Although blogs have gained popularity as "the next big thing" in higher education, the strength of the rhetorical practice comes from its ability to recreate ancient rhetorical customs, most specifically that of the storehouses of ideas and information. Aristotle's On Rhetoric, the bedrock of modern communication and composition studies, offers students endless advice about successfully persuading an audience, including advice concerning a body of common topics or commonplaces appropriate for any number of audiences and occasions. The idea of commonplaces originates with Aristotle and his topoi, or four types of commonplaces from which student rhetors could choose topics for their speeches. Later, Erasmus and other humanist educators envisioned commonplace books as locations where male students could collect examples of successful rhetoric (Lockridge 337). The books served as repositories of the thoughts of others, as places for capturing the pearls of wisdom of educators and thinkers thought to be greater than the students themselves. In a time when textbooks and other works of literature could not be easily obtained, ancient students learned to catalog the words of others in their own hand for later use. This practice of commonplace book keeping continued for centuries as privileged male students kept notes of their learning while at Harvard, Yale, and other prestigious halls of academe. These collections were intended as models and resources for future writing. In fact, seventeenth-century scholar Seneca argued that one could, “like a busy honeybee, gather the nectar of other people’s thoughts” (Havens 136) to create a completely new work.
The literacy practice soon moved out of the academy and became an important social practice of men and women of good breeding. W. Caleb McDaniel, in the 2005 "The Roots of Blogging" in the Chronicle of Higher Education, traces the beginnings of blogging to the journal-keeping habits of the wealthy and privileged in the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries. These books were originally intended to help bolster public performances as speaker and correspondent, but eventually became a place for women specifically to consider and construct their own identities and to better understand their roles in society. The pages from a commonplace book at right include images of motherhood, poems, and newspaper clippings collected by a young woman. Kenneth Lockridge tracks the change in commonplace books from academic notes and organizers to rehearsal spaces for “witty and informed civil conversations of the coffee house and the dinner party” (338). He thus sees commonplace books residing at the borders between public and private spheres. While this merging of the public uses of rhetoric with the private practices of the home originally attracted women to commonplace book keeping, the blurred boundaries of public performance in relatively private cyber settings attracts many modern bloggers to take part in very similar - but now digital - practices. Modern commonplace books and blogs serve as rehearsal spaces and sometimes sites of resistance to cultural customs and allow modern students and professionals to experiment with ideas important to the discourse communities they are joining.
Ancient commonplace books and journals were not only important in helping construct a future identity, but were also useful as memory and storage devices. The same can be said of modern blogging. Scholar Earle Havens reports that humanists and theologians popularized the commonplace book as a “device of memoia technical, or ‘artificial memory’” (138) and exploited it as a personal and societal “storehouse of knowledge” (137). Modern rhetorician Mary Carruthers further investigates this practice in her work The Craft of Thought and finds the ancient use of memory “buildings” and “storehouses” to stretch into the medieval times and beyond into monastic life. “It is not hard to see the relationship of rhetorical picture-making to the textbook advice to an orator to fashion imagines agentes grouped narratively as scenes within background places, whose relative positions cue the order and subjects of his composition,” she writes (198-199).
The rhetorical principle of inventio then implies not only the invention of ideas and proofs to craft an argument from, but also the “inventory” from which rhetors extract those ideas. “The word [inventory] refers to the storage of many diverse materials, but not to random storage … Inventories must have an order. Inventoried materials are counted and placed in locations within an overall structure which allows any item to be retrieved easily and at once,” Carruthers explains (11). Rhetors must first supply stock for their storehouse of knowledge – through things like Aristotle’s topoi – and must then create a structure in which to store the stock. “Memories … ‘are put in’ their ‘places’ there, ‘colored’ in ways that are partly personal, partly emotional, partly rational, and mostly cultural,” Carruthers states (15). An image at left from current graduate student and poet Melissa Helton shows how modern commonplace books can combine images from the mass media with one's own words and ideas to allow book keepers to explore their own interpretations of events shaping their world and themselves.
While these memory storehouses may appear more important in an age predating the printing press and widespread written literacy, modern scholars may greatly benefit from adopting this practice via online spaces like blogs. Instead of searching endless hard drives, memory sticks, and other storage devices, blogs offer storehouse capabilities available wherever there is an Internet connection.