Why I’m ditching the bullet journal and turning to a zibaldone or commonplace book

Bullet journals, zibaldoni, and commonplace books

The explosion of interest in bullet journals which I’ve spoken about before, shows no sign of slowing in 2017. The new year encourages many people to turn over a new leaf, and for many this means getting organised. The hundreds of beautifully decorated pages on #bulletjournal. I’ve said before, and I still agree, that it’s a bullet journal if you say it is, and it doesn’t have to fit someone else’s predefined idea. If the inventor welcomes lots of variations, then Sue on that bujo Facebook group you joined doesn’t get to say otherwise.

However, as I adapt my own bujo system, I find myself thinking of it in different terms. In my other life, I’m a historian, and so it won’t surprise anyone to hear that I tend to think about things in historical terms. A little bit of research reveals that there are some fascinating predecessors to the bullet journal, reaching as at least as far back as ancient Rome.

Bujos of the Past

Romans kept notes of ideas, maxims, quotations and so forth, and called these collections locus communis. Emperor Marcus Aurelius himself kept one, and it became his Meditations. From the third century, the Chinese kept biji, which were similarly collections of notes. These ancient practices led, eventually to the Italian zibaldone, which were the basis for commonplace books and later, bullet journals.


The genre really came into its own in the thirteenth century, when Venetian merchants started keeping notebooks with them on their travels and at home. They recorded their trading activities, but also notable events and experiences, in their zibaldoni (zee-bal-done-ee). Zibaldone (singular) means “heap of things” and indicates that these books were used as receptacles for any and all information and reminiscences that the author wanted to keep track of. An early example is the Zibaldone da Canal, dating to 1312.

Zibaldone Da Canal
Zibaldone Da Canal, Venice 1312 (Beinecke Rare Book and Manuscript Library, Yale University)


Importantly, these books were written in the vernacular, meaning that they were for everyday use and not intended as formal documents (which would have been in Latin). In Florence, and other Italian cities, people kept ricordi (records), and libri segreti (secret, or private, books chiefly but not exclusively concerned with business information). In these books, people (almost always men) recorded business transactions, family births and deaths, observances of city life and political events technical information, indeed anything the author might want to refer to again later. Writers put these books together in no particular order, piling content in as and when it appeared. These books have provided highly important for historians. Giovanni di Paolo Rucellai, a fifteenth-century Florentine wool trader and statesman, was one of the most important keepers of a zibaldone. Not only does his book tell us about conducting business in the Renaissance, but it bears witness to the rise of the Medici and huge changes in civic government.

Commonplace Books

These Italian merchants brought their books to the foreign cities they traded with, and they caught on. By the eighteenth century, they were known in English-speaking countries as commonplace books, a translation of the Latin locis communis. Many notable people kept them: Thomas Jefferson, Jane Austen, H. P. Lovecraft and Napoleon, for example. A few have been published, like that of H. P. Lovecraft.

Zibaldone Lucchese
Zibaldone Lucchese, Abbot Jacopo Chelini (1748 – 1824), Archivio di Stato di Lucca


People filled their zibaldoni and commonplace books with all sorts of things: reflections on events, personal and political; recipes; business information; quotations; drawings and illustrations; letters; poems; reference tables, for example of weights and measures; proverbs and prayers.

Zibaldone Today

Today’s bujos record a huge variety of things. While I don’t usually track tv series I’m watching, I did track watching episodes of Murder One while I was doing archival work in Florence. Jane Austen may not have done this, but when we track and record things in our bujos, we’re taking part in a tradition that goes back far further than we tend to think.

Bullet journals, like zibaldoni and commonplace books are not diaries. They are not necessarily chronological, but they fulfil many of the functions of diaries. Like diaries, they work in two ways. They look both forwards (planned events and appointments) and backwards (when we record what actually happened). We keep track of our scheduled tasks and appointments in weekly or monthly spreads. We record things that happened without planning, in the form of general reflections or specific spreads. Gratitude logs are a popular way of marking things for which we were grateful each day. Historic zibaldoni and commonplace books tended to do much more reflection than planning, but the two are very much compatible. The bujo index helps out with locating information amid the hodgepodge.

I love the idea of renaming my bujo to acknowledge this long tradition. I kind of hate the abbreviation “bujo” anyway, even though I use it out of typing laziness. It seems increasingly fitting to me to think of my A5 dotted Leuchtturm1917 as a modern zibaldone (I study late medieval Italian history- I was hardly going to go for the English phrase!). I very much doubt it will ever of of as much interest to future generations of historians as that of Giovanni Rucellai. But that’s ok.

Commonplace book, Beineke Rare Books and Manuscripts, Yale
BuJo History pin

Bullet Journal Basics- How and Why

The Bullet Journal is enjoying huge popularity at the moment. Although Ryder Carroll unveiled his idea several years ago to great success, something’s happened in the last few months to propel his system into the public eye. Buzzfeed has run several articles about it too.

What is a bullet journal?

Counting down my remaining time in Italy doing PhD archival research
Counting down my remaining time in Italy doing PhD archival research

First thing’s first. Check out Ryder’s website. He created and refined the system and all credit is owed to him. There’s a great wee introductory video on his site and it’s the best place to start. Go check it out now. I’ll wait- it’s not long.

Ok. So now you know the system in its purest form. As you can see from bulletjournal.com though, there are so many ways you can adapt and customise it to suit your own circumstances and requirements. Check out #bulletjournal on Instagram and you’ll see lots of variations. (But do that later because there are currently nearly a quarter of a million photos there!)

What kit do I need?

Notebook and pens (with optional penholder)
Notebook and pens (with optional penholder)

A notebook of some kind and a pen of some kind.

Whatever notebook and pen(s) you choose are up to your tastes and funds. I use a Leuchtturm dotted A5 notebook which is a popular choice for bullet journaling because of the good quality paper, low price, and range of colours. You can use anything though.

Moleskine notebooks are also popular but the paper is inferior to that of the Leuchtturm and it won’t take fountain pen ink so it’s not an option for me. Should Moleskine ever up their paper game I’d be all over them- they have a great range of sizes and styles, though I think they’re over-priced.

If you like spiral-bound notebooks, use one of those. If you want to try the system out in a cheap school-style jotter, go for it. Already using a Filofax? You can create a bullet journal right there. You can even add it to your existing planner or diary if there’s a little space for it.



These are lovely but you DO NOT NEED them.
These are lovely but you DO NOT NEED them.

Use whatever pens you like. I love fountain pens so I use those. Pilot Frixion pens are erasable so you won’t have ugly scoring out when things inevitably need rescheduled. Pencils are even more erasable, so use those if you like them. That scabby old ballpoint you picked up from who knows where? If you like it and it works, use it!

Whatever you choose, DO NOT get hung up on getting the “right” supplies. You don’t need washi tape. You don’t need all 6892 colours of Staedtler Triplus Fineliner or all 3 packs of Zebra Mildliners imported from Japan.

My adapted bullet journal system

This is a calendar tracker I use to countdown the alarmingly few days until my thesis submission
Counting down the alarmingly few days until my thesis submission

The starkness of Ryder’s system doesn’t work for me. I prefer something more visual- boxing off lists and days and months, and so forth. I like to have a bit of colour in mine and I prefer ticking off boxes to crossing out bullets.

Along with the usual things (appointments, social events, etc), I also have some more unusual things to track. There’s my thesis: the most important thing. There’s also my blog, a part-time job, university tutoring, and some freelance work. I use monthly and weekly spreads to help me with these. Some of the detail (such as my train times) goes on Google Calendar instead. This is purely to keep things from getting too cluttered. It doesn’t make a significant difference to my planning if I get one train or the next one, so I don’t put it in my bullet journal. However, I do need to know if I have a ticket that’s only valid for a certain train, so I put that on Google Calendar and get a electronic reminder.

I also like countdowns so I use my bullet journal for these. For example, I have one that counts down to my PhD submission. I used another to count down the time I had left in the archives when I was doing my research in Florence.

Is it still a bullet journal if I adapt it?

This is a weekly spread I used when doing fieldwork in Italy
This is a weekly spread I used when doing fieldwork in Italy

There have been debates online recently, some needlessly heated, about whether or not the more ornate versions are still bullet journals. I use ticky boxes instead of bullets, so perhaps mine isn’t a bullet journal at all. It really doesn’t matter. I think the only person who has any right to decide if something is a bullet journal or not is Ryder, the inventor, and he seems quite happy to feature non-traditional, adapted, and ornate versions on his site.

I also think that the name we give a system is barely even a secondary concern compared to the key question: does it work for you? There’s no sense in moving from a colourful, decorated planner which works for you to a minimalist one in order to conform to what puritans think is the only way to bullet journal (or vice versa). If someone wants to tell you that you have deviated too greatly from canon and you have no right to call what you have a bullet journal then, meh. Something has probably gone a bit wrong in that person’s life that they are getting upset over the nomenclature of someone else’s to do list. Be kind to the poor wee scone, but ignore them.

Bullet Journal Basics 101- How and Why to Bullet Journal