How to Create a Commonplace Book

Updated: Aug 29, 2021

Rev Thomas Austen Commonplace Book 1770-Harvard University Library

Rev Thomas Austen, Commonplace Book, 1770

A commonplace book is “a central resource or depository for ideas, quotes, anecdotes, observations and other information you come across.” (Doug Toft).

Although it feels as if using old-fashioned pen and paper for note-taking and reference is disappearing, it’s not true. Millions of people around the world still find writing by hand to be the best way to capture and refer to information. It all depends on the type of information that matters to you and what you need it for.

The value of a commonplace book is it helps you process the incredible amount of information that comes at you. It’s an easy way to store what you find interesting and relevant. It encourages higher-level thinking, teaches you how to manage/curate information, and pushes to engage with information in a new way. And it’s a lot of fun, especially if you use it as a creative outlet by drawing or doodling in it.

See Source A below for recommendations on what types of information a commonplace book stores well.

Choose Your Medium: Paper or Digital

The links provided at the bottom of this article include suggestions for other ways to create a commonplace book. This article focuses on paper notebooks.

Use any type of notebook you wish. It can be a simple composition notebook widely available in stores. There are more expensive notebooks such as those made by Moleskine, Leuchtturm1917, Clairefontaine, Rhodia, and others. The paper may be lined, a grid (with solid or dotted lines) or blank.

If your notebook pages were not numbered when you bought it, number the pages yourself. You can do it as you go along or do it all at once. If you like, you can number the index pages using i, ii, iii, iv, etc., so that the main part of your book starts on page 1.

Your notebook choice is determined by your budget and what types of pens you want to use. You can certainly use a plain ballpoint pen or a pencil. The more expensive notebooks stand up better to certain pens (markers, fountain pens) by not letting their ink bleed through to the other side of the page.

Note that the photos here show a purchased notebook already set up with a commonplace index and numbered pages. This notebook is no longer for sale. However, it’s very easy to create your own book. You start by creating the index.

Create the Commonplace Book Index

Photo 1: Commonplace book index as invented by John Locke

Photo 1: Commonplace book index as invented by John Locke

This article describes the index method used by John Locke starting in 1652 while he was at Oxford University (see Source F below). It’s still just as flexible and useful today, 460 years later. See Photo 1 above.

The index is based on the alphabet, much like the index of a regular book. The commonplace index is placed in front of the book rather than the back.

The index is a series of separate sections on each page, one for each letter of the alphabet. In this post, I’m using the English alphabet; this method should work for the alphabets of most languages.

  1. Set aside at least 6-7 pages in the front of the notebook. Six pages mean there will be two sections in which two letters, such as “w” and “v,” share the section. Seven pages is enough for each letter to have its own section. I recommend setting up at least one more index page as described in step 2 below, but without assigning any letters to its quadrants. Later on, if one letter’s entries fill its original quadrant, you can continue its index in one of these blank quadrants.

  2. On each page, draw a vertical line down the middle and a horizontal line across the middle to make four quadrants.

  3. On the first page of the index, write “A” in the upper left quadrant, “B” in the upper right, “C” in the lower left, and “D” in the lower right. Continue in the same manner on the rest of the index pages until all letters have been assigned to a quadrant.

  4. Within each quadrant, list the vowels—a,e,i,o,u—down the left side in order, giving each vowel the same number of lines or same amount of space.

How to Use Your Commonplace Book

Photo 2: Commonplace book entries

Photo 2: Commonplace book entries

As an example, let’s say the first entry you want to keep is this quote: “A good laugh and a long sleep are the two best cures for anything,” an Irish proverb.

  1. Go to page 1 and write the quote down. (I also number each entry on a page. This entry’s number then becomes 1-1, meaning entry number 1 on page number 1.) See Photo 2 above.

  2. Choose at least one “keyword” or concept word that is connected to the item. Here, a good keyword is “cure.”

  3. Note that the first letter of the keyword is “c,” and the first VOWEL of the word is “u”.

  4. Go to index section C. On its line for “u,” write “cure 1-1.” See Photo 1 above for this item’s index entry.

  5. If you also want to track authors of quotes, for this one, go to index section U. In that section on the line for vowel “o,” write “Unknown 1-1.”

Other Commonplace Book Sources

A John Locke’s Method of Indexing Commonplace Books

B. Ask The Desk: Commonplace Book Options & Staples

C. How to Start a Commonplace Book

D. All About Commonplacing

E. Commonplace Books Part 1: What Are They?

F. Commonplace Books Part 2: Why Keep One and How?

Photo credits: Top photo: Harvard University Library. Bottom two photos: Mary Anne Shew

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