Read commonplaces online

They say the past is a foreign country.  Want to really see inside the mind of someone from history?  Read a commonplace book.

Why?  These journals were some of the most personal possessions someone could have and are also amazing sociological studies.  They are a someone’s personal, portable Wikipedia (or Reddit, or Metafilter, whatever your preference!).

There is little in common between a commonplace book and a diary.  Most of all, commonplaces were a tool any self-respecting individual would use to navigate their social scene.  Want to be known as having a rapier wit, being able to recite inspirational poetry or the latest scientific theories?  This was the tool someone could use to have just the right info or phrase ready at just the right time.


Sites with online commonplace books (among other things):

Harvard University Library – Open Collections Program –

  • Many books, great search function.  Very high res.  Interface can be difficult but this is one of the best sources out there.


Trinity College Dublin –

  • 74 search results of “commonplace” as at June ’14 (granted mostly by John Millington Synge).  Good interface and nice high-res scans.


US Library of Congress –

  • What can you say when the first page of searches shows you George Washington, Walt Whitman and Thomas Jefferson?  ‘Nough said.


Yale university – Beinecke rare book & manuscript library –[]=genre%3ACommonplace+books

  • An extensive collection.  The interface can be frustrating, but the stunning high-res scans more than makes up for this.


Dickinson College Archive and Special Collections —

  • Only one entry marked “commonplace book” but some of these ‘journals’ and ‘notebooks’ may also fit the bill.


University of Cambridge ‘Scriptorium’ –

  • Scriptorium is website devoted to medieval and early modern manuscripts online. It is centred on a collection of digitised manuscripts of commonplace books and miscellanies dating from 1400-1720. As well as high-quality page images, it also offers descriptions, transcriptions, and other supporting resources.
  • As at December 2016, this site was down for maintenance.  I am looking forward to it coming back online, as it is a great resource for high-quality references as well as learning material (like an online course in reading English historical handwriting).  Hopefully the security upgrades will still provide access to us non-Cambridge folk.


Folger Shakespeare library (search for ‘commonplace’)

  • Stunning high-res images, and a lot of the content under Creative Commons license.


University of Pennsylvania –

  • I have narrowed the search (above) to 7 commonplace books, although this site has a wealth of scanned manuscripts and other resources.


Single commonplace books:

Mary Anning’s commonplace book –


Henry Bellingham’s commonplace book –

  • This site is part of a digital project by Sarah Shippy, a graduate student at Ohio State University in 2008.


Mary Smith – commonplace book concerning science and mathematics (public domain) –


Payton Phillips (not in copyright) –


Notebooks, letters, diaries and other resources (not commonplace books):

UNC – Digital Southern Historical Collection

  • Although no commonplace books, this is an impressive collection of US historical papers, personal diaries and letters.  It has a poor interface but the curation is amazing – very thorough summaries/indexes of each collection, and beautiful high-res scans.


Early manuscripts at Oxford University – 

  • Central link to over 80 digitised manuscripts from partner libraries.  Heavily focused on 12-15th Century manuscripts.


Folgerpedia: List of online resources for early modern English paleography (deciphering handwriting) –


2 thoughts on “Read commonplaces online

  1. Pingback: Who pays for fornication and witch doctors? | Panning for ink

  2. Pingback: It’s in the writing..? | Panningforink

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