Thoughts on Commonplace Books


The most intriguing thing about the traditional commonplace book is the architecture of them.

These brief passages, often with commentary from the collector, were (theoretically) ordered topically or thematically.

This was something that I was unaware of when I first heard about Commonplace books, but it makes sense.

Richard Lanham describing what a traditional commonplace book included:

a general argument, observation, or description a speaker could memorize for use on any number of possible occasions. So an American statesman who knows he will be asked to speak extempore on the Fourth of July might commit to memory reflections on the bravery of the Founding Fathers, tags from the Declaration of Independence, praise of famous American victories, etc. A few scattered traditional loci: death is common to all; time flies; the contemplative vs. the active life; the soldier’s career vs. the scholar’s; praise of a place as paradisiacal; the uses of the past; a short, celebrated life vs. a long, obscure one.

I formatted some phrases in this quote as a way of imagining where these concepts may appear in a topical/thematic quote collection.


When I meet with any thing, that I think fit to put into my common-place-book, I first find a proper head. Suppose for example that the head be EPISTOLA, I look unto the index for the first letter and the following vowel which in this instance are E. i. if in the space marked E. i. there is any number that directs me to the page designed for words that begin with an E and whose first vowel after the initial letter is I, I must then write under the word Epistola in that page what I have to remark.

This is just a firsthand example of information architecture in a Commonplace book.

I’ve always found the Commonplace book more interesting and less rigid than the oft-mentioned systems like Zettelkasten, Building a Second Brain and Linking Your Thinking. I simply do not care for them necessarily because a perceive them as standalone methods to note taking that imply that the user will likely use a single application to get the job done (e.g. the Archive, org-roam, Roam, Logseq, Obsidian, Craft, Notion, and so on).

I’m still working my way through how to best use Notenik. It’s understated how flexible it can be depending on a persons needs. Depending on the level of effort a person wants to put in, Notenik can easily replace any one of the applications that I just listed, I feel.

Commonplace book templates already exist in Notenik. I highly recommend to make one with a Works and Author look-up field. This way you may be able to keep a sort of annotated bibliography in your Works collection and also have a place to store information on the authors included. Things get even more interesting if you can generate a Web collection; a nice script and a template could produce a local or online iteration of a Encyclopedia in the image of the traditional Commonplace book.

One suggestion that I would make to anyone interested would be to add Index and Sequence fields to your Commonplace collection in Notenik. Index fields can be useful when generating a Web collection and sequencing your notes can be useful for establishing hierarchy within the Notenik application itself. The Levels field may intrigue some, but it may also add unnecessary complexity for others.

I also recommend that you give “Glass Box and the Commonplace Book” a full read. I haven’t yet, but it appears that he gets pretty deep into some theoretical sentiment on writing, publishing and browsing on the Web.

– The Printer