Commonplacing = old networked thought

Those who’ve read my newsletters will probably know that I’m all about “old alchemy for a young century”. In plain words, it means I love diving into archives to find systems and perspectives that are still relevant.

The latest theme fuelling this fire has been information capture: the way we record information we come across even before sorting them mentally or physically. Networked tools for thought and hyper-aware organisation methods like Zettelkasten aren’t recent discoveries. But despite being used by thousands around the world, their roots in antiquity—which I was convinced existed—weren’t clear.

So, I dove deep enough and found what I think I was looking for: commonplace books and the practice of commonplacing.

It’s in the name: a common place that serves as a catch-all for information and ideas.

Commonplace books are much like scrapbooks. But what sets them apart from, say, travel scrapbooks and diaries, is that they’re meant to be more chronology-agnostic. They’re also more oriented towards learning, as opposed to just record-keeping (like travel journals) or inspiration-building (like scrapbooks).

These books have historically contained:

  • brief moral sayings (proverbs, adages, religious verses)
  • quotes from books and papers
  • letters
  • tables and measurements
  • recipes
  • newspaper cuttings and similar paraphernalia

One can tell from this list that commonplace books are from a time before the internet. I could trace its history back to the first century AD when Seneca spoke about collecting ideas like a bee and turning them into honey-like words.

I think by far the most widely recognised instance of commonplace books is Leonardo da Vinci’s notebooks:

The practice of keeping a notebook like this became formalised in academics around the 17th century, particularly in Oxford and Harvard. It was thought to be a great foundation for rhetoric and building one’s arguments to be bullet-proof.

Commonplace books aren’t spoken about much anymore. I think it’s probably because not a lot of us do much writing on a daily basis. That said, the idea felt familiar, as if they exist right now in a different form but with the same purpose.

Here are some systems and tools that felt familiar:

  • Zettelkasten: the organisation of thoughts aspect is similar to later versions of commonplace books
  • Digital gardening: both encourage recording seeds of ideas and being chronology-agnostic
  • Roam and Obsidian: being able to dump information and draw connections between otherwise unconnected ideas was a feature of commonplace books
  • Pinterest: a visual-only commonplace book that’s publicly available, much like later versions of commonplace books written when the printing press was becoming popular
  • Arena: supports images, excerpts, quotes, links, and more, and can be grouped under themes

It seems to me like is the closest digital alternative to commonplace books we have right now.

Areas to explore next

  • Florilegium
  • Zibaldone

related notes

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