One of the clearest predecessors to the modern practice of Personal Knowledge Management are “commonplace books” – centralized, personally curated, and continuously maintained collections of information from various sources that rose to popularity during the Enlightenment and Industrial Revolution in Europe.

These books helped educated people cope with the “information explosion” unleashed by the printing press and industrialization. They were highly idiosyncratic, personalized texts used to make sense of a new world of intercontinental trade, long distance communication, and mass media. Commonplace books could contain recipes, quotes, letters, poems, tables of weights and measures, proverbs, prayers, legal formulas, notes from sermons, and remedies for common maladies, among many other things.

Their keepers would transcribe interesting or inspirational passages from their reading, assembling a personalized encyclopedia of quotations, ideas, anecdotes, observations and other information they came across. The purpose of the book could range from personal recollection and reflection, to source material for writing, speaking, politics, or business.

Origins of the Commonplace

The word “commonplace” can be traced back to Ancient Greece, where a speaker in law courts or political meetings would keep an assortment of arguments in a “common place” for easy reference. The Romans called them locus communis, which means “a theme or argument of general application,” such as a statement of proverbial wisdom.

For many centuries, great thinkers and intellectuals maintained ongoing records of their work. Shakespeare had something like a commonplace in mind when he wrote in Sonnett lXXVII:

Look, what thy memory cannot contain Commit to these waste blanks, and thou shalt find Those children nurs’d, delivered from thy brain, To take a new acquaintance of thy mind…

But the commonplace book would only come into its own during the European Enlightenment, when an exploding volume of printed media collided with changing political and societal norms. The commonplace book provided a private place for people to work out their thoughts and ideas about the dramatic changes taking place around them.

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