How commonplace books were like Tumblr and Pinterest

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Shared journals were an early form of social media, and the mass-media era may have been a historical aberration. These were two of the claims made by Lee Humphreys, a communications and media researcher at Cornell University, who gave a talk this week at Microsoft Research’s Social Media Collective. I agree with her on both counts, of course, though I would trace the sharing of journals back further, to the commonplace books of the 16th and 17th centuries.

Humphreys has examined in detail how people in the 19th century would share their diaries with visiting families and friends by reading aloud, in order to tell them what had been going on in their lives. She has also analysed the diary entries of Charlie Mac, a soldier in the American Civil War, which he copied out and sent home as letters to his family (and anyone else they wanted to share them with). Women in the 19th century, she suggests, kept journals as a way to be remembered, a form of self-expression and self-empowerment; it was only in the early 20th century that diaries and journals came to be seen as private documents. Today’s blogs and social-media updates therefore mark a return to a tradition of social sharing of personal writing. One consequence of this argument is that it undermines the notion that today’s social-media users are self-obsessed to a historically unprecedented degree. It also highlights the fact that social media is not a new phenomenon.

In my forthcoming book “Writing on the Wall” I make a similar argument about an earlier form of journal, the commonplace book. This was a kind of scrapbook, popular in the 16th and 17th centuries, into which people would copy items of interest to create a personal trove of valuable information. Commonplace books that survive from the Tudor period contain a huge variety of texts, including letters, poems, medical remedies, prose, jokes, ciphers, riddles, quotations and drawings. Sonnets, ballads and epigrams jostle with diary entries, recipes, lists of ships or Cambridge colleges and transcriptions of speeches. Collecting useful snippets of information so that they could be easily retrieved when needed, or re-read to spark new ideas and connections, was one of the functions of a commonplace book. But the practice of maintaining a commonplace book and exchanging texts with others also served as a form of self-definition: which poems or aphorisms you chose to copy into your book or to pass on to your correspondents said a lot about you, and the book as a whole was a reflection of your character and personality.

People would sometimes lend their commonplace books or miscellanies to their friends, who could then page through the entries and copy anything of interest into their own books. The similarities and overlaps between several manuscript collections compiled at Oxford University indicate widespread sharing of both individual texts and entire collections among students and their tutors, for example. Like internet users setting up blogs or social-media profiles for the first time, compilers of commonplace books seem to have relished the opportunities their newfound literacy gave them for projecting a particular image of themselves to their peers. Only a minority of the texts that people circulated were original compositions; most material was quoted from other sources. The same is true of modern social-media systems: posting links and snippets found elsewhere is standard practice on blogs, Facebook and Twitter, and on some platforms, such as Pinterest and Tumblr, more than 80% of items shared are “repins” or “reblogs” of items previously posted by other users. Then as now, people enjoyed being able to articulate their interests and define themselves by selectively compiling and resharing content created by others. The mere act of sharing something can, in other words, be a form of self-expression—something that was as true centuries ago as it is today. (So feel free to tweet, Like or reblog this post!)

Update: Mathew Ingram at paidcontent.org examines the “mass-media era was an accident of history” idea, quoting me among others

(Picture credit: Commonplace book from the James Marshall and Marie-Louise Osborn Collection, Beinecke Rare Book and Manuscript Library, Yale University, via Flickr)

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34 comments
  1. I suppose what remains true is that we like to see ourselves and the period we live in as unique and unprecedented–even when we aren’t and it isn’t.

  2. This is really interesting. I had no idea that this was a practice that was common through history. It really speaks to the fact that people, at all points in history, had a desire to have their voices heard and their opinions shared through the written word. Powerful stuff.

  3. I have an 87 year old friend, a Classics professor who still contributes to his commonplace books. They are an amazing eclectic source of information.

    • @Margaret: I know what you mean, but I’m defining media to involve the use of some kind of technology (papyrus, writing, printing, telegraphy, radio, etc) which makes it possible to have a conversation with someone who isn’t physically present. To be more precise, I define media as “the use of technology to communicate” and social media as “media you get from other people, creating a distributed discussion or community”. I’m not saying this is the only way to define these terms, but I had to choose my own definitions for the purposes of the book, and these are the ones I chose.

  4. alexanderschimpf said:

    Such an enlightening post! I guess sharing–in various forms–is just part of our human need to think with others.

  5. Really fascinating. The way text and communication changes over time is really interesting, because we do, in fact, see similar threads that weave through both yesterday and today.Please let me know when you publish your book, so I can purchase a copy!

    Cheers,
    Courtney

    http://www.oneweektocrazy.com

  6. Reblogged this on Reflections of the Night and commented:
    I fondly recall commonplace books, though they were not as popular among girls of my age as they were with those of my mother’s generation.

  7. Reblogged this on sioban68 and commented:
    Le “commonplace book”, le facebook du 16e et 17e siècles. Sans ordinateur, mais avec autant d’ego.

  8. jessicann831 said:

    Sharing a journal sounds like fun- even if the year is 2013! Who would have thought that the people in the 16th century were blogging before it was cool? I guess they were the original hipsters.

  9. I’ve kept a commonplace book/journal for nearly fifty years. It’s an account of my life through peripheral things like jokes, quotations, copies of letters- and it’s all there in (now) twelve volumes. It’s all in one place. I think social media, though they do chronicle our lives, are less honest. I can’t help thinking that we are too aware of our audience, too willing to please, too eager to get more traffic on the site.

  10. You should read “The Abacus and the Cross”. It’s about monastic life during the middle ages, book making, and a monk who became pope. Apparently there was a lot of sharing of books before printing presses came into being, and much debate that was shared through letters that became public, much in the same way as blog comments. Thanks for sharing.

  11. As artsygenius mentioned, sharing through books was common before the printing press, in the manuscript era. It was extremely common for readers of texts to leave comments, thoughts, reflections, analysis, and quotes from other books in the margins. These commentaries were then often copied by scribes and passed down. There are manuscripts where the commentary actually outnumbers the text itself. Great post! A very good point for modern readers to reflect on.
    Live long and prosper.

  12. I suppose we’ve always craved the community of shared thoughts and ideas. I hadn’t heard of the shared journals but reading letters aloud was something even my grandparents did. Nice post.

  13. It’s really fascinating how we’ve always used our words to connect with each other. Some argue that social media puts up barriers to interaction, but I think it facilitates it in so many different ways on so many levels and people can choose to connect in the ways best for them. It’s all about sharing life experience with each other.

  14. mrtso1989 said:

    this is hugely interesting. it shows it’s human tendency to share and that facebook or other social media all has their historical roots.

  15. That was really fascinating and informative. I never even knew of shared journals and commonplace books. Very cool.
    Would you count the letters written by apostles and such back in the 1st century, since they were meant to be read aloud, shared, and passed on to other churches? (Like mass emails!)

    • I would indeed — the way in which the letters of Paul and other early Christian leaders were copied and shared is a great example of social distribution, and is in my book. One scholar even called it “the Holy Internet”.

      • Awesome! I’m going have to read your book now…

  16. This is a lovely post. As someone who loves writing with a pen whenever possible, scrap booking, and reading REAL books, this post made me smile.

  17. Interesting. The Importance of social networking and human interaction from the earliest times. Interesting thoughts on the epistles of the apostles as well. It would be super fascinating to learn that many of the letters written by apostles and early church leaders would have editions from the various churches and bishops. Maybe adding in, “This part really helped our church”. :) To bad we haven’t any of those originals.

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