Have you ever said aloud, “Oh, I wish I could remember that special quote!” Or perhaps instead, “Who made that three point argument?” Or perhaps, “What was the last line of that poem I otherwise memorized?” Well, if that’s you, then this post is on me. Or this post is for you.
Copia or a commonplace book which is essentially a notebook of aphorisms, quotes, poems, paragraphs, etc that you maintain for the express purposes future writing and research. I prefer to organize mine topically. The topics include almost anything. Seriously, things like “the purpose of Paul’s letter to the Romans,” “Misunderstandings of Statistics in Science Journals,” “funny tweets,” “lines from novels,” etc. The quotes can be as complicated or simple as you wish, but the point is that any idea, paragraph, or quip you wish to ponder, utilize for research, or quote is all in one place. I even put the source under each one in Turabian format. It’s like an annotated bibliography for your life. I would even recommend putting your own thoughts about the quote underneath the quote in bold. This way you also have a pithy version of a story for illustrative purposes.
Having a copia document allows you of simply searching for that whatsit or whosit you have in the shadows of books past in the deep caverns of your mind. There are two ways to keep a copia.
- A physical copy
You see this in George Herbert when he gave advice to pastors. I’ll give the quote in a moment. But this can be used is lots of ways, you could have several topical note books or even one mega binder (so that making things alphabetical is easier). The problem with this method is that it loses its searchability. The nice thing is that writing things helps one commit them to memory. If I were keeping a copia by writing, I would keep a large binder of several topics, but for large writing projects or for specific courses I teach I would keep a separate binder for each. Here’s the quote from Herbert on keeping a copia in the form of a systematic theology:
THe Countrey Parson hath read the Fathers also, and the Schoolmen, and the later Writers, or a good proition of all, out of all which he hath compiled a book, and body of Divinity, which is the storehouse of his Sermons, and which he preacheth all his Life; but diversly clothed, illustrated, and inlarged. For though the world is full of such composures, yet every mans own is fittest, readyest, and most savory to him. Besides, this being to be done in his younger and preparatory times, it is an honest joy ever after to looke upon his well spent houres. This Body he made by way of expounding the Church Catechisme, to which all divinity may easily be reduced. For it being indifferent in it selfe to choose any Method, that is best to be chosen, of which there is likelyest to be most use. George Herbert, The Country Parson: The Parson and His Accessory Knowledge
- A digital copy
There are several ways to do this and it works nicely with the obscene quantity of digital books out there. Seriously, for the purposes of saving money by using sales I have books on kindle, pdf, real life books (that smell like tobacco, mildew, glue, and paper!), Logos Bible software, Bible Works, Google Books, and a collection of journal articles that I’ve saved from Ebsco! Keeping track of it all isn’t what’s hard, but remembering a quote in a pinch can be difficult if I don’t immediately remember which version of the book I possess.
Here are some protips:
- Keep a persistent document
Title the document Copia or Interesting thoughts and quotes.
- Save this file locally and in the cloud
It’s useful to be able to can add to it from anywhere on a phone, tablet, or local computer.
- Memorize the best stuff
Memory is still the most useful tool for keeping important information in a usable format. Having data in your mind makes it far more useful to you than having it in a computer. This is especially true of inspirational quotes or poetry if you’re a romantic.
- Utilize a service like Onenote or Evernote
These tools can help you you can snip things from websites with very little effort then you can later paste them into your copia. With these you can even utilize pictures and diagrams. Here’s somebody showing how to get kindle highlights into Evernote.
- Utilize Zotero or some bibliographic manager
Zotero and tools like it keep track of all of the bibliographic data ever. Adding one to your browser is an excellent idea. It’s even better if you force it to save everything on your computer rather than in their database, this way any journal article you save is put into a file on your computer. But then any highlights you do, just remember you copy into your copia.
- Transfer hard copy resources to the copia
Make the effort to type your underlines and highlights into your copia as this will help you to etch them into the wax tablet of your memory (though not as well as with writing).
- Remember to keep things simple
If you get to the point that you have a copia, some note files, and annotated bibliographies for different projects you’re probably fine. If you get to the point that you’re using Evernote, Onenote, keeping a copia, utilizing annotated bibliographies, and writing notes in zotero (which is a useful function if you’re not doing it elsewhere), then you’re over complicating things and not spending enough time actually writing and thinking. You’re a collector but not a thinker or producer at that point.
- Keep a persistent document
If you’re in high school or just starting college, I highly recommend you start a copia and an annotated bibliography. Keeping this type of useful information in two places (copia and annotated bibliography) will help you for the rest of your life but at least for the rest of your academic career. If you’re a preacher this is incredibly useful, take note of Charles Spurgeon’s thought’s on knowing things from the sciences and put it to practice for all things you study:
It seems to me that every student for the Christian ministry ought to know at least something of every science; he should intermeddle with every form of knowledge that may be useful in his life’s work. God has made all things that are in the world to be our teachers, and there is something to be learned from every one of them; and as he would never be a thorough student who did not attend all classes at which he was expected to be present, so he who does not learn from all things that God has made will never gather all the food that his soul needs, nor will he be likely to attain to that perfection of mental manhood which will enable him to be a fully-equipped teacher of others.C. H. Spurgeon, Lectures to My Students: The Art of Illustration; Addresses Delivered to the Students of the Pastors’ College, Metropolitan Tabernacle, vol. 3 (London: Passmore & Alabaster, 1905), 144.
Though human memory can be greatly perfected with use and attention to treating it as a skill, not all things can be treasured up in your heart. Therefore, you would do well to store them up externally, like a tool shed of ideas and thoughts.