Do You Keep a Commonplace Book?

Two of the four pages I managed to complete in a 2015 journal. Photo Credit: Cindy Freed

With the new year came plenty of well meaning articles encouraging or even discouraging resolutions. Some authors swapped the word resolution for goal as a way to promote success. Others were adamant in why we should never ever set ourselves up for failure by making resolutions or setting goals for the new year. Whichever side you fall on, you can probably guess the most common new year’s resolutions include: weight loss or eating better, frequent exercise, spend less/save more money and better self-care, like more sleep, etc.

Each January 1st my new year resolution is pretty much the same. It’s less ambitious than many of those listed above but I must admit it’s still broken after two weeks. My big resolution? I’m always determined to keep a journal. My goal is to document the year, write down the fun stuff, remember the low points and be able to look back over the previous months that I’ve carefully detailed. It’s a great idea, which is accomplished by many (and my hat’s off to you)! Yet after several days of “we got two inches of snow” or “the wind chill was -10 this morning,” I conveniently “forget” to write in my journal and my resolution bites the dust. I hate that.

As family historians we’ve heard lots of times how we should chronicle our own lives. Usually we’re the one documenting family events, past and present. We’re the one who takes most of our family’s photos and we’re the one missing from most of these occasions since we’re doing the recording. So how do I keep my journaling resolution and maybe leave a little piece of myself for future descendants?

A Commonplace book from the mid-17th century Photo Credit: Beinecke Flickr Laboratory - [Commonplace book], [mid. 17th c.]Uploaded by Edward, CC BY 2.0,

Well, I came across the Commonplace book when I was looking at journaling ideas on Pinterest. What’s a Commonplace book? Wikipedia says:

Commonplace books (or commonplaces) are a way to compile knowledge, usually by writing information into books. Such books are essentially scrapbooks filled with items of every kind: recipes, quotes, letters, poems, tables of weights and measures, proverbs, prayers, legal formulas. Commonplaces are used by readers, writers, students, and scholars as an aid for remembering useful concepts or facts they have learned. Each commonplace book is unique to its creator's particular interests.1

I really liked the concept and have in a loose way kept a Commonplace book in the past. I have small spiral notebooks where I’ve jotted quotes, Bible verses, article ideas and so on. As I continued reading I came across David McKee’s blog post about this kind of personal documentation.

The truth is, the commonplace book is a real life thing that collects and stores your memories in a way that actually reflects you and your personality . . . . . . By reading the commonplace book of a thinking man or woman who may be long dead, you will in fact be transported into their thoughts, time, and ways of thinking. You will be holding in your hands a physical object they in fact once owned, and wrote perhaps things more intimate than anywhere else except within their own minds.2

Now that paragraph sold me on the idea of keeping a Commonplace book. I can do this! I can choose a book/journal and record my quotes, Bible verses, stories and ideas. If I want I can add photos, ticket stubs or receipts. I can draw, although I’m not very artsy, doodle or do nothing more than write out my text. I don’t have to write in it daily or even weekly. I only record something in the book when it moves me and I want to remember it.

Just in case you’re wondering how you’d find a quote you wrote in your book from eight months ago, some people section off their book, like chapters for “quotes,” or “recipes,” etc. Others use tabs for a quick look at a previously recorded idea, poem and so on.

Now this idea may not resonate with you. Perhaps you keep your ideas in Evernote or Day One. Maybe you’ve been journaling daily for years. If that’s the case - great!! Keep doing what works for you. I only offer this idea to those like me who can’t keep a journal going no matter how many times we try.

Thomas Jefferson, John Milton, Ralph Waldo Emerson and Henry David Thoreau were known to keep Commonplace books. Leonardo Di Vinci’s journals are great examples of Commonplace books. How can we go wrong in company like that?

If you do try keeping a Commonplace book let me know how it goes. I’ll be interested in your process and what’s working for you. The only downside I see in keeping this type of journal is ending up with a book filled with ideas, quotes, poems and words that have special meaning in our lives and that’s not a bad result.


  1. Wikipedia contributors, "Commonplace book," Wikipedia, The Free Encyclopedia, (accessed January 14, 2018). 

  2. “The ‘Commonplace’ Book… The True Pensieve.” Celtic Cross Engineering, McKee, David, 6 Mar. 2014, January 14, 2018). 

Cindy Freed

About Cindy Freed

Cindy Freed is a genealogist, researcher and writer. Her blog Genealogy Circle ( documents her personal family research as well as her continuing interest in the Civil War. Along with her monthly IDG column, Tracing Blue and Gray, Cindy is a regular contributor to 4th Ohio, First Call quarterly magazine for the 4th Ohio Volunteer Cavalry Descendants Association.

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