Our ancestors had no computers: they had Commonplace Books

With the development of the Internet and the ease with which we can access information, we are now facing a major issue of our modern era: coping with information overload. There are now so many things to read and to look at that we obviously need to find some way to deal with them. But this problem with information overload is not as new as we might think. What we call ‘commonplace books’ can help us reflect on the modern ways of storing and organising information.

Every day we try to handle information overload. It is common to read something on the Internet and to think that it is worth storing this information somewhere, in order to access it again in the future. So we use the Bookmarks on the Internet to keep a trace of the interesting information we have found, or we keep these information somewhere as Word or PDF documents and organise them carefully in our computers. We do this every day and it is a real reflex for us to try organise the information we come across when browsing the Internet. Every time you put a website in your « Bookmarks » or write down a quote, you are making a choice, and you are thinking. You make a difference between what is worth storing, and what is not, and you also think about where this piece of information should be stored.

The feeling of information overload and the need to cope with it seems typical to our modern era, as we are overwhelmed with information in various media, especially on the Internet. But people back in the Renaissance already had this feeling: they found that there were too many books and too much information to deal with, and they tried to find solutions to this problem.[i] Scholars and ordinary people did not wait for the Internet to organise information and knowledge. Computers and the Internet have actually only provided a new medium for an old way of organising information, which is not very well-known: this is the commonplace book.

Commonplace books then and now

Commonplace books are the forgotten ancestors of our modern blogs and Favourites, and have their roots back in antiquity. At that time, the loci communes concept, meaning that ideas or arguments could be classified into categories, started to develop.[ii] Commonplace books later flourished during the Middle Ages, under the name of florilegium – which literally means ‘gathering of flowers’. Commonplace books are thus books in which ideas and quotes worth storing are gathered. They continued to develop and to spread during the Renaissance, until the end of the 18th century. During this period, many authors wrote on the art of making commonplace books and how to make them as useful and organised as possible.

A rich and diverse production of commonplace books resulted. Indeed, there were many ways to write a commonplace book. Some commonplace books only consisted of quotes written one after the other, without real organisation, while others were organised in categories and contained a detailed index.

Extract from Lewis Carroll’s commonplace book. Many scholars kept commonplace books.

Ready-to-use commonplace books were even sold, with topics and categories already written at the tops of pages; thus the user only had to fill out the book with quotes. People could write the interesting passages word for word in their commonplace books, or they could rephrase passages in their own words, so as to make sure they had understood what they had read. Moreover, people did not only use handwriting to create commonplace books: they also cut pages in books, then pasted them in their commonplace books. Thus there was not only one way to make a commonplace, there were diverse methods. There were also different reasons why people chose to create commonplace books: some would try to memorise their commonplace book by heart, while others would simply enjoy going through it and rereading it. For students or scholars, the commonplace book could be a very useful tool, a sort of encyclopaedia containing the most interesting passages or quotes taken from books.

A commonplace book could consist of one or several notebooks, but other original methods also came out. The German writer Placcius, for instance, wrote down information on slips of paper that he then put in his scrinium literatum, a chest built especially for the purpose of storing and organising quotes and passages in drawers.

Placcius’s scrinium literatum, or ‘literary chest’ (17th century)

We cannot help but see many similarities in the ways people have been organising information from to Renaissance to the present time. Just like nowadays’ blogs, commonplace books could be filled with quotes or images, they could be organised in different categories, and they could be shared. People also cut and pasted the content they found in books, just as we cut and paste what we found on the Internet now. Computers and the Internet have allowed us to continue doing the same thing as scholars and people did some centuries ago, and they have brought real improvement in the way we organise information. For instance, using the online medium allows to edit our work infinitely and quickly, and to add content easily and anywhere, while this is impossible in handwritten commonplace books, where blank spaces must be left in advance so as to add content in the pages used – except in Placcius’ system.

Thus, the ways we store information now are not that different from the practice of commonplace books. The medium has changed, but the practise of commonplace books is still alive even after centuries of existence: it has inspired and shaped our modern ways of organising information, on computers and on the Internet. Computers have kept many characteristics of commonplace books, and even if ours ways of organising information continue to evolve in the future, we can be sure that the heritage of commonplace books will always remain, even under a digital form.

Handwritten vs. typed commonplace books

However, we can wonder if the modern ways of storing information have only brought improvement, especially when it comes to the memorisation of information. As written above, all commonplace books are not meant to be learnt by heart: but ideally they are meant to help us cope with the information overload in the best possible way, by helping us to remember important information. The concern with online commonplace books is that they are typed, they are not handwritten like the old commonplace books and this could have an impact on memorisation.

Although handwriting takes quite some time and requires effort, this is not necessarily a bad thing: indeed, writing is thought to be important so as to help memorisation. Writing also gives more time to reflect on the meaning of a passage we are writing, while the quick typing allows us to spend less time on a passage and can give the illusion that we have appropriated it. An experiment conducted by two psychological scientists, Pam Mueller of Princeton and Daniel Oppenheimer of UCLA, confirms this idea. The two scientists wanted to see if students who used typing and those who use handwriting remembered their lectures better.[iii] This experience showed that both groups of students remembered the same number of facts from the lectures. But when it came to ideas and concepts, the students who used typing were less able to remember them, while the students who used writing proved to remember concepts better. On the website of the Association for Psychological Science, Wray Herbert talks about this experiment and concludes by writing that ‘Apparently there is something about typing that leads to mindless processing. And there is something about ink and paper that prompts students to go beyond merely hearing and recording new information’.[iv] Thus, even we are not necessarily trying to memorise something that we are writing down, this experiment shows that we are more likely to remember it especially because we are writing, not typing.

Thus the change of medium may go along with some disadvantages as well. Although the Internet has obvious advantages, the experiment by Mueller and Oppenheimer can stimulate thinking on the benefits and limits of online commonplace books. This experiment reminds us of the benefits of handwriting and can encourage us a to use handwriting and typing in a more balanced and thoughtful way. The Internet has not brought a clear and definitive solution to the eternal problem of information overload: it is one more way of managing information, which has been inspired by commonplace books, and it has brought many other possibilities in the ways we can create commonplace books and organise information. We now have the chance to have two media, paper and digital, which both have their own advantages and defects, and complete one another.

Our ancestors did not have that. They had no computers, only commonplace books. But without even knowing it, they were already shaping the way we organise information now. After all, we are not that different from the people of the Renaissance: from commonplace books to our modern ways of managing information, we are still trying to cope with the same issue of information overload. The art of making commonplace books, which culminated in the early modern period, is still alive now through our digital media. Just like the scholars of the Renaissance, we can continue to experiment with the media we have and look for the best ways of organising information. The tricky problem of information overload might never be completely solved, but commonplace books will certainly always remain. They have opened the way to ever-improving methods of organising information, and will continue to influence us, even if we are not always aware of it.

[i] Blair, Ann. « Reading Strategies for Coping with Information Overload, Ca.1550-1700. »Journal of the History of Ideas 64, no. 1 (2003): 11-28. <http://dash.harvard.edu/bitstream/handle/1/3228379/blair 2003.pdf?sequence=2.>

[ii] « Commonplace Books. » Open Collections Program: Reading, Harvard Views of Readers, Readership, and Reading History. Accessed May 24, 2015. <http://ocp.hul.harvard.edu/reading/commonplace.html.>

[iii] Herbert, Wray. « Ink on Paper: Some Notes on Note Taking. » Association for Psychological Science RSS. January 28, 2014. <http://www.psychologicalscience.org/index.php/news/were-only-human/ink-on-paper-some-notes-on-note-taking.html.&gt;

[iv] Ibid

Photo credits:

Image 1: Courtesy of Harry Ransom Center. McKinney, Kelsey. « Beautiful Commonplace Books by Lewis Carroll, Nancy Cunnard, and More. » The Daily Beast. Accessed May 25, 2015. <http://www.thedailybeast.com/galleries/2012/08/16/beautiful-commonplace-books-by-lewis-carroll-nancy-cunard-and-more-photos.html#slide_4.>

Image 2: « Four Leaves from a Commonplace Book. » CABINET. Accessed May 25, 2015. <http://www.cabinetmagazine.org/issues/30/burnett.php.>

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