📑 Differentiating online variations of the Commonplace Book: Digital Gardens, Wikis, Zettlekasten, Waste Books, Florilegia, and Second Brains

Bookmarked Differentiating online variations of the Commonplace Book: Digital Gardens, Wikis, Zettlekasten, Waste Books, Florilegia, and Second Brains by Chris AldrichChris Aldrich (boffosocko.com)

Many of these products are selling themselves based on ideas or philosophies which sound and even feel solid, but they’re completely ignoring their predecessors to the tune of feeling like they’re trying to reinvent the wheel. As a result, some of the pitches for these products sound like they’re selling snake oil rather than tried and true methods that go back over 2,000 years of intellectual history.

With so much discussion of note taking tools, Chris Aldrich considers some the examples found in history of Western civilization. This includes commonplace books originating from Ancient Greece, Florilegium in Medieval Europe, Zettelkasten in 15th century Germany, Waste books/Sudelbücher derived from double-entry journals, and Wikis and digital gardens associated with the web. One area I wonder about is outliners and where these fit within the discussion of commonplace books? Are they a flavour or digital gardening? It has been interesting seeing some of Dave Winer’s engagements with Roam Research

It is also interesting to think about this alongside Clive Thompson’s exploration of to-do applications. I am intrigued to how they sometimes crossover.


Most significant thinkers, writers, and creators throughout history have kept something resembling a commonplace book. While many may want to attribute the output of historical figures like Erasmus, Newton, Darwin, Leibnitz, Locke, or Emerson to sheer genius (and many often do), I might suggest that their works were the result of sustained work of creating personal commonplace books—somewhat like a portable Google search engine for their day, but honed to their particular interests. (One naturally can’t ignore their other many privileges like wealth, education, and time to do this work, which were also certainly a significant factor in their success.)

3 responses on “📑 Differentiating online variations of the Commonplace Book: Digital Gardens, Wikis, Zettlekasten, Waste Books, Florilegia, and Second Brains”

  1. Anna Kelsey-Sugg and Julie Street discuss Dennis Duncan research in the index. He explains how the practice evolved separately in Paris and Oxford during 1230. Although the two inventions were not connected, they were both associated with the rise of the university and the lecture.

    In the early 13th century, two things happened to create the perfect time for the invention of the index.
    One was the creation of universities. “Not coincidentally, Paris and Oxford are the places where the universities have just arrived,” Dr Duncan says.
    The other thing was the arrival of preaching or mendicant religious orders, and a new idea to have friars live among the people in big cities to preach and “stop the flock from going astray”.
    @abcnews https://www.abc.net.au/news/2022-01-28/index-history-invention-made-simultaneously-800-years-ago/100690782

    Duncan also makes the case for human curation and says that although the idea of the index is central to the web, it is also something that cannot be completely automated. To demonstrate this, he provides two index for his book, Index, A History Of to demonstrate the differences.
    This has me wondering where this all I wonder where this sits within Chris Aldrich’s research into the history of commonplace books.

  2. Chris Aldrich talks about what we talk about when we talk about zettelkasten. He continues his dive into the histories attached to note-taking. For me, this all reminds me of Doug Belshaw’s discussion of ‘digital literacies’ and the dangers of dead metaphors. What Belshaw encourages a discussion.

    Our definition of digital literacies is something created by a community and continually negotiated. More often than not, this definition is taken for granted, rarely given air. Belshaw does not identify the eight different elements as an answer, but as a point of discussion. The definition is start of this discussion.
    Aaron Davis https://readwriterespond.com/2015/01/in-search-of-an-understanding-of-digital-literacies-worth-having/


  • Aaron Davis

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