The commonplace book, a collection of passages and quotations organized by theme or topic, has long been a key tool for scholars and thinkers. From the Renaissance through the 19th century, learned figures kept these books to store bits of knowledge, apt quotes, or observations for later retrieval and use. The art of selecting and arranging excerpts (ars excerpendi) helped synthesize ideas and served as an aid to composition and argumentation.
In our digital age, creating a commonplace book presents new challenges and possibilities. While knowledge organization remains essential for sense-making, the proliferation of information requires more robust systems. Developing a personal system to effectively collect, organize, and retrieve relevant content is an evolving art. What are some of the key challenges and opportunities of creating a digital commonplace book?
The flood of content on the internet can feel overwhelming. Without a clear plan, saving bits of text can turn into hoarding. Implementing a thoughtful taxonomy for classifying excerpts is key. Categorization needs to be granular enough to find information easily while flexible enough to accommodate new topics. Assigning multiple tags to excerpts enhances retrievability. Database design principles apply—avoiding redundancy yet showing relationships between concepts.
Linking and Context
Physical commonplace books lacked hyperlinks. Digitally, excerpts can directly reference original sources, retaining vital context. Tools like Hypothes.is facilitate public annotation layered atop web content. Linking to scanned books on archive.org or citing academic articles provides attribution and verification—safeguards against misrepresentation.
While commonplace books traditionally contained text, digital versions can incorporate images, audio, video, and more. Multimedia enables capturing a wider array of creative inspirations and examples. However, non-text content needs metadata for findability. Alt-text, captions, and tagging aid discovery.
Search and Retrieval
Keyword search makes locating notebook content far easier than rifling through shoeboxes of notecards. Search operates both internally (across your notes) and externally (to resurface key sources). Tools like Obsidian and Roam Research allow graph-style linking between elements, surfacing connections. Solid metadata and tagging improve search precision.
Curation and Sensemaking
The real power comes in synthesizing—crafting new ideas from your collection of excerpts. Note-taking is most valuable when it informs creation. Curate highlights around projects and emerging themes. Use writing and visual mapping to make sense of the content. Produce new works that incorporate and converse with your commonplace. I’ve been using Readwise and their new Reader to help me collect everything I consume, from ebooks to podcasts to websites. Use my link to start up with Readwise.
While digital provides powerful capabilities, tried-and-true practices remain: be selective in your collection, precise in your referencing, and diligent in your organization. Mastering personal knowledge management unlocks creativity. What future capabilities might aid the evolving art of maintaining a digital commonplace book?