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Collegiate Tip-of-the-Month: Commonplace Books

— If you don’t have your finger on the pulse of the Internet you may not have heard of blogs. “Blog” is short for “weblog”—an online diary or journal into which people pour everything from their latest investment tips to the details of their emotional lives. There are tens of thousands of them out there and more appear every day.

If you’re looking for a simple and inexpensive way to strengthen the social fabric of a residential college I recommend something even simpler and more low-tech than a weblog: a good old-fashioned paper journal or commonplace book. Here’s what to do.

Go to your local art supply store and buy a blank, hardbound sketch book. Many brands are available; I have found the ones manufactured by Cachet Products to work especially well. Be sure the book is made with acid-free materials so it will last a long time. Draw an elaborate title page for the book and inscribe its frontispiece with the following quotation from Thomas Traherne:

An empty book is like an Infant’s Soul, in which anything may be written; it is capable of all things, but containeth nothing. I have a mind to fill this with profitable wonders, and with those things which shall shew my Love. Things strange, yet common; most high, yet plain: infinitely profitable, but not esteemed; truths you love, but know not.

Make an initial entry that invites people to inscribe comments, quotations, visions, complaints, poems, novels, and all manner of other creative things, and leave the book on the table in your college library or Junior Common Room. Once it catches on—and this may take a bit of time and advertising—you will be amazed by the volume of material that is contributed. A commonplace book that I set out last term here at Middlebury contained almost thirty pages of cartoons, stories, musical compositions, exam complaints, and philosophical questions by the end of its first two weeks. It is important that someone take responsibility for being the “curator” of the book, making sure that it’s always in its place, retrieving it when it’s left on the floor, sharpening a box of colored pencils kept by its side—but other than that, an active commonplace book is maintenance-free.

John Richardson, my colleague from American University who has been working to develop a new residential college at his institution, has commented on the importance of keeping a diary of student comments and college events, especially while a new college is getting off the ground. A commonplace book of this kind can be an excellent vehicle to accomplish just that, since the college officers as well as the students can make contributions to it, and everyone will keep returning to the book to see what new entries have been made.

For more details on how to set up college commonplace books pay a visit to the special entry on the subject (section 3.2.5) on the Collegiate Way’s “College Life and the Annual Cycle” page. You may also view a few sample pages from the Strong College commonplace books in the Strong College Archives.

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© Robert J. O’Hara 2000–2021