Steven Johnson (2010) – “textual play” in commonplacing

I came across a good article recently about the commonplace book as applied to digital interfaces.  It is a 2010 article by Steven Johnson (

He starts with an interesting history of commonplacing as a memory aid, including a summary of Locke’s indexing methods, using it as a way to describe the practice of making associative links to create new ideas and new paths of thinking.

This area fascinates me, and is why I have a kneejerk reaction against the idea that a modern blog or a traditional diary/journal is a commonplace.  The commonplace physically brings discrete pieces of information together on a page, and is connected to the structure of the book itself, the tactile use of clippings, different handwriting styles/sizes, sections of the book and sometimes orientation of the words on the page.  A commonplace is not merely a transcribed list of excerpts with some additional comments, and this is why a printed version of a commonplace is helpful (especially so as not to squint over difficult handwriting) but, I feel, loses the soul of the creation.

Steven Johnson focuses on this act of creation and collage, and gives some examples of unique creations that can arise from such a practice.

He also makes some great points about modern commonplacing equivalents.  Rather than steer toward the usual handwaving about blogs/Evernote/etc, Steven’s take is that a closer “heir to the structure of a commonplace book” is the algorithmic page display you get when you complete, for example, a Google search – with its links based on popularity, additional recommended links based on your search history, explanatory pictures, and general descriptive information.

This, Steven says, is an example of the type of “textual play” that authors in the past used commonplace books for, for want of a better technology.

Steven goes on to say that “textual productivity” results in knock-on effects in the real world.  Providing information about the subjective ‘value’ of certain information creates new forms of value for a consumer him/herself, their contacts, and the marketers.

Steven ends with a plea for “textual productivity” to be given to the user.  The downside, as he points out, is that the traditional content creators can put many more restrictions on their work than before, stifling the creative impulse and the emergent properties that can come out if the end user were able to use “textual play”.

Blogs are a way of collation and distribution of information, but I see them more as a digital scrapbook, with little chance for real collaboration.  Evernote makes a start but in my opinion it is very much a trailblazer and is unfortunately the one that needs to work through all the kinks.  It will be the next generation of collaborative information value creation apps that will really make the impact.

Commonplace review: F Longworth-Dames post #1

I am only starting on this journey of reviewing commonplace books, but already I am starting to see the task as a mash-up of detective work, pop (and not so pop) culture research, fine wine tasting and forensic psychology.  Not that I am qualified for any of the above, apart from the fine wine tasting, or course.  But that is, after all, just a metaphor.

The Trinity College site has a great interface for their manuscripts (link via “read commonplaces online” page).  The high-res scans load quickly and it looks like their selection is well-researched, if focused on a few individuals.  One downside is that I can’t find a summary page of the manuscripts, and it’s practically impossible to link directly to a record (which I’d like to for this post).

I am looking through commonplace #3 in the Francis Longworth-Dames collection.  If only we had journals like this to write in nowadays.

Commonplace leather cover

Stunning cover, and the inside has a great explanatory section about commonplaces.

Continue reading

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.

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

New Picture (9)

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:


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.