How To Create A Digital Commonplace Book That Works (using Roam)

As a student you might have been familiar with the following situation: you need to pass a course, and so you study intensively for a few days and manage to ace the exam. But looking back, maybe after a few weeks or months, you realize that you have forgotten most of what you learned. This is not really that surprising. You crammed all the information into your head in a short period of time, and never looked at it again after that.

So you gain some knowledge, but lose it immediately afterwards.

Now for students you can argue that this is not that big of a deal. When are you ever going to use that knowledge ever again anyway? Sometimes you just have to pass a course and get it over with.

This could be true, but it’s still a shame – knowledge gained but lost is ultimately a waste of time and energy. Besides, wouldn’t it be better to have an idea of what you studied, even if it’s unlikely that you would use it again?

The above becomes all the more true if you consider that a lot of things we study are important for the future. Maybe they are things that personally interest you. Or maybe you’re someone who self-educates and tries to learn a new subject or skill.

In these cases there is no final examination and there are no essays to be written; we learn for intrinsic reasons. This makes it all the more sad if, at the end, all that time spent is for nothing. It would be much better if you had a system that allows you to retain, access and use that knowledge in the future.

So if we can’t store and use information that we read or learned about on the long-term, why do it in the first place?

Solution: The commonplace book

Obviously this is not a new issue. I imagine that ever since the written word was invented people questioned: how do I store this information, and how do I use it?

The solution that became popular over time was a “commonplace book”. Essentially a commonplace book is a collection of quotes, thoughts, ideas and notes that a reader would collect and write down. This collection could be kept in notebooks, or on separate index cards, as long as it was written down in some way.

Of course the exact techniques of ‘commonplacing’ differed per person. Some people made their own personal books of wisdom, others would compile notes on specific topics, and others yet would treat it more as a diary.

But the sheer number of successful writers, poets, scientist, politicians, and others that kept a commonplace book is impressive. To name just a few: Marcus Aurelius, Leonardo da Vinci, John Locke, Francis Bacon, Ralph Waldo Emerson, Henry David Thoreau, Virginia Woolf, Isaac Newton, and Ronald Reagan. More recently Robert Greene and Ryan Holiday have also described this technique as being instrumental to their research and work as well.

Photo of a commonplace book from the mid 17th century.
An example of a classical commonplace book from the 17th century.
(Photo: Beinecke Flickr Laboratory)

Without a doubt the list is impressive, but could it work for everyone? Could it work for you?

The downsides of classical “commonplacing”

Personally I would venture to say: ‘no’. I doubt the classical system of commonplacing would really work for most people. And when I say classical I specifically mean: transcribing ideas, thoughts, notes onto index cards or into notebooks.

If you’ve ever tried to use this system you might have found that it is a graveyard of ideas and thoughts. What seems important or wise when you wrote it down will probably be forgotten and never encountered again in the future.

Keeping a commonplace book requires an enormous amount of discipline. Not just to make the notes, and not just to keep it organized, but especially to keep returning to it and to make use of the information.

I have no doubt that there are many benefits of writing things down by hand in a notebook or on index cards. The number of people who have found their commonplace book essential to their life and work attests to that. And, in any case, keeping a commonplace book is better than not keeping one at all.

But a commonplace book is definitely not user-friendly.

For one, they’re not searchable. There’s also no internal linking or referencing, meaning you never build on a single subject – it’s all distributed. Imagine leafing through a commonplace book and finding hundreds of different subjects spread out across the pages. How are you ever going to be able to make use of that?

But perhaps the biggest issue is the fact that it’s not easy to ‘stumble’ over previous thoughts and notes. And in order to make the notes and knowledge work for you, you have to keep encountering them in an intuitive way.

A variation: Zettelkasten, or the slip-box system

One variation of the old commonplace book is a system that was designed by Niklas Luhmann, an enormously prolific and influential professor of sociology at the University of Bielefeld. He produced a prodigious amount of work; over his lifetime he wrote more than 70 books and 400 articles.

As with the classical commonplace book he also took notes and collected pieces of information. But rather than writing it down in a journal or a book, he had a flexible organization where notes or thoughts belonging to the same theme were linked together.

So rather than becoming a graveyard for notes and ideas, this linkage by subject matter allowed him to rediscover and use previous thoughts and information that he read. Even if that information was collected years ago. Every new note on the same subject would simply be appended to back of that cluster of notes.

This means that as you read and think more, those ideas get stacked behind others on the same subject. It allows for quick rediscovery of previous notes and thoughts and helps to build knowledge on a single subject. Best of all: it’s completely flexible. You can make as many clusters or subjects as you want and as time goes on you will naturally grow those clusters that interest you.

This is a more intuitive way to store knowledge and, as can be seen by the sheer amount of articles and books Luhmann produced, it worked very well for him.

This method is now known as “Zettelkasten“, or the slip-box system, and is gaining popularity quickly. It’s simple, it’s easy to get things out of your head and onto paper, and, in a way, it’s anti-chaotic. Whereas with the traditional commonplace book it becomes more difficult to use the more notes you have (imagine going through tons of notebooks with handwritten texts – that’s simply not going to happen, or at the very least it won’t be productive), with the Zettelkasten method the more value is created with the more notes you have.

Since it’s thematic or subject based, it is easy to find thoughts and ideas you’ve had in the past, or to rediscover pieces of information from books and articles you’ve read a long time ago.

And this is useful for everyone: whether you are trying to learn something, wanting to use information from books and articles you read, or if you’re an actual researcher and writer. The potential use cases for this system are enormous.

If you want to have more information on the Zettelkasten method, check out How To Take Smart Notes by Sönke Ahrens.

Now, while this slip-box/Zettelkasten system is a clear refinement of the traditional commonplace book, it still has a few issues. And those issues relate to the fact that:

  1. It’s still paper-based which has a lot of inherent downsides (House fire? Goodbye years of work.)
  2. It’s not searchable
  3. While there are internal links/references based on the topic, it’s not possible to link notes to multiple topics easily.

To give a very basic example, what if you read an article on neuromarketing that contains a few bits of information on not just marketing, but also psychology? Do you file it under marketing or psychology? Ideally both of course – but this you cannot do with paper version.

Digital solutions for the commonplace book

Luckily there are a few digital solutions that can help.

There are of course the popular note taking apps like Evernote, Notion, or OneNote – but these share some of the annoying downsides of paper. For one, they’re still silo-based: meaning that you have a notebook that contains notes structured in a hierarchy. And while it’s technically possible to link notes that have a relation, it’s not really user-friendly. Upgrading from paper to these programs would be a small improvement, since it is searchable and won’t get destroyed in a fire. However they are not a perfect solution.

You can also implement a combination of Zotero and Zettlr. The first is a reference system that allows you to import any documents and tag it with appropriate keywords. By itself it’s not a true Zettelkasten system, but in combination with Zettlr (which is designed with the Zettelkasten method in mind) it can become quite powerful. The only downside is that the combination of the two programs adds complexity and requires a bit of discipline to keep it up to date.

Finally there’s another option, which is a recently launched program called Roam Research that is receiving a lot of hype (deservedly I think). Out of all of the note taking programs that I know of, Roam seems to offer the most intuitive way to make a digital commonplace book or to apply the Zettelkasten method online.

What is Roam Research?

On a very basic level you can say that Roam is a new note taking tool that operates on a lot of the same principles as existing programs such as Evernote. But it has a few powerful advantages.

For a start it does not have a hierarchical structure. Every piece of information can be linked to different pieces of information, regardless of where the note ‘lives’.

This free-flow design is supported by a very powerful tagging and linking system. Which also means it allows for a direct implementation of the Zettelkasten method; you can tag every idea and every note to a subject. And there’s no limitation on the number of tags, meaning that a single note can belong to multiple topics or themes.

Every tag and every link is also simultaneously a page. So if you create a new tag in any of your notes, it will immediately create a page for that tag.

If we go back to the earlier example: let’s say we read an article about neuromarketing. In order to record the information we create a page, or note, about this article. But we also want to tag this note so that it is linked to the themes of ‘marketing’ and ‘psychology’, and maybe others. Simply adding those two tags to the note immediately creates a page for both ‘marketing’ and ‘psychology’. That way, any piece of information you record in the future about these topics will automatically be added to this page.

This also means that there’s absolutely no need to think about where to put a note, and there’s no need to decide on an exclusive theme or subject (as with the traditional Zettelkasten method). Just write it down, tag it with whatever tags you think are best, and that’s it!

Now the powerful bit is that as you continue to read more, and add more notes to Roam, these tags (or pages) continue to grow. This means that you’re collecting your thoughts and ideas on a subject, and your ‘database’ on that topic grows without ever paying conscious attention to it.

This makes Roam very powerful, very quickly. It actually allows for easy and intuitive discovery of past notes and information, in contrast to traditional commonplace books. You’re not just recording notes, but also rediscovering them as you add more notes and as you add links.

That’s the main advantage of Roam Research. There are a few other useful bits as well, such as the daily notes. When you open the app the first page is the daily note for today’s date. Since it doesn’t matter where notes are stored (as long as you tag it properly), you can use this daily note to record to-do lists, or to write down thoughts on the go, et cetera.

Finally, I also like the ‘unlinked references’ section that is shown at the bottom of every note. Basically, if you open up a note it will show you all of the notes that are directly linked to it, but it also shows text and/or notes that mention the tag but that are not linked. So if you forgot to tag or link a note, or you’ve created a new category after you’ve made the original note, it will still show up and you will still ‘rediscover’ it.

For more information on how to get started with Roam Research you can also check out RoamBrain, the Roam Research subreddit, or Nat Eliason’s introduction to Roam.

Downsides of Roam Research

The big issue with Roam currently is that it’s still in development. It’s functional, but don’t expect a beautiful interface. There’s also no app for your computer or phone yet; currently you can only access the program through a browser.

Another major downside is that the data is stored centrally, and there’s no possibility to store files locally. This means that in an unfortunate event there’s some risk that you can lose your data. However it is still possible to export your notes, but only in JSON/Markdown files – not really user friendly. Still it’s definitely recommended to do this every now and then to ensure you don’t lose any data.

There’s also some concern about privacy and encryption, since technically the developers can access your notes (although this has been addressed by the founder here). To be fair, most other note taking programs are not great in terms of privacy either – so hopefully this is something the developers will improve in the future.

In the end, the question is: is it worth it? If Roam Research was available as an application, if notes could be saved locally, and if there were more export options, then it would be a big yes. In its current form it’s still incredibly powerful, but there are some risks involved. Personally I will continue to experiment with it, but some might prefer to wait until a more complete product has been released.

Quick start: How to make your own digital commonplace book in Roam

The key to using any new system is adopting it to your own needs. And as with traditional commonplace books, every person will have a preference for a structure and an organization in a digital one. So how you take notes and how you use them in this new system will depend on you. But here are some general steps:

Step 1: Note-taking

It all starts with the actual note-taking. These notes can come in a few different forms: maybe they are direct quotations from something you read, maybe they are rephrased sentences that extract the key information from the text, or maybe they are your own ideas and thoughts that were sparked by what you read. All three are good to have, and all three are good to record. The threshold to take a note should be really low – if you think there’s potential value in it, then write it down.

Step 2: Importing

Import all these notes to your program of choice. If you read a physical book this could mean transcribing the text, if you’ve read it digitally it can be copied-pasted, and if you read it on a Kindle it can be exported. I create a new page in Roam for every article and book I read, and record all types of notes on that page.

Step 3: Organizing

Start organizing and tagging the notes – this is critical part. You need to organize the information is such a way that it is useful to you, and that you will be able to find it again in the future. Try starting with 3 sections on the page:

  1. Biographical information, like the title, author, and some general tags for the book.
  2. Your notes, these can be direct quotations or rephrased sentences.
  3. Thoughts, questions, or ideas that came up when you read the text.

In terms of tagging I like to do two things. First, I tag the book with some keywords in the biographical info section – this is useful if you want to find information on the same topics. Second, for the notes and thoughts sections, and for those bullet points / sentences that are very valuable, I tag them individually as well. Maybe the quotation or thought can be applied outside the context of the book, maybe it’s something you want to return to in the future, or maybe you want to investigate this a bit more. By tagging it separately you ensure that it will be easier to find later on.

Book notes in Roam Research as part of a commonplace book.
Example of one of my book notes page in Roam Research. As you can see there are a number of tags/links (everything that start with a hashtag or that is between the double square brackets). Each of these links can be clicked and will then show all of the associated notes.

Step 4: Enjoy

Okay, okay, this is not really a separate step, but it is enjoyable to watch your web of notes grow. This is the fun part: if you start to implement this system you will discover the anti-chaotic nature. By correctly categorizing and tagging information you will be amazed to see the connections between pieces of information grow. (And you can start to understand why Luhmann was able to write on such diverse topics.) Italso works as a bit of encouragement. Sticking to a system is not always easy, but as soon as you see the benefits it will be easier to continue using it.

Step 5: Usage

Finally, and perhaps most importantly, start using and applying your notes. After all, what’s the point of collecting them, making the effort, and not gaining some sort of value out of it? If you use this system to study, use your organized notes to quickly review the material in order not to forget it. If you use it for research and writing, use the clusters of notes to get started on a topic. And if you simply want to use the system as a digital version of your own commonplace book or diary: make sure you review the notes every now and then and apply what you’ve learned to your own life.

Conclusion

Whatever your personal reasoning and motivation is to create a digital commonplace book, the above system should help you. Digital note taking programs already solve some of the major downsides of traditional commonplace books. But when trying to create a digital commonplace book don’t just look to negate the downsides of paper version, look to gain advantage of what a program can offer you. And whether you choose for Zotero/Zettlr, or Roam Research, or another program, is perhaps not all that important. The important thing is that the system you implement is uniquely suited to your purposes.

Want to know more about managing information and solutions like commonplace books and Roam Research? Then check out an overview on personal knowledge management and the different systems you can use here.

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