Jack Bauer and Bob Whipple – handy links & thoughts

A good think about commonplace books is that they are easy to Google, considering hardly anything is written about them.

I found a good excerpt from Bob Whipple, describing his thoughts about commonplace books – you can find it here: http://wac.colostate.edu/books/copywrite/chapter5.pdf.

  • “commonplace books are blank books in which genteel men and eventually women wrote down, and in some instances transformed, selections from their reading that they thought particularly interesting or significant” Lockridge (2001)

The idea that a ‘society’ type would use the book as a method of consolidation of their thoughts and as a repository of witty, interesting, significant items to use at the right time.

Whipple has a slightly different perspective on commonplace books, where he says “my own digital commonplace book is scattered in several locations…”.  I am not so interested in the medium so much as the use.

So from my perspective, blogs aren’t always commonplace books.  Neither are scrapbooks – which Whipple references, or Whipple’s own archive of found material.  A commonplace book, I think, needs to include all of the following:

  • The collection of information for its own sake and for personal use (i.e. not solely for publicity or work-related reasons).
  • Some referencing or cataloguing system (even if it’s only in the collector’s mind).
  • The intention of collecting the material for future use – as a way to improve one’s own perception of the world.

So someone who is a collector of aviation photos (as per Whipple’s example) is no more using a ‘commonplace book’ than someone who collects airplane models, or someone who has a Google Photos folder of airplanes.  But if the photo or model collector categorises and sorts them, and combines the photos/models with other collections as a way to think about aviation, and/or to get a better understanding of the field, I would agree they are “commonplacing”.

And I agree with Whipple that it is the sum total of the commonplacing that is important, rather than individual pictures or text.  That is the attraction, since I think it is the best way for us to understand someone’s mind.  Commonplacing is the ‘metadata’ of the pre-digital world.

A blog is someone’s “best self” (unless it’s my tortured, sporadic posts:), and so is a neat scrapbook or photo album.  Yes, a commonplace book is curated, but it’s curated for personal use.  And I’d argue a diary is also too curated.  I’d take a commonplace book any time.

Lets say you are a spy, tasked with profiling a suspect who is loose in the city.  I could give you a their Instagram and Facebook passwords and their personal diary, or I could give you their web browser history, the contents of their Dropbox/Evernote/Onedrive folder and their computer’s C: drive.  Is there any comparison?


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