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Create a Digital Commonplace Book

Creating a commonplace book is somewhat like marking your favorite lines in a novel with the Amazon Kindle highlights feature — except your one-stop knowledge repository can also include song lyrics, movie dialogue, poems, recipes, podcast transcripts, and any inspiring bits found in your reading and listening. The commonplace book is not a new concept: Copying down your favorite lines from other people’s works into your annotated notebook was a standard exercise in Renaissance Europe, and the idea can be traced to the Roman era. But here, in the modern world of digital connectivity, you don’t have to keep everything in one physical location. With the right app, you can use your smartphone, tablet, or computer to collect and sync new content for your collection — and use the search function later to find specific entries. Here’s how to start making a commonplace digital book — or convert that battered notebook of thoughts and quotes you’ve been keeping all along.


Get Inspired

Academic libraries and museums are home to many commonplace books; you can see them without leaving the couch. If you’ve never made a commonplace book, first learn how others have used it. John Milton’s commonplace book is on the British Library site, and the personal notebooks of other writers and thinkers pop up quickly with a web search. The Internet Archive has many scanned commonplace books to browse — including one compiled by the actor Alec Guinness.Credit…The Internet Archive The Yale University Library has scanned pages of commonplace historical books. The Harvard Library has a few online collections ands images of a version of John Locke’s 17th-century guide to making commonplace books, which was initially used and published in French. And the Internet Archive has hundreds of commonplace digitized books for browsing or borrowing, including one from Sir Alec Guinness.

Notes for Your Notes

Collecting your commonplace entries in a word-processing document stored online is one option for sheer simplicity. If you find that approach unwieldy, consider the note-taking app with your phone — Apple’s Notes or Google Keep. To skip typing or pasting, Google Keep can scan and transcribe text from images of book pages, and Apple’s Siri voice assistant or Google Assistant can create a note and take dictation. Just enter quotations and other text snippets whenever you get the urge. The note-taking app on your smartphone, like Google Keep, left, or Apple’s Notes, can be a place to stash favorite quotations and other content for your commonplace digital book. Credit…The New York Times You can also use your notes app through your computer’s web browser, where it’s often easier to cut and paste items and apply text formatting. Your changes will update across all the devices as long as you’re logged into the same Apple ID or Google Account everywhere.

Use a Dedicated App

Plenty of specialized notebook and journal apps await you if you’d instead reserve your phone’s notes app for daily life. Some apps include features like keyword tagging to help organize your commonplace book by theme or topic. Most apps offer a basic free version but require a fee for certain features; for example, the Bear app for iOS and Mac devices requires a $15 annual subscription to sync among devices. Detail-oriented people may appreciate Notion, an expansive writing and organizing app with page templates and a clipping tool for saving parts of web pages to a note. Evernote, a longtime player in the commonplace mobile category, has templates, a Web Clipper function, and an Apple Watch app.

Day One, the popular personal journal app for iOS-based hardware, has its own Apple Watch and desktop versions. Daybook, another journaling app, runs on Android, iOS, and web browsers — and works with Alexa, Bixby, and Google Assistant so you can create entries by voice or have them read aloud. The Bear app for iPhone, iPad, and Mac offers an elegant writing space and synchronization among devices for about $15 a year. Credit…Bear But if you require just a no-frills, no-distraction tool for text-based entries into your commonplace electronic book, there’s Simplenote. And it’s free.

Convert a Paper Notebook

What if you’ve kept a commonplace physical book for years but would like to digitize it without retyping it all? One method: Snap a photo of each page and import the image into your notes app, preserving the look of your original hand-scrawled entries. As for Kindle readers who have been marking passages in their e-books for years: You can see all your highlights at https://read.amazon.com/notebook and decide which lines you’d like to add to your commonplace book.


I have always enjoyed writing and reading other people's blogs. I started writing a journal as a teenager and have since written numerous books and articles. My blog is a place where I can write freely about my personal interests and those of others.

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