The Commonplace Book Idea

Where Good Ideas Come From: The Natural History of Innovation by Steven Johnson

This is one of my top reads from 2012 …. In fact it would probably rank as one of my top reads ever!  It certainly qualifies as one of the most inspirational books I’ve read.

On the back cover of my copy (loved it so much I bought a copy for my school staff professional library and purchased a copy for myself.  And I intend to gift it to my 22 year old son as well.) it says:

“If you want to create a space for innovation, you won’t get far by cloistering yourself away from the world and waiting for inspiration to hit you.  Chance favours the connected mind”.  

I had light-bulbs going off all over the place when I read this book.  There was so much to think about! So I’ve restricted myself in this blog posting  to highlighting just one of the key ideas for me.  This came from chapter III, The Slow Hunch, and the key idea was The Commonplace Book. I cannot believe I hadn’t come across this concept before.  Thank you Steven Johnson for being the person to enlighten me.


[Commonplace book], [mid. 17th c.]

Commonplace books were used extensively during the 17th & 18th centuries by scholars, scientists and anyone with intellectual ambition as a way of recording information, facts, ideas and thoughts that were particularly important or relevant to them.  Here is how Wikipedia describes them:

Such books were essentially scrapbooks filled with items of every kind: medical recipes, quotes, letters, poems, tables of weights and measures, proverbs, prayers, legal formulas and each commonplace book was unique to its creator’s particular interests.


Grandma's Commonplace Book

Personal Context

This concept really resonated for me as I’m continually thinking about all sorts of things related to my work in libraries and the intersection of this with information and education, and I am regularly excited by how seemingly disparate ideas from various places all come together for me to create an idea or activity.  I’m also convinced, by the number of times I have that “I know I read something about that somewhere and now I don’t know where I read it,  when I read or even who wrote it” moment, that I really needed to be more deliberate in noting down these things along with my reflections of them. The commonplace concept was my perfect solution!

It’s like when I attend a conference or a workshop or some other type of professional learning opportunity.  It’s not so much the guts of the presentation that I take notes on, most presenters give you access to that anyway, it’s my thoughts and reflections on the ideas that stand out for me that I make my notes about.  Of course you need to spend time soon afterwards, preferably within the next day or two, expanding and explaining the notes to yourself for future reference.  After all, who has had the experience of going back to notes you’ve taken at a conference after a few months or even a year and not had any clue about what it was you thought was important in the first place!  Having your own commonplace book could be the answer to that.


Pages from my Commonplace Book

I have a friend who, about a decade ago, spent a year religiously writing in her diary every day about what was happening on the farm, what her children were doing, what the family was involved in.  She said it was a huge commitment of her time but now they have this wonderful snapshot of a year in their lives to look back on.  What an amazing gift to leave your children, grandchildren and great grandchildren.  An insight into your thoughts and ideas as they developed.

Of course nowadays, a commonplace book doesn’t have to just be a physical journal or a scrapbook you note things down in.  In the current electronic age this could be an online journal or blog that you can very easily add to and refer back to whenever you want or need.

Educational Context

I got to thinking about how we could use this commonplace book idea with students.  Here’s some of the possible applications that I see:

  • Use it as a tool right from Year 9 to get students to reflect on their own learning, challenges, successes, strategies, accomplishments and then have them do something with it as a senior student each year they are still at school
  • A particular curriculum area could incorporate it into their senior programme and build it through from Year 11 to Year 13
  • A  class could use it as a version of a time capsule where students make regular entries though the year after setting goals at the beginning and reflecting on their success or otherwise at the end of the year, including reflection of what led to the result they attained

I see the commonplace book concept as potentially being a very powerful tool for learning planning skills,  self-management and intentional thinking.  The multi-year approach could be managed relatively simply by having students create their own blogs which won’t potentially  get lost or destroyed in the transition between years.  I know there are pitfalls to this idea, but I do believe there are huge benefits to be gained for students if the fish-hooks are ironed out.

There are bound to be a number of other great ways of incorporating this into the school or library programme that I haven’t thought of yet.  I’d love to hear any other practical applications you might come up with.

So have I sold you on the commonplace book?  Do you want to know more about Steven Johnson’s fantastic book?  Here’s the very creative book trailer for it

Want to know even more?  Here’s Steven at a Ted Talks event talking about the history of innovation

Inspired to read his book now?  Can I suggest you run (and I mean literally, run!) to your local library or bookshop and invest in this treasure trove of ideas for yourself.  Happy innovating!

12 thoughts on “The Commonplace Book Idea

  1. Thanks for sharing your enthusiasm Senga 😉

    I figure this might be the push I need for me to commit to exploring Evernote a bit more – it feels like a good digital place for me to start throwing around ideas, pinning things, and making some sort of sense of all the ideas that I have stuck on bits of random paper.

    Or maybe I need to just stick to the one paper book instead of lots of different random bits of paper …

    Thanks for giving me plenty of food for thought!


    1. Oooh … I really like the idea of using Ever-note as an electronic Commonplace Book. If you do decide to run with it, I’d love to know how it works for you. I may just give that a whirl myself ….. Thanks Megan …. brain whirring away again now!!


  2. A good start to the year! And that first quote is what we are telling our 22 year old son as well. We oldies know the great ideas that have come at the end of a night of socialising. But will he absorb it, mmmm ?


    1. Ah …. if only we had the time available to us as a young person with the experience we’ve gained along the way …. that’s life I guess! LOL


  3. I’ve got this book on my bookshelf waiting to be read, and now you’ve spurred me on to do so. I tend to favour paper and carry a notebook with me everywhere for jotting down ideas. I also have many many 2B5 exercise books with stuff in and regularly flick through for inspiration. I like the act of writing, scribbling and connecting the dots visually. I find this difficult to do with a lot of online tools as they are so linear. However, online tools are so much easier to search 🙂


    1. Hey Sally, I hear ya! I absolutely love beautiful journals and can’t stop myself from buying them. I have a range of ways of collecting my thoughts …. but now need to be a bit more intentional about how I do it and why. I’m more of a paper girl myself but tend to do more and more online reflection professionally. I reckon the key is to find what works for you and stick to it! (Also online is easier for collaborative brainstorming unless you’re fortunate enough to be able to do face to face which is another big thing about true innovation in Steve’s book.) Would love to know what you think about it once you’re read it.


  4. You’ll have a bunch of teachers coming over here from Thailand shortly! I’ve just advertised this fantastic post at Harrow, Senga. What an inspiration you are with this blog. I loved this post.


    1. Thanks so much for your feedback Debbie! Would love to hear if any teachers actually try something like this and what difference it makes to their students. Hope things are going well for you


  5. Wow, I am totally inspired to read this book. As I was reading your descriptions of The Commonplace Book I kept on thinking ‘that’s my phone’ as I save everything electronically, even my shopping list! I love what he says about the coffee houses and “connected minds”. We’ve heard before about the power of the conversations around the water cooler, but Steven Johnson has given this concept more depth and true meaning for me. And that’s just from the TED Talk and trailer! Thanks for sharing this Senga.

    On my To Read list on Goodreads 😉


    1. I first heard about the importance of coffee-houses from Prof Erica McWilliam at IASL in Brisbane. Fantastic! And she’s keynoting at SLANZA conference in Wellington in July. I think you’ll also love the section in his book about how forward-thinking companies such as Apple give their employees a certain amount of time on a regular basis to pursue their own ideas and projects. Imagine working in that sort of environment 🙂


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