PersonalBrain and the Commonplace Book

Maybe it is only due to my own growing interest in the topic, but it feels like I’ve been reading lately a lot more chatter about “Commonplace Books.” Here’s a classical definition of a commonplace book from wikipedia:

“Commonplace” is a translation of the Latin term locus communis (from Greek tópos koinós, see literary topos) which means “a theme or argument of general application”, such as a statement of proverbial wisdom. In this original sense, commonplace books were collections of such sayings, such as John Milton’s commonplace book. Scholars have expanded this usage to include any manuscript that collects material along a common theme by an individual.

Essentially, you can think of a commonplace book (CpB) as a notebook organized by topic. As I see it, a commonplace book is different from a journal or a diary in two significant ways:

  1. Journals and diaries are generally organized in chronologic order, while the CpB is ordered by topic.
  2. The content of journals and diaries is composed chiefly of information that flows from the direct experience of the writer; while the CpB is comprised of information generated from other sources. As such it is a way for the keeper of the CpB to organize knowledge and information gleened from outside his or her own experience — although the keeper will often include interpretations and other annotations.

Another significant aspect of the CpB is that it tends to be miscellaneous. That is, it isn’t composed for a specific project… it is not the place you would organize a history paper or marketing project. Information stored in the CpB might be used in such projects; in fact, if you’re not using this information at some point, you may be wasting your time. But you don’t start a CpB to manage an advertising campaign.

There are many different computer applications that lend themselves to being effective vessels for building a CpB, and choosing one has been a little difficult, but I’ve finally become comfortable with PersonalBrain.

The top level of my PersonalBrain commonplace book.

There are several reasons I like PersonalBrain for this purpose. First, it’s primary organizational scheme is the “thought,” which works exactly as I envision a CpB working — topic-organized (for the rest of this post I will use the term topic instead of thought because that’s more relevant for a CpB). But most topics are related to other topics in complex ways, and PersonalBrain is built to show these relations.

My commonplace book drilled down to a more specific topic.

Each topic in PersonalBrain becomes the nucleous for various related information. You can clip an image from your screen to include with the topic. You can add numerous attachments — files, URLs. In the screenshot below, I’ve drilled down to one of my favorite books, The Right Stuff:

I've drilled down to one of my favorite books, The Right Stuff, where you can see a wealth of related information.

A great deal of information is revealed about the book just from the details on the screen. You can see that it was written by Tom Wolfe, who also wrote Bonfire of the Vanities. You can see that it is about the Mercury space program. You can see that it has a related topic also called The Right Stuff — which turns out to be the movie based on the book. Along the tool bar panel in the lower third of the screen, I have written some notes about the book (left side of the screen); there’s a link to the wikipedia page about the book (center). I could tag this entry — which I have not — and that would show up in the black box on the right.

To me, this is ideally how a commonplace book should work. I do wish that PersonalBrain had a better note editor, but that’s not that big a deal. If I want to write more extensively in a better word processor, I can attach a Word file.

The other thing advantageous about using PersonalBrain is that I can keep my CpB synched between my work PC running Windows and my personal MacBook.



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