The Commonplace Book: Part II

Continued from Part I.

The Commonplace Books (or just commonplaces) of old were series of books, stuffed with scraps, inspirations, snippets of information, sketches, clippings, photographs, poems, jokes, references, and anything else pertaining to the interest of the person (or group) who kept it. A common fixture in the homes of writers, professionals, artists and academics for many centuries, the notion has all but faded in this digital age of commodity data and instant searches. But there’s no reason that we can’t resurrect such a invaluable resource in this day and age. In fact, it could ultimately prove worthy not only for our daily work and pleasure, but also as a legacy to leave our children and grandchildren, a gathering of those pieces reflecting both the personality of its keeper and the happenings of a bygone day.

In Part I, we looked at the uses of commonplace books in history, and how they were used for gathering information and learning. In this article, we’ll examine how a commonplace book works, and provide a few ideas towards starting and maintaining one of your own using modern supplies and methods. (Note that, while this article chiefly concerns keeping a paper-based version, many of the concepts work equally well using digital tools like DEVONthink Pro for Mac OS X.)

A Word About Content

The commonplace book bears similarities with scrapbooks, since both often contain photographs, clippings, sketches, and bits of inspirational text. However, its organisation is usually based on subject matter, learning and useful information (rather than, say, flattened flowers and swatches of childhood wallpaper) and thus it tends to become a bit more practical for day-to-day usage and reference. The traditional scrapbook, on the other hand, often serves as a collection of personal memories, a wonderful way to reminisce and share cherished moments with family and friends. There can certainly be overlap, and in fact many people who have not kept scrapbooks de rigeur have kept a lot of personal information, including journal entries and touching family photographs, within their commonplaces. Essentially, a commonplace book contains anything you want it to contain. (Note that the image above is actually from a series of scrapbooks kept by L. M. Montgomery, the author of Anne of Green Gables, but is a wonderful example of material that works in both scrapbooks and commonplaces.)

That being said, it’s important early on to set some sort of boundary, lest your books become weighted down with useless material. As I mentioned in the last article, a commonplace book is generally for short snippets of useful personalised information of lasting importance. This is the prime difference between a commonplace and a regular cabinet-based filing system, which often contains bulky and temporary material. When it comes to deciding where to store paper-based information, think of the following examples:

  • Filing System:
    • Temporary information – upcoming conferences, menus, price quotes, coupons, statistics for a report, contact details for a project team, etc.
    • Long articles & reports – anything that won’t fit on one page or one clipping
    • Financial/business data – this is ever-changing, rarely fixed for any length of time
    • Catalogues and order forms
    • Time management data – timesheets, archived calendars, billing cards, etc.
    • Tax guides, receipts, expenses
    • Medical and insurance records
    • Someday/Maybe projects and ideas
    • Amorphous and ever-growing bodies of information – if it’s temporary or unverified or difficult to classify, put it into your filing cabinets (e.g., vague materials and ideas for a Master’s thesis)
  • Commonplace Book:
    • Snippets of interest – those small nuggets of information that you collect regarding those topics of special or professional interest, often only a sentence or paragraph long, often with references to longer works
    • Inspirational quotes or poems – related to work or personal life
    • Personal anecdotes, jokes, stories told by relatives and friends
    • Passages to learn or study – poems, chapter summaries, theories, other academic bits; it wasn’t unusual to quote passages from Greek, Latin or other languages, along with a translation to study
    • Clippings – related to work, family, personal goals, ideas for stories or projects, etc.
    • Geneology – notes about your family, perhaps with short bios, photographs, diagrams of relationships
    • Bibliographical information – about books you love, want to read, or have cause to use frequently
    • Vacation details – collections of facts regarding destination, or –having gone– photographs taken there, sketches drawn, reminiscences, etc.; this would be a more organised or classifiable version of what one could put in a scrapbook
    • Project-related notes, ideas and inspiration – woodworking designs, fly-tying notes, old-time radio restorations, leather-working information, knitting patterns, circuit diagrams, medieval catapult schematics, and so on
    • Short references, not likely to change – astronomical charts, weights and measures, calorie-counting tables, paper-size diagrams (*ahem*), Victorian England monetary systems, time zones, world/country distances, etc.

This is by no means a definitive list, only one intended to get you thinking about what should go in the filing cabinet, and what deserves a place in your commonplace. Ask yourself the question: Is this something of lasting value I’d like to keep around forever? A commonplace is rarely purged, while a file cabinet should be cleaned out yearly.

The Physical System

If you consider that a commonplace book is essentially a series of books where you can stuff away anything you consider of lasting importance, you can probably see some of the challenges towards keeping one. Ultimately, though, the single biggest decision to make –and the one that will most affect how you keep and organise your treasure-trove of information– boils down to whether you will choose loose-leaf or fixed-leaf books.

Loose-leaf books have been around since the beginning, but the way in which the pages were temporarily bound varied by century; historically, the fastening may have been accomplished by a set of leather thongs (perhaps stiffened by wax or boiling in oil), a series of wooden pegs in sockets, or some metal pins or clasps. Today the best options are certainly binder rings or clips. A loose-leaf system, where you can insert or shuffle pages as necessary, does have its pros and cons. On one hand, it makes it very easy to add more pages to each subject as you need them, and arrange material in alphabetical order, but on the downside, the feels of a binder seems more temporary, and of inherently less quality than a fixed-leaf system. It’s quite possible to use metallic binding clips (such as those for keeping together accounting records), but inserting and re-arranging the papers entails much more work than just unclipping some rings.

Fixed-leaf books are notebooks (like the acclaimed Moleskine) or journals whose pages are bound into the book, and therefore cannot be re-arranged. Again, there are pros and cons. The quality of the books is often high (as much as you’re willing to pay for it… a series of a dozen or two Moleskines might stretching your budget), and the books can have a more permanent and “legacy” feel to them. Unfortunately, a stuffed journal or notebook often strains at its binding if you include lots of clippings or photographs, and the topics can become fragmented (say, continued over many places in one or more books).

If you’re just starting out, and on a tight budget, I’d suggest getting a series of 5.5″x8.5″ or A5 binders at your local office supply store –yes, that’s the same size as the Classic/A5 D*I*Y Planner templates, half letter/A4-size. These vinyl non-descript black binders usually retail for about $4 USD each. While you’re there, ask them to cut a 500-sheet package of full-size paper in half, so you have 1000 pages ready to use for your new system. You can certainly use full letter-size or A4 paper and binders, but you’ll find that the extra size of the paper will tend to buckle the sheets unless the binders are quite full; also, many people find smaller sizes a little less intimidating in terms of both storage and maintenance. An added bonus: if you keep a Classic or A5-sized planner, you can write or otherwise fill up pages up while away, and simply file them into your commonplace once you get back.

Choosing a Method of Organising

Some people order their system alphabetically, so a set of A-Z books graces the shelves and works much like an encyclopedia of sorts. “A” could include architecture, automobiles, autism and Africa, for example. Others keep books ordered by general subject matter, so there might be one about automobiles, another about places to visit, another about family genealogy, etc.. They each have their benefits, but whichever one you choose, you should be prepared to stick with it. This will entail some advance planning and an examination of the topics you’re likely to keep. If you are a very well-rounded person with a lot of varied interests on dozens or even hundreds of topics, the alphabetical route would probably prove best. If, however, you have mainly a dozen or so very specialised interests, and are unlikely to keep information outside of those areas, then a commonplace ordered by subject matter makes most sense.

The Importance of an Index

Whatever one is chosen, it’s key to keep an index of topics as well.

The index book is generally kept in some sort of loose binding arrangement, allowing one to insert new pages as necessary, and is usually a semi-alphabetical listing of your topics. Why semi-alphabetical? Well, this isn’t a computer, after all, and we can’t just “insert” a new topic between others. In all likelihood, a new “C” topic will appear at the end of the current list of C topics. However, you’ll probably find that as long as you have different sheets for each letter of the alphabet, you can easily scan the pages to find what you’re looking for.

Another method, but one that works well for a lot of people, is keeping a card catalogue of your subjects. These are easy to keep in alphabetical order, and each time you add material, you just add to whatever subject card is appropriate. For this, you’ll need to keep a card storage box (or two, or more) and a set of A-Z tabs.

The most important thing to remember about keeping an index, of course, is ensuring that it’s up to date. That means that any time you add a new subject to your commonplace, you should update its index. If this is done at the same time, the effort is trivial. If not, the backlog can be intimidating.

Using Your Commonplace Book

Setting It Up

  1. Having decided on a system (loose-leaf or fixed), purchase your supplies. Besides the aforementioned books and paper, you should also ensure you have the following within easy reach, perhaps in a little storage case:
    • Guillotine or scissors, for extracting your cuttings or trimming photographs
    • Good-quality glue stick, preferably one that won’t warp your pages (a strong dry glue)
    • Tape and/or stapler, for certain types of content
    • Hole-punch, if necessary, for punching sheets for binders
    • Pens and pencils, so you don’t fumble around and waste time looking for one
    • A printer and a template ready to roll (preferably linked from your desktop) created in your favourite word processor, to the dimensions of your commonplace paper (see below)
    • Loose paper to jot down important content while away from your commonplace, preferably stored in a planner or favourite notebook
  2. Decide upon how you want your system set up, alphabetically or by subject. If using loose-leaf, set up a binder for each one, primed with 20 or so pages. Label your binders or notebooks appropriately on the bindings in very legible print.
  3. Clear away the place of honour on your bookshelf. It should be easily reached, and in the same room where you’re most likely to use it. Arrange your commonplace books in a logical order.
  4. Create a index for your books. If using an index book, create one page for each letter, and atop each page, simply write or print out “A”, “B”, “C”, etc.. If using a card catalogue, set up your A-Z tabs and put a half-dozen cards in each letter.
  5. Put aside an afternoon or evening, and prime your system. Gather all those little important stickies, those index cards with cool quotes, that scanned photograph of your grandfather laying down the railway, a blank genealogical chart, a list of your past addresses, a print-out of your favourite inspirational poem, and so forth. Write or paste these into your book into the appropriate sections; for example, genealogy might be under “G” or it might be in the “Family” book, depending on how you have set up your system. Remember to grab a cup of tea or a glass of brandy, put on a little background music, and take your time to do it right. This should be a pleasurable experience, not a chore.

Using a Commonplace Book

An example might best illustrate how this could work. Let’s say that one of the Baker Street Irregulars barged into the room with a little bit of news about the dealings of the nefarious Professor Moriarty.

  • Take a look at the index and scan the “M” section to see if Moriarty is there. Let’s see… Moran, Musgrave, Munro, …Moriarty! Yes, there he is, in the fixed-leaf “M3” book, starting on page 35. (Obviously, we have many pages devoted to “M” topics, and have necessitated several books.)
  • Take down M3 and jump to page 35. Sometimes data is fragmented. We see that pages 35-55 are on the subject of Moriarty, but another topic comes immediately after. No problem. The next available page is 67. At the end of the current Moriarty notes, we write “cont. p. 67”, jump to that page, and start writing the new information.
  • After we finish, we update the section on Moriarty in the index to mention the new pages: “Moriarty: M3, pp. 35-55, 67-“. Since the information also concerns Colonel Sebastian Moran, we can also put a reference under his index entry, pointing to the page(s) in question.
  • Note: If we were using a loose-leaf system, we could just insert more pages into the Moriarty section, adding page numbers to each one, and keeping the whole lot in alphabetical order. We might then put an entry under Colonel Moran as “M3: Moriarty, pp. 9-10”. This system may take a little getting used to, but the good news is that we can rewrite pages if the formatting is done so badly that we find it difficult to locate material; after all, the index is loose-leaf. Index cards, of course, would get around some of these problems.

A Note About Digital Integration

There’s absolutely no reason why one can’t use digital tools for helping to maintain a commonplace book, especially is one is using a loose-leaf system. The easiest way is to create a template in your favourite word processor (or at least a blank document) with the page set up for the dimensions of your book: set your margins to 0.5″ top and bottom, 0.75″ left and right (to allow for rings and annotation). Link that template via a shortcut or alias to your desktop. When there’s something you find digitally (say, online) that you wish to keep, simply click on the icon, launch your word processor, paste the text and/or pictures, and print. If more than one page, print odd and even pages separately to double-side your information, flipping the paper over and reinserting in between. (This might take some experimentation with your printer and print order, but the technique comes in quite handy.) Punch the paper, insert into your books, and update your index. Done.

By the same token, you can also set up a template using a DTP program like Draw. Paste photographs, diagrams, graphics and charts into it, annotate with text, place paragraph blocks for other writings, etc. Print and punch.

Don’t forget that you can aggregate content for the same topic. You might find six inspirational quotes on the same subject… why not put them all on one page and print?

As a side note, I’ve seen a small number of late 19th-century and 20th-century commonplace books have been managed with typewriters. When new text information was to be added to a page, the keeper just inserted the sheet into the typewriter, rolled down, and started typing. Don’t get the impression that everything has to be hand-written, although this does tend to help one digest the material a little better, as well as give it a more personal touch.

Time and Focus

The quality of the product is ultimately the result of how much time and effort we want to pour into its creation. Nothing we create instantly –either with analog or digital tools– is likely to be of any long-term, lasting value until we invest some sweat and thought into it, and a commonplace book is no exception. Take your time, work it lovingly and faithfully, and you’ll find that over four centuries of users really did know a little something about gathering information and learning. Computer programmers didn’t invent knowledge management, and in fact I wouldn’t be remiss in arguing that nowadays we just have more access to instant but impractical information overloading our brains and distracting us from issues of importance. The keeping of a commonplace, although rooted in history, is just one way to get some of that focus back into our lives today.

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