Lets Look at Locke

To tell the truth, anything I can add about John Locke right here is something you can check out yourself from a quick Google.  I’ll skip the intro and rather introduce you to the indexing system he invented popularised.

If you want to look at the source, check out the following link to a book containing “A new method of making common-place-books” by John Locke.  For a text written in 1706 it is a surprisingly easy read.  http://pds.lib.harvard.edu/pds/view/13925922

In a nutshell, Locke creates a contents/index grid at the beginning of a commonplace book.

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The grid contains the letters of the alphabet (excluding K, Y and W, which – in Locke’s cryptic opinion, “are supplied by C, I, U, letters of a like power”.  Against each letter he includes the five vowels; a, e, i, o, u (except for Q, which only gets a ‘u’).  Below:

LockesIndex2

The rules are fairly straightforward:

  • Put a memorable heading at the top of each page and reference in the index by the first letter and the first vowel of the heading title.  So if you had a page with info about Commonplace books on page 2, you would put a no. 2 next to the ‘C o’ row.
    • Likewise, info about Gardening would be filed under ‘G a’, Twitter would be in ‘T i’ and Olympics under ‘O i’ (however in the past it could have been filed under ‘O y’ – we’ll get to that later).  No existing heading?  
    • Create a new memorable heading under the first blank page.
    • If the principal word has only one vowel then file under both the first letter and the vowel.  So Art would be under ‘A a’ and Elf under ‘E e’.
  • When creating a new page, start at the first blank back of the left page so that you can always continue to the right side of the following leaf.  Once you get to the end of the book you can always number and fill up any yet-unused right-hand pages.

That is more or less the idea.  Locke had a good idea which was anecdotally used for the next hundred years at least, although after surfing a number of commonplace books I have yet to find an example of someone using it “in the wild”.  But still, there were limited alternatives apart from leaving some blank pages at the front and cramming alphabetical headings when they arose (a lax variation of Locke’s technique).

Why am I bringing this up if I don’t know if it was widely used?  Well, if one could trace the evolution of the concept of a commonplace book, Locke’s innovation is definitely a key step, even if that particular branch didn’t live up to its full potential.  Although it fit neatly into the staid taxonomy habits of the day, maybe people still valued the personal touch of creating their own system for their handy notepads?

Also, this type of indexing history gives librarian types a warm feeling and gets them a little weak at the knees.

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