Blogging as a “commonplace book”

Milena Kremakova just introduced me to the notion of a “commonplace book” – as the (very interesting) website below details, many of the ways in which academics are coming to use blogs mirror the features of the (once much more common) commonplace book:

The books served as repositories of the thoughts of others, as places for capturing the pearls of wisdom of educators and thinkers thought to be greater than the students themselves. In a time when textbooks and other works of literature could not be easily obtained, ancient students learned to catalog the words of others in their own hand for later use. This practice of commonplace book keeping continued for centuries as privileged male students kept notes of their learning while at Harvard, Yale, and other prestigious halls of academe. These collections were intended as models and resources for future writing. In fact, seventeenth-century scholar Seneca argued that one could, “like a busy honeybee, gather the nectar of other people’s thoughts” (Havens 136) to create a completely new work.

The literacy practice soon moved out of the academy and became an important social practice of men and women of good breeding. W. Caleb McDaniel, in the 2005 “The Roots of Blogging” in the Chronicle of Higher Education, traces the beginnings of blogging to the journal-keeping habits of the wealthy and privileged in the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries. These books were originally intended to help bolster public performances as speaker and correspondent, but eventually became a place for women specifically to consider and construct their own identities and to better understand their roles in society. The pages from a commonplace book at right include images of motherhood, poems, and newspaper clippings collected by a young woman. Kenneth Lockridge tracks the change in commonplace books from academic notes and organizers to rehearsal spaces for “witty and informed civil conversations of the coffee house and the dinner party” (338). He thus sees commonplace books residing at the borders between public and private spheres. While this merging of the public uses of rhetoric with the private practices of the home originally attracted women to commonplace book keeping, the blurred boundaries of public performance in relatively private cyber settings attracts many modern bloggers to take part in very similar – but now digital – practices. Modern commonplace books and blogs serve as rehearsal spaces and sometimes sites of resistance to cultural customs and allow modern students and professionals to experiment with ideas important to the discourse communities they are joining.

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