on smaller snippets of information, as opposed to personal musings or daily events.
- They also don’t usually contain original content, but rather are compiled from various sources, like articles and books you’re reading.
- They’re not for writing once and never looking at again. Instead, they’re intended for regular review and retrieval.
Benefits of the Practice
- Allows for easy organization and storage of information
- Provides a source of inspiration and reflection
- Can aid in critical thinking and understanding of interconnected ideas
- Improves memory by serving as a reference tool
- Helps cultivate creativity and stimulate new ideas
This type of book has been used by many writers and thinkers throughout history, including Leonardo da Vinci and Isaac Newton.
In fact, it was commonplace books that helped Newton to formulate his theory of gravity.
By documenting his era-defining ideas and thoughts on a regular basis, he was able to develop a clear understanding of the concept.
Similarly, they’ve also been instrumental as a tool for self-reflection.
For example, Marcus Aurelius, the Roman Emperor and philosopher, used his writing as a way to record his thoughts on Stoicism and how to live an ethical and fulfilling life.
In contrast, Thomas Jefferson used his to collect and organize information for his professional pursuits, including legal cases and political discussions.
How to Create One
There are many ways to go about creating a commonplace book, depending on personal preferences and needs.
One option is to physically write or type out quotes, observations, or other information into a notebook or binder.
I’m definitely starting to return to a more analog existence, preferring pen and paper to document my findings and reflect on any insights.
A5 notebooks provide a pretty handy size for writing reflections on the go, so I’d recommend starting there.
(If you want to know what shiny tools I use, click here for my resources page.)
Alternatively, there are also digital versions available, either through apps or online tools such as Evernote, or my personal favorite, Obsidian.
These platforms form a personal repository of information, which can be collated and manipulated in many different ways.
Regardless of the format, it’s important to have a system for organizing and categorizing the information in your commonplace book. This could be by:
One benefit of using digital tools is that your structure can be pretty fluid.
Platforms such as Roam and Obsidian allow you to interlink note pages and passages, creating a kind of knowledge graph for future reference, which is handy.
You can also structure using the traditional file and folder method.
This definitely helps when you’re searching for an old scrap of information can’t remember where it is.
As I’ve said, I do currently prefer pen and paper – so one option is to capture your material as a rough draft in a notebook, before transferring it to a digital medium of your choice.
It’s also important to regularly review and reflect on the information in your commonplace book, as this will help you get the most from the process.
Today, thanks to the proliferation of online tools and apps, it is easier than ever to create and maintain a commonplace book.
Whether you’re using it for academic purposes or simply as a way to organize your thoughts, this approach is invaluable for anyone who wants to improve their critical thinking skills.
So go forth and get curating.