During the Enlightenment, most intellectuals kept what’s called a Commonplace Book. Basically, folks like John Locke or Mark Twain would curate transcriptions of interesting quotes from their readings. It was a personalized record of interesting ideas that the author encountered. When I first heard about the concept, I immediately started thinking of how I could implement one… which is when I realized that I’ve actually been keeping one, more or less, for the past decade or so on this blog. It’s not very organized, though, and it’s something that’s been banging around in my head for the better part of the last year or so.

Locke was a big fan of Commonplace Books, and he spent years developing an intricate system for indexing his books’ content. It was, of course, a ridiculous and painstaking process, but it worked. Fortunately for us, this is exactly the sort of thing that computer systems excel at, right? The reason I’m writing this post is a small confluence of events that has lead me to consider creating a more formal Commonplace Book. Despite my earlier musing on the subject, this blog doesn’t really count. It’s not really organized correctly, and I don’t publish all the interesting quotes that I find. Even if I did, it’s not really in a format that would do me much good. So I’d need to devise another plan.

Why do I need a plan at all? What’s the benefit of a commonplace book? Well, I’ve been reading Steven Johnson’s book Where Good Ideas Come From: The Natural History of Innovation and he mentions how he uses a computerized version of the commonplace book:

For more than a decade now, I have been curating a private digital archive of quotes that I’ve found intriguing, my twenty-first century version of the commonplace book. … I keep all these quotes in a database using a program called DEVONthink, where I also store my own writing: chapters, essays, blog posts, notes. By combining my own words with passages from other sources, the collection becomes something more than just a file storage system. It becomes a digital extension of my imperfect memory, an archive of all my old ideas, and the ideas that have influenced me.

This DEVONthink software certainly sounds useful. It’s apparently got this fancy AI that will generate semantic connections between quotes and what you’re writing. It’s advanced enough that many of those connections seem to be subtle and “lyrical”, finding connections you didn’t know you were looking for. It sounds perfect except for the fact that it only runs on Mac OSX. Drats. It’s worth keeping in mind in case I ever do make the transition from PC to Mac, but it seems like lunacy to do so just to use this application (which, for all I know, will be useless to me).

As sheer happenstance, I’ve also been playing around with Pinterest lately, and it occurs to me that it’s a sort of commonplace book, albeit one with more of a narrow focus on images and video (and recipes?) than quotes. There are actually quite a few sites like that. I’ve been curating a large selection of links on Delicious for years now (1600+ links on my account). Steven Johnson himself has recently contributed to a new web startup called Findings, which is primarily concerned with book quotes. All of this seems rather limiting, and quite frankly, I don’t want to be using 7 completely different tools to do the same thing, but for different types of media.

I also took a look at Tumblr again, this time evaluating it from a commonplacing perspective. There are some really nice things about the interface and the ease with which you can curate your collection of media. The problem, though, is that their archiving system is even more useless than most blog software. It’s not quite the hell that is Twitter archives, but that’s a pretty low bar. Also, as near as I can tell, the data is locked up on their server, which means that even if I could find some sort of indexing and analysis tool to run through my data, I won’t really be able to do so (Update: apparently Tumblr does have a backup tool, but only for use with OSX. Again!? What is it with you people? This is the internet, right? How hard is it to make this stuff open?)

Evernote shows a lot of promise and probably warrants further examination. It seems to be the go-to alternative for lots of researchers and writers. It’s got a nice cloud implementation with a robust desktop client and the ability to export data as I see fit. I’m not sure if its search will be as sophisticated as what I ultimately want, but it could be an interesting tool.

Ultimately, I’m not sure the tool I’m looking for exists. DEVONthink sounds pretty close, but it’s hard to tell how it will work without actually using the damn thing. The ideal would be a system where you can easily maintain a whole slew of data and metadata, to the point where I could be writing something (say a blog post or a requirements document for my job) and the tool would suggest relevant quotes/posts based on what I’m writing. This would probably be difficult to accmomplish in real-time, but a “Find related content” feature would still be pretty awesome. Anyone know of any alternatives?

Enhanced by ZemantaUpdate: Zemanta! I completely forgot about this. It comes installed by default with my blogging software, but I had turned it off a while ago because it took forever to load and was never really that useful. It’s basically a content recommendation engine, pulling content from lots of internet sources (notably Wikipedia, Amazon, Flickr and IMDB). It’s also grown considerably in the time since I’d last used it, and it now features a truckload of customization options, including the ability to separate general content recommendations from your own, personally curated sources. So far, I’ve only connected my two blogs to the software, but it would be interesting if I could integrate Zemanta with Evernote, Delicious, etc… I have no idea how great the recommendations will be (or how far back it will look on my blogs), but this could be exactly what I was looking for. Even if integration with other services isn’t working, I could probably create myself another blog just for quotes, and then use that blog with Zemanta. I’ll have to play around with this some more, but I’m intrigued by the possibilities

2 thoughts on “Commonplacing”

  1. This is a brilliant idea and reading your piece on it, I realise it’s something I think I’ve subconsciously hoped a number of different web services would become for me but never did.

    I’ll have to give Zemanta a try later. Just glancing at its site, I think the UI looks a little too busy, but it could be one of those things that makes sense once I start using it or is perhaps something that necessitates a busier interface. Being balls deep in some unrelated development lately, I’m tempted to attempt to fashion my own commonplace book type utility. Of course, there’s always things like that I want to make that I never actually get around to doing.

    I do use Evernote for general random notes of all sorts, including stuff that would fall into a commonplace book (most of which seems to fall into the note I’ve labeled “misc”). I dig both the desktop and mobile apps. Evernote tends to be very general purpose for me. I have some stuff relating to work, a grocery list, music I want to check out, movies I want to check out, books, etc.

    Let us know how Zemanta goes!

  2. The thing that worries me about Evernote is that I will either overdo my categorization/tagging, or underdo it. It seems very general purpose like that. I wish there was a way to make templates with customizable fields, etc… but maybe that would be too specific. Hrm. I feel an obsession coming on.

    There are some things that bug me about Zemanta, but at this point, I haven’t used it to write a post from scratch. I started writing this post on Monday, and I didn’t remember Zemanta until after it was complete, at which point, I’d already peppered the post with links to Wikipedia, etc…

    Some minor annoyances:

    1. You have to be in WYSIWYG mode in order for Zemanta to work. This is mildly annoying since I generally write posts in straight HTML (or, on the beer blog, with convert line breaks on). But I’m willing to give it a try. That being said, I have a feeling that even if I write a post in WYSIWYG, I’m going to go back to the code view and clean it up afterwords…

    2. I entered my two blogs (this one and the beer blog) into Zemanta as a “personal source”, but the recommendations seemed rather lackluster when it analyzed the above post. Again, I haven’t tried a post from scratch, so who knows.

    3. The interface is certainly pretty busy, though you do have at least a little control over what you see and it helps that my primary writing monitor has a huge resolution. Again, it’s frustrating that this all happens in WYSIWYG, especially since their image insertion has all sorts of weird styles that don’t seem to work that well (even just the Zemanta logo in the post above was a pain to position).

    4. I haven’t tried to integrate my Evernote quotes archive (currently featuring 7 quotes!) yet, but it looks like there might be a way.

    5. I suspect, just from what I’ve seen so far, that this won’t work anywhere near as well as DEVONthink. But maybe it would be an improvement over what I currently do.

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