On her commute to work, Carmen settled into reading—this morning it was the latest bestseller—and came upon a captivating turn of phrase.

"I want to remember that," she thought, and dug into her purse for a pen and scrounged for a scrap of paper.

What will become of that paper and the phrase that riveted her for the moment?

Carmen will remember because she transferred it later to her commonplace book, a collection of such treasures she has accumulated for years.

A tool to tame the information glut

Commonplace books are popular again for the same reason they were created: There is too much information to remember and occasions that stir emotions we want to relive. Recording the salient thoughts and experiences helps us recall them.

Lawyers in ancient Greece are thought to have developed the first commonplace records1. They came up with a "common place" to preserve and share particularly persuasive arguments that were too good to forget.

Hard copy, whether tablets or parchment, originally served the purpose, then printing spread books to the general population. No longer was it lawyers and the elite who preserved material, but everyday citizens kept books to cope with the proliferation of publications and new ideas.

Today, the internet and its vast store of material has revived interest in commonplace books, and technology to manage them has emerged.

You kept it, but can you find it?

This is where EssentialPIM comes in. Many still prefer the old-fashioned index cards or notebooks, but software like EPIM organizes and retrieves the material so much more easily.

Without knowing, when I was young, I kept a commonplace book of sorts for quotes and pithy sayings I heard or read. It was a notebook with ruled paper and unwieldy because I didn't know how to organize it. I just wrote entries with no means to recall where they were.

Keepers of commonplace books have solved my dilemma in a variety of ways. The index card system uses multicolored cards, each color representing a different category or topic.

Notebooks, on the other hand, typically have three sections:

  1. Pages in the front for the index or table of contents;
  2. One or more pages for a glossary, and
  3. The rest is for the content.

The key is to record in the index the page and title or keywords for each entry.

EPIM offers multiple ways to store and organize

I abandoned my notebook years ago, only to realize lately that EssentialPIM has become my commonplace book. I never lost the habit of writing down things I want to remember, and I have folders of scribbled notes in a box I still haven't unpacked from our move six years ago.

For the past couple of years, though, I have consolidated my jottings in EPIM. I wrote about my choice of EPIM for primary note-keeping in a previous post.

A commonplace book works best when it can store a variety of content and make its retrieval easy. EPIM excels at both.


Hard copy is limited to what you can write on the page or affix by tape, paste, or clips. With EPIM, you can not only write notes and insert pictures but also access a variety of external files as links or embedded attachments.

With the vast facts, opinions, and knowledge online, internet browsers quickly developed shortcuts to bookmark favorites. EPIM goes a step farther. Its hyperlink tool acts like a bookmarker, and notes let you preserve and organize specific content. Users have asked the EPIM team to add a web-clipper to facilitate such collecting. In the meantime, I use a third-part clipboard manager.


EPIM has a variety of ways to organize and retrieve your material.

  • Hierarchy. Notes are organized in a tree, where you can create a hierarchy. (EPIM uses the terms note and branch interchangeably. We think in terms of notes and sub-notes, but the structure follows Tree > Branch > Leaf.) You can have multiple trees, unlimited branches and unlimited leaves in each branch.

    In general, I like to have two branches while writing a piece: one for the post itself and a sub-note for material from my research. This way, I can display each note in a separate window, side-by-side, for cross-reference.
  • Tags. Either in the tag field on each note or in Tags Explorer, you can create and assign labels to group items in your database. Borrowing from the multicolored index card system, you can even color-code tags for a visual reference.
  • Cross-reference. Each item in EPIM can be linked with others to create an extensive cross-reference. This especially helps in a project where you need to connect tasks, appointments, contacts, and other notes. There are several ways to link items: use the Related Items tab; right-click in the text and choose Insert hyperlink from the context menu; click on the hyperlink icon in the toolbar; type @ followed by text—EPIM will display matching items to link.
  • Bookmarks. Anchors, or bookmarks, can be embedded in Notes, helping you find and return quickly to a particular section. Anchors can mark favorites or flag work-in-progress, making it easier to find your place and resume.

If you are not familiar with commonplace books, the internet, of course, has lots of information. I found these posts particularly helpful: How to Keep a Commonplace Book and A Brief Guide to Keeping a Commonplace Book.

If you have been keeping a commonplace book, tell us your experience and favorite method in the comments below.

    1. Commonplace Books: Creative Note-Taking Through History

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