Commonplace Books: the Social Media of Yesteryear

Tom Standage in his blog post How commonplace books were like Tumblr and Pinterest summarizes a talk by Lee Humphreys in which she examined “how people in the 19th century would share their diaries with visiting families and friends by reading aloud: . . it was only in the early 20th century that diaries and journals came to be seen as private documents.  it was only in the early 20th century that diaries and journals came to be seen as private documents”

Standage continues by comparing Commonplace Books to today’s social media:

In my forthcoming book “Writing on the Wall” I make a similar argument about an earlier form of journal, the commonplace book. This was a kind of scrapbook, popular in the 16th and 17th centuries, into which people would copy items of interest to create a personal trove of valuable information.  Commonplace books that survive from the Tudor period contain a huge variety of texts, . . Sonnets, ballads and epigrams jostle with diary entries, recipes, lists of ships or Cambridge colleges and transcriptions of speeches. Collecting useful snippets of information so that they could be easily retrieved when needed, or re-read to spark new ideas and connections, was one of the functions of a commonplace book.

People would sometimes lend their commonplace books or miscellanies to their friends, who could then page through the entries and copy anything of interest into their own books. The similarities and overlaps between several manuscript collections compiled at Oxford University indicate widespread sharing of both individual texts and entire collections among students and their tutors, for example. . . Only a minority of the texts that people circulated were original compositions; most material was quoted from other sources. The same is true of modern social-media systems: posting links and snippets found elsewhere is standard practice on blogs, Facebook and Twitter, and on some platforms, such as Pinterest and Tumblr, more than 80% of items shared are “repins” or “reblogs” of items previously posted by other users.

I have always been fascinated by the concept of Commonplace Books and started compiling one of my own for the year 2012, drawing on material I had posted to Facebook, to my ProfPat blog (about digital pedagogy and teaching a course on Women and Computers), and on items recorded in my notetaking TiddlyWiki software (described earlier here).  Then it occurred to me that it would be handy to have an online version – with clickable links – as well as a printed version, which is why I started this blog.


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