Commonplace Books: A Universal Note-Taking Method That Unites Humanity Across Time and Space

From Ancient Greece to China to Harvard, Commonplace Books Endure

Hi, Dan here. I’m thrilled to have Tiago Forte joining the bundle this week with one of his Praxis Members-Only articles. Here, Tiago writes about one of the most interesting systems I’ve come across for recording and preserving knowledge: the commonplace book. It’s a kind of journal, but it’s explicitly for recording observations from other sources: books, talks, sermons, lectures, etc. It’s a practice that spans centuries and endures to present day; some readers may remember Kevin Yien keeps a digital commonplace book as part of his productivity stack. The history of this practice, and its practitioners, from Euclid to Ralph Waldo Emerson, are fascinating, and offer keen insight into commonplace books’ function and power. I hope you enjoy reading about them!

One of the clearest predecessors to the modern practice of personal knowledge  management are “commonplace books” – centralized, personally curated, and continuously maintained collections of information from various sources that rose to popularity during the Enlightenment and Industrial Revolution in Europe.

These books helped educated people cope with the “information explosion” unleashed by the printing press and industrialization. They were highly idiosyncratic, personalized texts used to make sense of a new world of intercontinental trade, long-distance communication, and mass media. Commonplace books could contain recipes, quotes, letters, poems, tables of weights and measures, proverbs, prayers, legal formulas, notes from sermons, and remedies for common maladies, among many other things.

Their keepers would transcribe interesting or inspirational passages from their reading, assembling a personalized encyclopedia of quotations, ideas, anecdotes, observations, and other information they came across. The purpose of the book could range from personal recollection and reflection, to source material for writing, speaking, politics, or business.

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