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Commonplace Books

Occasional Meditations Austen, Thomas, Rev., compiler. Occasional Meditations: Compiled from Various Authors as They Accidentally Came to Hand / by Me T. Austen of Rochester, April 15th, 1770: Manuscript, 1770–1782. MS Eng 613. Houghton Library, Harvard University, Cambridge, Mass.

In the most general sense, a commonplace book contains a collection of significant or well-known passages that have been copied and organized in some way, often under topical or thematic headings, in order to serve as a memory aid or reference for the compiler. Commonplace books serve as a means of storing information, so that it may be retrieved and used by the compiler, often in his or her own work.

The commonplace book has its origins in antiquity in the idea of loci communes, or "common places," under which ideas or arguments could be located in order to be used in different situations. The florilegium, or "gathering of flowers," of the Middle Ages and early modern era, collected excerpts primarily on religious and theological themes. Commonplace books flourished during the Renaissance and early modern period: students and scholars were encouraged to keep commonplace books for study, and printed commonplace books offered models for organizing and arranging excerpts. In the 17th, 18th, and 19th centuries printed commonplace books, such as John Locke’s A New Method of Making Common-Place-Books (1706), continued to offer new models of arrangement. The practice of commonplacing continued to thrive in the modern era, as writers appropriated the form for compiling passages on various topics, including the law, science, alchemy, ballads, and theology. The manuscript commonplace books in this collection demonstrate varying degrees and diverse methods of organization, reflecting the idiosyncratic interests and practices of individual readers.

Selections from Harvard

Commonplace books selected for the Reading collection emphasize unpublished manuscript commonplace books and printed commonplace books with handwritten entries from the 16th, 17th, 18th, and 19th centuries. Although a few examples of printed commonplace books and florilegia have been included, the emphasis is on the diversity of practice found in manuscript commonplace books.

Published Materials

Drawn from the holdings of Houghton Library, selections include printed commonplace books, like John Locke’s A Common Place-Book to the Holy Bible, and florilegia, such as Joseph Lang’s Anthologia sive Florilegium.

Manuscript Materials

Drawn from the holdings of the Schlesinger Library, the Harvard University Archives, and Houghton Library, selections include commonplace books representing diverse interests and national cultures from Stephen Batman’s late-16th-century A Booke of the Coppies to a 19th-century commonplace book of Icelandic texts in the hand of Ólafur Sveinsson.

Selections from Houghton include manuscript commonplace books from notable figures, such as Charles Sumner, Sarah Orne Jewett, Thomas Wentworth Higginson, Mary Elizabeth Braddon, Hester Lynch Piozzi, Victor Hugo, and Washington Irving, as well as lesser-known and anonymous authors. Many commonplace books feature (or are focused on) the work of well-known writers like John Keats and Voltaire.

Selections from the Harvard University Archives include the legal commonplace book of Charles Sumner and 19th-century commonplace books from Harvard undergraduates.

Selections from Schlesinger Library feature women’s commonplace books from the 19th century, including commonplace books by Caroline Wells Healey Dall and a commonplace book presented by John Quincy Adams to Linda Raymond Ward.

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