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.

10 Quite Useful Tools for Academics

Gone are the days of type-written papers and literature reviews built on index cards. In the age of information overload and email overwhelm, we need all the help we can get to stay sane and productive. I rely heavily on the 10 tools described here, and I hope that they might lighten your load a little too. 

Many of these tools require an initial time investment and/or steep learning curve before you realise their full potential, so I don’t recommend trying to integrate them into your workflow all at once. Start with one or two that you think might be most helpful: if you are about to begin a PhD, get friendly with a citation manager; if you have 8 post-its permanently affixed to your monitor, get your shit sorted with Trello. 

1. Citation manager
If I could give only one piece of advice for those starting out in academia, it would be this: use a citation manager! I use Mendeley, and get along reasonably well with it, but I recommend fiddling around with a few before settling (try Zotero, Papers, Endonte). Ultimately, the particular platform matters much less than the absolute necessity of integrating some sort of citation management software into your workflow. It may seem like a chore at first,1 but you’ll be glad you put the effort in.

scrivener-logo2. Scrivener
Whereas Word and its ilk are digital extensions of the typewriters of old, Scrivener is a word processor built from the ground up to redefine the way we write on computers. Scrivener is at once simple and versatile, and flexible enough to complement the way you think and work when writing, whatever your style. I put snippets of writing onto virtual note cards and organise them by theme. The cards are easily edited and reorganised by dragging and dropping, while the powerful export function turns it all into a formatted and ready-to-go doc file.

evernote3. Evernote
The Chinese word for computer literally translates as “electric brain”, and this is exactly how I would describe Evernote. I use Evernote as my second brain, a giant electronic notebook brimming with everything from research-related news stories to recipes. You can clip direct from the web, add photos from your phone, or email notes directly to your account. It is available online and syncs across all devices, so you can access your stuff wherever you are.

trello logo4. Trello
Trello is a sort of virtual pin board. Pre-Trello, I would have at least 3 to-do lists on the go at any given time and would waste an inordinate amount of time faffing around with them. Now, together with my calendar, I use Trello to organise my entire life. I have changed the way I use the app a few times based on my needs at the time, so I recommend experimenting until you find what works best for you. Currently I have four main columns: One Big Thing (i.e. my primary task for the today); “Three Smaller Things”, in case I get my one big thing done; “Later” (for everything else); and “Done”.2 I also colour code, because why not.

Gloriously simple, and incredibly effective.

My Trello setup Colour coding: red=work, blue=PhD, green=blog, orange=admin

On older Trello setup, before I started prioritising one big thing per day.
Colour coding: red=work, blue=PhD, green=blog, orange=admin

unrollme5. Unroll.me
If you want to reach the holy grail of inbox zero, Unroll.me is going to help you get there. It “rolls up” all of your regular email subscriptions and newsletters 3 into one neat bundle and sends it to you daily/weekly at a time of your choosing (I receive mine every day at 4pm, the time that I am usually started to either fall asleep or look at cats on the internet anyway). This reserves your inbox for priority emails and stops you getting distracted by junk during the day. Unroll.me detects new mailing lists and allows you to leave the messages in your inbox, add them to your rollup, or unsubscribe 4 This nifty little app has spared me the distracting allure of 12,000 emails in the two years since I started using it.

twitter6. Twitter
Academics are notoriously sceptical of the merits of Twitter. Despite initially sharing in this somewhat understandable reluctance, I am now a full convert. I use Twitter to keep up to date with news and developments in my field, request articles that I can’t access, and chat with other researchers. As long as you are vigilant not to let tweeting take up too much of your time, Twitter can be incredibly useful.

freedom7. Freedom/Anti-Social
While studies show that looking at pictures of kittens increases your productivity, wasting your day on the internet probably doesn’t. Freedom will lock you out of the internet for a designated period of time.5 The only way to get your connection back is to reset your computer, which is enough of a pain in the arse that you probably won’t do it. If you really do need the internet (e.g. for research) you can use Anti-Social instead, which only locks you out of particularly distracting sites. 

coach me8. Coach.me
Coach.Me is a motivation app for building good habits. You set up a checklist of things you want to do on a regular basis, and tick them off daily. I used it to get over my lifelong habit of biting my nails, to start brushing my teeth after lunch at work, and, during writing periods, to commit myself to X pomodoros a day. Not especially sexy, but eminently practical.

9. A clipboard manager
Modern academic writing involves as much copying and pasting as it does scribbling or typing, yet most of us still make do with the one-shot copy and paste feature built into our computers. I do not say this lightly, but a clipboard manager will change your life. The main advantage is the ability to copy more than one item for pasting later (if you’ve ever copied something only to forget to paste it and remember an hour later, you will understand the importance of this simple extension), but most of them have other handy features too. I swear by Copy’em Paste – while the $15 price tag might seem steep, it is pretty reasonable for an app that I use unthinkingly hundreds of times per day. 

10. An external hard drive/Dropbox/Drive/Crashplan
Computers die, so you should back up regularlymore or less constantlyas if your life depends on it. Invest in a decent external hard drive and make use of the backup software on your computer. Hard drives also die, so sign up for an online file storage service and put an extra copy your most important files in there too. I use Apple’s Time Machine to back up everything to an external drive (a recurring task in Trello nudges me to do this weekly), and I copy all my essential documents to dropbox as well. Better safe than sorry.

Already using these tools? What has your experience been? Did I miss something? Comment below or tweet @AcademiaObscura.

 

  1. Does footnoting ever not seem like a chore?
  2. When a task is done I drag it here – I could just delete it, but I find dropping something into the done list seriously gratifying
  3. To distinguish this from unsolicited emails, i.e. spam, the tech community coined the term “Bacn” to describe “email you want but not right now”
  4. Be careful though: it doesn’t actually unsubscribe you, it just funnels the messages away from your inbox, never to be seen again. This could be problematic if you stop using Unroll.me later and find a sudden influx of all this junk you thought you were rid of. Caveat emptor my friends.
  5. Yes, it is a damning indictment of our culture that ‘Freedom’ means turning off the internet so you can get more work done. Don’t hate the player…