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Doctor Who, Delicious, and the Commonplace Book

Once again, all my worlds colliding in interesting ways this week.  For starters, I got Mark watching Doctor Who — he’s working his way through Season 4 with Doctor David Tennant on Netflix Streaming, and whenever the red envelopes show up, we slowly work our way through Season 5 with Doctor Matt Smith.

What the heck could this possibly have to do with and Commonplace Books, you ask?  Excellent question. Here goes…

In the Season 5 episode “The Time of Angels” River Song reappears with her intriguing blue TARDIS book, which basically serves as her commonplace book of all things Doctor-related.  But I didn’t think of it as her commonplace book till I saw some tweets coming out of THATcamp about digitizing them, plus Amanda Watson’s Ngram comparing commonplace books to scrapbooks. On top of all this, I’m reading Steven Johnson’s new book Where Good Ideas Come From (*highly* recommended) and I just came to the part in chapter 3 where he talks about the magic of commonplace books, particularly in regards to Darwin, who wrote copious notes and re-read them later to compare with other notes.

So with my brain churning around questions about commonplace books, a seemingly unrelated event happens — rumors spin out of control about my beloved bookmarking site riding off into the horizon, and suddenly I (and thousands of other people) start really thinking about where to keep our treasure troves of both useful and forgotten links (I’m toying with both Diigo and Pinboard, for what it’s worth…).

But then tonight I came back to Steven Johnson, where I’m still in the middle of musings about commonplace books – especially John Locke’s system of indexing his books and the Enlightenment habit of treating text as a wibbly-wobbly, timey-wimey, here-and-there kind of thing.  And I realized that these commonplace books proved invaluable to their writer-owners because they held everything … reading notes, letter drafts, observations, recipes … sound familiar?  How many times have you tried to devise a Thing To Hold All Thoughts for yourself?  Be it a filing system, a gadget, a piece of software, or a website — many of us are constantly waging this battle to reinvent the commonplace book in a digital age.

I realized that I don’t need a Delicious replacement.  I need a whole bloody completely different way of doing things.  What can serve as my commonplace book?  My home laptop…? My Evernote account …?  Do I go back to paper journals…?  Right now I have ideas and snippets and quotes scattered across all of these places, which means I have a hard time finding that one recipe I’m thinking of or that one short story I have another idea for. So the good news for me is – Delicious and Yahoo aren’t the problems at all. The bad news is – I need to think about a much bigger picture and do my future self a favor by making up my mind and condensing my workflows.

Speaking of the future … a bit ironic that River Song is still using good old paper as her commonplace book centuries from now, isn’t it? *


*Yes, I know it’s fiction, silly.  But I also know the writers can dream up things like sonic screwdrivers and time-eating stone angels, yet they still trust memories to paper.  I find that very, very interesting.


This post has been in draft mode for a long, long time and resurfaced in my memory thanks to various conversations including this one at FriendFeed and this post on e-book reading.

It seems like a great way to get a bunch of librarians really going is to ask “Is paper dead?” and let them have at it.  For the most part, people immediately think of books and that’s how this post started, too.  But the more I thought about it, the more I realized that my own personal paper-to-computer transition has been happening gradually for a few years and didn’t really involve the book aspect until recently.

I’ll start with music.  I’m including this in “paper-to-computer” because CDs are, after all, digital music so it’s not really “analog to digital”.  The change is really in packaging.  In 2003 I went from carrying CDs and a Discman to keeping all my music as MP3s on an iAudio.  Oh, the great magic of shuffle! And playlists that could be longer than a 70 minute CD-R! My listening habits started changing right away.  I eventually moved to an iPod after switching to a Mac and only in the last year have I started downloading a few songs off of iTunes and Amazon.  I still primarily like to own my music on CD because of the paper and physical media (or my perception of something closer to permanence than MP3s).

Gallery Leather

Gallery Leather

My calendar switch took me by surprise.  Before I started grad school, I used the same brand of beautiful little day planners each year.  In my first year of grad school I started using Google Calendar and within two months I wasn’t looking at my paper planner at all.  I was still optimistic that I would find some reason to use the paper planners (and still bought the same brand of beautiful little planner even last year) but found that I was adding events to my online calendar from too many different places (home computer, work computer, cell phone) to keep my paper calendar “synced” anymore.  For a back-up, I use iCal.

Grad school also changed my reading habits to some extent.  Perhaps reading blogs paved the way, but I found myself reading most of my articles for class as PDFs in Adobe Acrobat Pro, where I could highlight, bookmark, and annotate very quickly and then easily search my notes during class discussions.  At ALA Midwinter this past January I used a friend’s iPod Touch rather than lugging around a laptop.  Out of sheer boredom I started reading an e-book (The Adventures of Sherlock Holmes) on the plane trip home.  Once I got my own Touch, I continued reading on the bus trips to campus each day.  It was just so darn convenient!  The downside for me, however, was the lack of a trusty paper bookmark that I’m accustomed to using for jotting notes and quotes.  Right now my bus trip book is a hardback paper book again, and the trusty paper bookmark is almost full.  I could possibly keep a scrap of paper with the Touch for such notes, but I usually use the book as support when I’m writing the note and I wouldn’t want to press on the Touch like that.  For the most part, I think I would just use e-reading for the kind of books I would check out from a library and not actually own.  In other words, fluff books for pure entertainment.  All other books, I will continue reading as paper for a while longer.

And now in the last couple weeks I’ve made the paper-to-computer transition that was the hardest but the best:  journaling.  I have a small chest full to the brim of paper notebooks I’ve used as journals from the past 20 years (what?? not going to think about the implications of that…) and I’ve been toying with the idea of moving this very personal ritual to the computer for over a year but kept resisting.  I was too attached to the physical act of using pen on paper to give up paper journaling until recently when I looked through my current paper journal and realized that in the last 3 months I’ve only written 11 entries, the most recent being a month ago.

The final push came from talking with a good friend who had been using Word as a journal platform for some time now and who was generous enough to show me how he set up his files.  He used a new Word document for each month, with many entries that were simply a line or two.  Some days had several of these brief entries, some days were skipped entirely, and some entries were longer, more reflective.  For some reason, I never gave myself this much flexibility in my paper journaling and that is most likely one of the reasons my journaling had become so infrequent.

VoodooPad Journal

VoodooPad Journal

So I started journaling in VooDooPad, creating a page for each month with links to the page for each day that has any entries.  Sure enough – in the month of March alone I had 21 entries.  The most surprising benefit to me was how much more easily (and flowingly?) I could write when typing than when writing by hand.  I also appreciate the ability to search all my entries at once and back up the journal in multiple places (a factor that worries me a little re: my paper notebooks).  I’m not convinced yet that I have the right structure going (year / month / day) but it’s working for now.

With such big parts of my life now in my computer, I wondered what paper habit might be next to make the transition.  I looked around my apartment and here are some of the paper things I found:
to do lists / grocery lists
checkbook (only used for rent, though)
hand-outs from presentations
concert programs / tickets / flyers
class hand-outs & notes
doodles / outlines / sketches
paper scraps from collage book workshop
greeting cards

I have a shelf full of blank notebooks of various colorful bindings and another shelf of blank notecard box sets, one of which I use each month when I send my paper rent check to my landlord.

And honestly… do I *want* all these paper things to turn into bits & bytes?  I have to say “no” because I do still have a love affair with paper.

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