The Commonplace Journal

The instant Kaisa from Valkoinenponi mentioned it, I recognized the Commonplace Journal.  For me, it was a book I had seen before, with the words vade_mecumVade Mecum printed on the cover, that my father used. It was a small notebook, and he took notes in it. About the weather, numbers and measurements he needed to remember, quotes on prices and on wisdom. Vade Mecum means “Come with Me” in Latin, and the book went most places with my father, the original life-long learner.

In the early days of printing, Vade Mecum became a name for books that published information–general or specific–in a variety of topics. They contained medical information, wieghts and measurements, and recipes for healing, cooking, even alchemy.

Vade Mecum had another name, starting in the 15th century: Commonplace books and Zibaldone. These notebooks were a combination of a scrapbook and a note-taking device. Students who were studying by apprenticeship would sketch or write information for their professional learning into the books. As the students became masters, they would allow the next generation to learn from these books. In the 1600s, most college students learned from the professors through keeping a Commonplace Book. Oxford University and Harvard taught via Commonplace Book well into the 20th century.

commonplace bookWhen I was in college, I created a Commonplace timeline in my room. Every time I learned something in one field, I’d mark it on the timeline–when it happened, who did the work. I’d add notes from other fields. By the middle of the year, I could tell you that while Bach was studying music, Peter the Great was building St. Petersburg (later Leningrad) and that 9,000 people died in England in a huge windstorm with gusts that reached 120 mph. The timeline wrapped around the room. The arts, music, science, literature–all trailed around the room, helping me understand the relationship between politics, culture, and science.

2362053970_2f96a14ea3I still keep a Commonplace Book. It holds quotes, book titles, ideas. I wish it looked more like Count Laszlo’s private diary in The English Patient (the 1996 movie made of Michael Ondaatje’s book). You can see a glimpse of it at the 4:00 mark in the trailer. But it is, well, commonplace. It is also the reason that I can’t keep an art journal without words as the origination source. I understand books without words, just colors or images when others do them, but for me, words create the book. And the image.

I love the idea of important pieces of learning and experience caught in one book. Paging through it, I can remember so much of where I was and what I was learning.  You can start your own, but if you already have one, please leave a comment about what you keep in it.

-Quinn McDonald is a romantic at heart. But don’t tell anyone; it’s hard to be a level-headed creativity coach if people think you are a wild romantic.

32 thoughts on “The Commonplace Journal

  1. Pingback: 10 Commonplace Journal Ideas | QuinnCreative

  2. Pingback: Social Media and the 21st Century Commonplace Book | Critical Margins

    • Your book is a true Commonplace book that contains a commonplace song! I left you a long note about that song. Never ask a folklorist a question she knows the answer to. She will just never shut up. The timeline was lots of fun. And I learned so much putting it together.

  3. I love commonplace books. I’ve been keeping one for years, even before I knew when it was called. I write in it favourite quotes, passages from books, and poems. I just filled one a few weeks ago, and I probably have at least two on the go right now. There is something so comforting about the idea of having with me all of my favourite words in one place.

  4. My dad was a doctor so Vade Mecum was his “workbook” 😀
    In another life I used to teach Reference books history to librarianship students and I made those lists for them to take the books into context. They opened their eyes wide when they realized that for example Henry Viii was on the throne, our city was founded and .Historia Naturalis was printed around the same time. 🙂

      • Education systems in all levels work in compartments. You only see a bit at a time. Being aware of what is happening in other areas at the same time deepens the understanding.
        Btw I have a very BIG British book that is a time line. Yes, I love that kind of things too. 😉

    • I wondered that, too. By how many cows were blown away? Or how many people who weigh ten stone were tumbled around. I really think they measured it later. The wind toppled a lighthouse and did other damage that can be measured after the fact.

  5. Ever since you mentioned it one day on FB, I have paid attention to mine. I took the idea from Karen Waldron’s discussion with Jen Lee (about keeping everything in one book). I chose to start from the front with my daily journaling, and from the back with everything else (quotations, recipes, names and addresses, prayer requests, etc). Hopefully the parts will meet in the middle. Some of the pages have been sprayed with ink, collaged with scrapbook paper or just randomly rubber stamped. I love it!!

      • Such a timeline would make a wonderful wallpaper edge-paper or chair-rail trim for a child’s room. You could either print it blank with spaces for dates, for the child to fill in as they learn over the year, or you could buy it pre-filled with facts, figures and historical data related to that year’s curriculum. I like the blank idea as it would encourage the child to fill in appropriate information on their own – and they could also use it as a journal of their own!

        • Yep. I had one of those in my college room and I loved filling it in. It was the only way I ever learned what was happening in art at the same time as something else in history and science. To me, it was a new idea, and I have to say, I learned more from creating that timeline than I did in a lot of classes. And it could easily be done in a child’s room.

  6. I just inscribed Vade Mecum on the flyleaf of my new journal. I love the idea of a “Come With Me Book” (thank you SO much Quinn). What I find interesting and ironic about these books is that as we fill them they are transformed into anything but “Commonplace”:

  7. I keep a Commonplace book in Evernote. It’s got notes on my reading, articles that I’ve clipped that relate to my personal research interests, snippets and quotes that I admire, writing copied from my journal, and recipes that I found and wanted to make, but needed something extra from the store for.

  8. I keep many kinds of notebooks – that document what I am learning and my methods for each project. But I also keep a small soft Moleskine book for quotes, paragraphs, etc from my reading of other people’s blogs. There are so many ideas that I want to remember and not enough brain space. I keep one of these in my purse/backpack at all times, so I’m never bored on buses or subways here in New York City.

  9. I think commonplace books and things like them are not just individual efforts. Wikipedia, for example, is like an encyclopedia but it’s also continuously updated, tracking events. Twitter and Facebook have similar aspects, and there’s always the Internet Archive (; check out the Wayback Machine. With a mobile phone you can record events around you, and with a few apps you can choose to “instrument your life”, from heart rate to sleep cycles. And of course there’s location, keeping track of where you go and how long it takes.

    At the moment the tools to get a grip on the available information are lagging somewhat behind the information itself, but people are trying lots of different approaches. Some of them will probably work. Here’s one possibility: and here’s another:

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