Commonplace Book

Commonplace books were originally the preserve of male scholars who used them to keep notes as they learned; but gradually their use spread beyond universities and by the 18th century commonplace books were also used by educated women.

Kathryn Kane, a blogger who writes about English cultural history in the Regency period, has covered the development of the commonplace book quite thoroughly.

Relevance to SFW: the problem wasn't in the collecting, but the finding again.

Related: Imagologies


Each scholar’s commonplace book was unique, as they recorded the writings and ideas which they considered most pertinent and significant to their studies and to the development of their personal philosophy. Passages might be written in Latin, Greek, French, or English. These private and intimate books were not considered to be diaries or journals for recording the events of daily life. Rather, they were repositories of a collection of ideas and principles which the book’s owner wished to make their own. Commonplace books could be considered diaries of the mind. Throughout the seventeenth century, commonplace books were regarded as most valuable as a device of artificial memory which was essential to learning. But they became rather problematical as the century progressed and the number of published books rapidly increased, thus considerably widening the available pool of books from which passages might be copied. More passages made it that much more difficult to located a specific passage when it was wanted. In the opening years of the eighteenth century, one of the most enlightened minds in all England set itself to find a better system by which to organize commonplace books. In 1706, John Locke published A New Method of Making Common-place-books, in which he outlined a new and effective system by which to arrange and organize the contents of commonplace books so that any entry could be found quickly and easily. With a reliable indexing system, during the eighteenth century, the use of commonplace books began to expand beyond the academic community to many educated and literate people. These books were still used to record passages from published books and magazines which were of special significance to the book’s owner. Therefore, commonplace books still served the purpose of artificial memory, but at this time they acquired a wider purpose. It was believed that the use of Locke’s indexing system in their commonplace books would also help people to more clearly order their minds and therefore would enable them to become better people.

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# See also