What is commonplacing?

Commonplacing is collecting and organising information you care about to form your body of thought.

It is about knowledge, like a diary is about days or a bullet journal is about doing.


  • in any form - a definition, question, quote or quip, links or lists, a photo, poem, recipe, equation, diagram, drawing…
  • about anything - individuals, energy, nature, laws, money, language, love, science, systems, leadership, upholstery on public transport...
  • wherever we find it - in books, on a screen, in test tubes, debates, podcasts, art, games, graffiti...
"Whenever in my reading, occurs concerning this our fellow creature, I do never fail to set it down by way of commonplace" - Jonathan Swift

Commonplacing became popular in Europe around the time of the printing press, when people engaged with the new flood* of information by selecting 'commonplaces', bits of knowledge they kept in a commonplace book.

Insert and source image gallery of commonplace books

We mostly lost the habit in the 1900s as set bodies of knowledge became accepted at scale (like giant shared commonplace books), and as we engaged with information in more specialist ways, using it in factories, offices, stock markets, university or government departments.

A commonplace (noun) used to mean 'a notable or striking thing' before its current meaning of 'an ordinary or usual thing'.

Now, as types of artificial intelligence offer new approaches to specialisation, and as the internet generates a new flood of information, commonplacing has resurfaced in places like Pinboard, Pocket, Evernote, Tumblr, and of course personal blogs... (This range of formats is why I prefer commonplacing to a commonplace book - to standardise the practise across formats, an open standard for an approach to knowledge)

Calling these things commonplacing helps me to rethink the internet as a place that offers us information we can turn into knowledge, alongside it being a place that gives us news, catches our attention, encourages our judgement and records our actions.

When I commonplace, I like to link information from different places to see what new knowledge might emerge (usually in the form of questions). I especially look for links where my or others' thinking feels limited, siloed or fixed. In my approach, I prefer emergence to revelation, am interested in how as much as why, and value knowledge as constant learning.

Things I'm asking questions around at the moment

old ghosts haunting new hopes, data about us, the social responsibility of business, measuring qualities and valuing quantities, different attitudes to time and their relationship to value/s, systems thinking and mapping, risks across concentration and diversification, the consequences of efficiency in different contexts, stories about teams, false binaries and near enemies that look like more helpful things than they actually are, black holes and blocks in our language where we need new or different words.

Tags I’ll likely use

words, categories, data, ideas, work, ownership, property, capital, value/s, interaction, change, exchange, open, infrastructure, ethics, equality, uniformity, music, counterpoint, debate, measurement, money, markets, platforms, standards, queues, quantity, quality, difference, freedom from/to, business, economics, philosophy, friction, efficiency, sufficiency, sustainability, limits, scale/s, concentration, accumulation, diversity, probability, risk, extremes, absolutes, relativity, scarcity, abundance, non-zero-sum, systems, structures, rhetoric, logic, jargon, share / shares / shareholder, responsibility, rights, personal, privacy, public, portability, tools, technology, trust, power, agency, autonomy, consent, control, company, collective, cooperative, commons, collaboration, transparency, governance, think / feel / sense, energy, decisions, nature, test, individual / social, local / national / global, squirrels

Here are some links you might find useful. They use the term 'commonplace book' but they are just as much about the mindset and practise of 'commonplacing':

History of commonplacing

'How to's' and examples of commonplacing

Commonplacing to think

Commonplacing as information technology and social media

*There is something about information and floods and finding a way to knowledge… Old stories like Noah’s Ark as some of our earliest attempts at commonplacing... the flood as metaphor for a first deluge of information (when we started to speak to each other?), the ship a commonplace book, the pairs of animals the chosen commonplaces... knowledge filtered from the flood of information, a feeling of drowning becoming waving...