What happened to the commonplace book? Talk with Jillian Hesse

Students are often found using computers and cellphones to jot down their thoughts but what ever happened to the commonplace book? (Jordan Richardson/The Daily Campus) 

Today everyone uses computers and cellphones to catalog thoughts and ideas but in the 19th-century, writers chose to take up the commonplace-book tradition by categorizing quotations and information in their own personal notebooks.

Bronx Community College of the City University of New York professor Jillian Hesse spoke about the fate of the commonplace book in the 20th-century on Thursday in the Austin Building, in a dynamic talk about literary times and cultures.

The commonplace book was born when these 19th-century writers faced an all too familiar problem: how does one organize information so that it is most useful?

Coleridge transcribed extracts in his “Fly-Catchers,” Tennyson wrote commonplaces in his “Butcher’s Books” and George Eliot collected historical information in her “Quarry.”

Commonplace books are any place for recording, memos, observations and reflections in many media forms. More specifically, “a book in which things to be remembered are arranged under general heads,” as defined by Johnson’s Dictionary in the early 17th-century.

As Oscar Wilde wrote in his Oxford commonplace book, “nothing is easier than to accumulate facts, nothing is so hard as to use them.”

This talk explored how Romantic and Victorian authors used their commonplace books as information management tools, while telling the story of what happened to this ancient tradition in the face of technological change, shifting practices of reading and new conceptions of authorship. 

Hesse said the books became an avenue for many disciplines to mix, “where different forms can interact and strengthen each other to the point of the author’s objective. There was a connotation of commonplace books. The thought was that by keeping these books that they were being good citizens.”

These books were used to compile information, but organizing them became increasingly difficult for many writers and scholars of the time. The history of indexing then came into play at the personal level to help writers synthesize thoughts to then go on to make public works, much like a journalist’s notebook. Hesse spoke about how the John Locke’s index system became a benchmark for contemporary writers of the time.

As technology progressed, so did the composition and the styles of these commonplace books. Cuttings and lithographs from published papers and pamphlets, thanks to the advent of the printing press, became more available ultimately strengthening their presence and the authors within these records. But these inventions also came with new avenues for plagiarism and copyright issues.

When an audience member inquired about the fate of the commonplace book of the 21st century, Hesse replied, “Many people see Facebook and Tumblr as the new commonplace books but I believe something different. We have all of these modern tools for compiling not only literature but digital information as well.”

“I believe the future of commonplace books is in online indexing like Google. If you think about it, it is a massive commonplace book. Humans are not indexing knowledge any more, computers are doing it,” Hesse said.

“It is really interesting to see someone with such a deep perspective and historical knowledge relating to something as simple as a personal journal. I believe that smart phones have taken the place of these little books that people once used,” said second-semester civil engineering major Ryan Stroutman.

“By modern standards, most people can make little notes and even picture, video and voice memos using software which helps them organize as opposed to the chaotic nature of those in the past.”


Dan Wood is a staff writer for The Daily Campus. He can be reached via email at daniel.wood@uconn.edu.