On Commonplace Books

By Steven Hill

The commonplace book is a seventeenth century innovation, and the idea is a simple one: A notebook for capturing interesting quotes from reading, ideas, snippets of text for writings, diagrams, sketches, anything that comes to mind. Over time these notebooks developed into personal anthologies of thought and reflection, and were often accompanied by elaborate schemes of indexing, so that the entries could be located and themes extracted.

The age of the internet has the potential to be the golden age of the commonplace book. First we have an unprecedented opportunity to read and access texts of all sorts, and secondly it is simple – no more complicated than ‘copy and paste’ – to bring elements of text together into places where search tools allow the rapid compilation of themes.

A drawing from Henry Tiffin's Commonplace Book (1760)

A drawing from Henry Tiffin’s Commonplace Book (1760)
Source: Peabody Essex Museum

I have been using Evernote as a commonplace book for a number of years. All sorts of things get saved into my Evernote notebooks, some of them automatically, and then the search function allows later retrieval. For example, a quick search for ‘commonplace book’ reveals that, rather spookily I was contemplating drafting a blog post on the topic exactly a year ago today. I was also able to identify previous reading I had done about commonplace books, and a quote from ‘Where Good Ideas Come From: The Natural History of Innovation‘ by Steven Johnson:

The great minds of the period—Milton, Bacon, Locke—were zealous believers in the memory-enhancing powers of the 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 search also provided me with a link to a related piece I had read by James Gleick on digitising books.

The commonplace book was a powerful idea in the seventeenth century but digitised text takes it to a new level. This idea is explored and developed further by Johnson in a blog post. In this post Johnson points out that searching for text can, in an instant, assemble a type of commonplace book using an algorithm. The google search I linked to at the beginning of this post is an example. The search results are presented in a particular order, and to an extent that order is customised to the individual. A new association of words and ideas is being created, specific for the reader, and in no way predictable by the authors of the original texts:

What you see on [a Google search results] page is, in a very real sense, textual play: the recombining of words into new forms and associations that their original creators never dreamed of.

Johnson goes on to consider the value that is created through these new combinations of text:

When text is free to combine in new, surprising ways, new forms of value are created. Value for consumers searching for information, value for advertisers trying to share their messages with consumers searching for related topics, value for content creators who want an audience. And of course, value to the entity that serves as the middleman between all those different groups.

And there is a following discussion on paywalls and technologies that prevent text to be mined and combined in new ways. The whole, long post is well worth a read. His conclusion is that access to text and reasonable re-use rights are central to ensuring that the potential benefits of the internet-enabled commonplace book. In Johnson’s words we need text to be in a commonplace book, not a glass box.

This is one of the reason that open access to the scholarly literature is so important. At the moment much of the scholarly literature is, at best, in a glassbox and at worst in a locked chest for which only a select few hold the key. Not only does the scholarly literature need to be made more available, but also licensed in such a way that re-use and re-purposing is possible. As Cameron Neylon has recently argued permissive licensing is essential. Access through glass boxes, like the Access to Research initiative is also deeply limited in its value.

I wonder what those seventeenth century ‘commonplacers’ would make of all this. I think they would be amazed by the potential of the digital commonplace book, but shocked to see how we have locked away some of the most valuable text, preventing real value to be obtained.

This post originally appeared on Steven Hill’s blog, ‘Testing Hypotheses…‘ It is reposted here under the terms of Creative Commons license BY-NC-SA 3.0.  Steven is the Head of Research Policy at the Higher Education Funding Council for England. Follow Steven on twitter @stevenhill.

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One thought on “On Commonplace Books

  1. Just to note that commonplace books were well known in the Middle Ages, even as far back as the eighth century.

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