Citation and Annotation

There Are No New Directions in Annotations

Jason B. Jones


Annotations Are the Original Web Writing

The fact that more or less anyone can publish to the web often makes people think that self-publication is its main use. And maybe that is its most common use. But the propleptic visions of Vannevar Bush and Douglas Engelbart, writing in the 1940s and 1960s respectively, remind us of the primary importance of annotations.[1]

In these early imagined futures of computing, Bush and Engelbart focus on the ability to mark up a document of some sort, the ability to formally instantiate that marked-up document, and the ability to share that with others—each of these three abilities are still fundamental to the way we interact online with text, images, sound, and video. They can also be invaluable aspects of web writing for the liberal arts.

Annotation is of course far older than the web. For as long as there has been writing, there have been readers who follow along and “write back.” Medieval marginalia is so well-known that amusing or disconcerting instances of it are fodder for viral aggregators such as Buzzfeed and Brainpickings, and the fascination with other readers’ reading is manifest in sites such as Melville’s Marginalia Online or Harvard’s online exhibit of marginalia from six personal libraries.[2] When I was a graduate student, one of my favorite moments was visiting the collections at UC Santa Cruz, and looking at Thomas Carlyle’s alternatively-metered edition of Robert Browning’s poems. What has become distinctive now is the extreme rapidity of searching one’s own marginalia, as well the ability to see how others read. For these purposes, the web has proved ideal.

Even before there was a web, there were dreams of annotations. Vannevar Bush’s hypothetical “memex,” described in “As We May Think”, reaches its apotheosis in imagining the future utility of annotations:

Wholly new forms of encyclopedias will appear, ready made with a mesh of associative trails running through them, ready to be dropped into the memex and there amplified. The lawyer has at his touch the associated opinions and decisions of his whole experience, and of the experience of friends and authorities. The patent attorney has on call the millions of issued patents, with familiar trails to every point of his client’s interest. The physician, puzzled by a patient’s reactions, strikes the trail established in studying an earlier similar case, and runs rapidly through analogous case histories, with side references to the classics for the pertinent anatomy and histology. The chemist, struggling with the synthesis of an organic compound, has all the chemical literature before him in his laboratory, with trails following the analogies of compounds, and side trails to their physical and chemical behavior. The historian, with a vast chronological account of a people, parallels it with a skip trail which stops only on the salient items, and can follow at any time contemporary trails which lead him all over civilization at a particular epoch. There is a new profession of trail blazers, those who find delight in the task of establishing useful trails through the enormous mass of the common record. The inheritance from the master becomes, not only his additions to the world’s record, but for his disciples the entire scaffolding by which they were erected.

The “associative trails” blazed by the expert poring over the record of human invention and creation would, Bush foresaw, soon be themselves available for ready searching. In addition to making repeated research much quicker, such a scheme would also allow for the serendipitous discovery of new ideas. As Steven Johnson has pointed out, systems like DEVONThink, which automatically suggest just associative trails as Bush imagined, facilitate “finding documents that I’ve forgotten about altogether, finding documents that I didn’t know I was looking for,” and “can create almost lyrical connections between ideas.” The power and limit of an individual memex such as DEVONThink, according to Johnson, is that “I have curated all these passages myself, which makes each individual connection far more likely to be useful in some way.”[3] By contrast, the open architecture of the World-Wide Web, which posits “a global distributed medium in which anyone can be a publisher, and a hypertext document structure in which it is trivial to jump from a newspaper article to an academic essay to an encyclopedia entry in a matter of seconds,” makes for a far more open system of annotation and discovery.[4]

Douglas Engelbart’s 1962 essay “Augmenting Human Intellect: A Conceptual Framework” already recognized that “It would actually seem quite feasible to develop a unit record system around cards and mechanical sorting, with automatic trail establishment and trail-following facility, and with associated means for selective copying or data transfer, that would enable development of some very powerful methodology for everyday intellectual work.”[5] Recognizing that a mechanical card-based system would be obsolete at the moment it was delivered, Engelbart stretches out just a little, and imagines a situation not unlike our own (the speaker is a hypothetical “friendly fellow” named Joe):

I’m sure that you’ve had the experience of working over a journal article to get comprehension and perhaps some special-purpose conclusions that you can integrate into your own work. Well, when you ever get handy at roaming over the type of symbol structure which we have been showing here, and you turn for this purpose to another person’s work that is structured in this way, you will find a terrific difference there in the ease of gaining comprehension as to what he has done and why he has done it, and of isolating what you want to use and making sure of the conditions under which you can use it. This is true even if you find his structure left in the condition in which he has been working on it—that is, with no special provisions for helping an outsider find his way around. But we have learned quite a few simple tricks for leaving appended road signs, supplementary information, questions, and auxiliary links on our working structures—in such a manner that they never get in our way as we work—so that the visitor to our structure can gain his comprehension and isolate what he wants in marvelously short order. Some of these techniques are quite closely related to those used in automated-instruction programming—perhaps you know about ‘teaching machines?’[6]

As Engelbart’s example makes clear, the work of annotation is already a thing all students and scholars do: we work over other people’s texts in order to better understand it. Being able to draw on the experiences of others is also surely helpful.  After all, that is why things such as footnotes and endnotes exist in teaching editions of books, or in anthologies. Bush and Engelbart add to this already well-known formula the ability to easily share this experience. Lurking behind their imaginative essays is an ideal of full comprehension–that we might be able to truly understand one another if we could just track down all the relevant influences and contexts and motives. We can also see how such a vision becomes oddly depersonalizing. In Bush’s memes, for example, the thoughts and expertise of a colleague might be perfectly captured so that we don’t even need that person’s flash of insight.

While I don’t think we need to subscribe fully to an ethics of full understanding, I do think that the notion of better understanding a text through others’ experience of it is arguably the foundational experience of most liberal arts classrooms. Students read or watch things, they think and write about them, and they come together to share how they have come to understand the text. What Bush and Engelbart dramatize is a world in which that experience is made vivid and accessible. When contemplating incorporating web writing into one’s own courses, it can be helpful to remember that annotation has a long and honorable tradition at the heart of web writing.

Annotating in the Liberal Arts Classroom

When thinking about annotation in the liberal arts classroom, the model that is probably the most familiar is that of a scholarly edition or teaching edition: some sort of primary document, marked up with the commentary of an editor or editors. As Laura Lisabeth shows in “Empowering Education with Social Annotation and Wikis” (in this volume), this model can be quite powerful when extended to include students. Annotations in this situation need not be restricted to clarifying factual, contextual, or textual conundrums, but can indeed be as interpretative as one wishes. Indeed, it would be possible to have classes construct their own self-edited anthologies of source materials—at least as long as the material is out of copyright.

We need not be restricted to remediating online already-existing experiences. Indeed, as Bush and Engelbart’s examples suggest, when viewed in a certain light, the entire web can seem driven by a massive will-to-annotate. Tim Carmody has argued that the fundamentals of blogging are essentially annotative in the most generous sense: “I have seen something that I feel strongly enough to think and write about, and what would make me happiest is if you look at it, then think and write about it too.”[7] Social bookmarking tools, such as Pinboard.in or Diigo or Delicious, or socially-aware reference systems, such as Mendeley, or Zotero, can also be opportunities for students to mark up and share items that they feel strongly about.[8]

But there are other forms, too. Adrianne Wadewitz, Anne Ellen Geller, and Jon Beasley-Murray have described the ways in which having students write for Wikipedia, which demands citations, turns into a remarkably reflexive process of research, writing, and revision.[9] Although many academics (still!) reflexively mistrust Wikipedia’s flexible epistemology, exposing students to the process of needing to document all claims can be helpful.

Beyond the world of pure text, Mark Sample and Kelly Schrum have described the possibilities of collating multimedia and multimodal forms online. As Sample explains:

In addition to making student writing public, I’ve also begun taking the words out of writing. Why must writing, especially writing that captures critical thinking, be composed of words? Why not images? Why not sound? Why not objects? The word text, after all, derives from the Latin textus, meaning that which is woven, strands of different material intertwined together. Let the warp be words and the weft be something else entirely.[10]

There are an increasing number of tools that allow one to think more expansively about annotation, such as Pinterest or even meme generators and GIF tools.[11]

More substantial weaving can be done with tools such as Scalar or Omeka, each of which lend themselves well to juxtaposing text with digital objects of all sorts. Omeka is a tool for building online exhibitions, and is commonly used by librarians and museums. Julie Meloni has written an excellent introduction to it, but the “What is Omeka?” video is also helpful.[12] Jeff McClurken has outlined some ways to use Omeka in the classroom, and the Center for History and New Media has recently assembled a more comprehensive list of examples.[13]

Scalar is a more comprehensive multimodal publishing platform, but is still very much rooted in Bush’s and Engelbardt’s vision of annotation. The Scalar project aims to “enabl[e] scholars to work more organically with archival materials, creating interpretive pathways through the materials and enabling new forms of analysis. In particular, we aim to draw out more general lessons about the relationship of scholarly analysis to emerging digital typologies or genres; about how best to organize the digital archive to facilitate scholarly analysis; and about efficient and meaningful work flows between primary evidence, research and publication.”[14] Indeed, Scalar’s Annotations feature allows the direct markup of video, images, and more–essentially anything that can be captured in a digital repository. The best way to come to grips with Scalar’s classroom potential is by working through this Scalar exhibit on “Teaching and Learning Multimodal Communications”.[15]

New Tools for Old Models: CommentPress, Highbrow, and Hypothes.is

In this last section, I want to highlight three tools for annotation that indicate both the potential of new tools and also how radically familiar they should be to anyone in a liberal arts environment.

CommentPress will of course already be familiar to anyone who read the open peer-review edition of this book, because it is the publication platform. CommentPress was developed at the Institute for the Future of the Book as a way to permit “readers to comment paragraph-by-paragraph, line-by-line or block-by-block in the margins of a text. Annotate, gloss, workshop, debate: with CommentPress you can do all of these things on a finer-grained level, turning a document into a conversation.”[16] CommentPress is a plugin and theme for the blogging platform (WordPress) which facilitates more focused conversation than a typical blog site. Typically, documents created in CommentPress are chunked into paragraphs, allowing readers to comment on a text paragraph by paragraph.

As Fitzpatrick has pointed out, the visibility of this annotative action is both a gift and a problem. Did most people comment on paragraph 1 because it was the best? The worst? The only one they read? And what does the lack of comments mean? Does that indicate readerly assent, indifference, or worse? An assignment built on CommentPress would want to think explicitly about the distribution of comments.[17]

Click to open: Annotation of "Bleak House" by Charles Dickens on HighBrow, created by Jason B. Jones.

Click to open: Annotation of “Bleak House” by Charles Dickens on HighBrow, created by Jason B. Jones.

Click to open: Annotation of "Bleak House" by Charles Dickens on HighBrow, created by Jason B. Jones.

Annotation of “Bleak House” by Charles Dickens on HighBrow, created by Jason B. Jones.

Highbrow is a “textual annotation browser” developed by Reinhard Engels at Harvard. Pictured above is a Highbrow-enabled version of Charles Dickens’s Bleak House that my students used last fall.[18] What is nice about it from a teaching point of view is captured in the screenshot: The tool gives you a heatmap, as it were, of where students are commenting in a particular text, providing information which could then be used to guide discussion.

Engels has explained how to use Highbrow (It’s still early days for the tool, so some of this might have changed.) My students found the tool very easy-to-use, and I liked being able to browse annotations before class. Similarly, Augusta Rohrbach and David Tagnani report great satisfaction in using Highbrow for cross-institution collaborations.[19]

CommentPress and Highbrow are obviously similar in that they are focused on a collective reading of a single document. The priority is always on the main text, then the comments are important, but still secondary. And the comments remain attached, in some sense, to the primary document. It is possible to imagine other visions of social reading, however. Amazon’s Kindle e-readers, and the related apps for other platforms, will make passages visible that other readers have highlighted. Kindle users can even access their notes, using tools such as Bookcision, for repurposing into other contexts.[20] While CommentPress and especially Highbrow imagine a deliberately collective reading of a text–as in a class or research group–the Kindle lets us imagine other forms of accessing the common reading experiences of individuals.

For a quite different approach to annotation it is worth paying attention to Hypothes.is, an annotation tool that is just in its alpha stages. What’s powerful about Hypothes.is is that in principle it allows *anything* online to be annotated, without special tools beyond a browser plug-in. (I highly recommend Dan Whaley’s talk, “The Revolution Will Be Annotated” as a defense of annotating.[21]) Hypothes.is lets you read other people’s annotations, and it also gives you control over your own annotations so that you’re able to collect them elsewhere. Hypothes.is is even trying to address problems in cross-format annotation, which occurs when the same document appears in multiple formats, or in multiple places.[22] Hypothes.is’s ultimate goal is to allow the same annotation to appear in the same place on all of those formats, and in all of those places, which will truly bring Vannevar Bush’s memex to life.

Because Hypothes.is is still in an alpha stage of development, it is difficult to anticipate exactly how the service will develop. But Ryan Brazell has described some of the appeal:

Whether you are using the browser plugin or viewing a permanent link, all of the pertinent data and metadata is maintained: the full original source, the specific section of the text referred to by the annotator, and any comments that refer to that specific section of text.[23]

Hypothes.is is one of the fruits of the Open Annotation project that has been working on metadata standards that will allow different annotation and reference systems to work together.[24] One of the things that this work implies is that, in a few years, there will be less pressure about which tool one chooses, because (in principle) all of them should be able to work together.

What’s striking about annotation at the present time is how ubiquitous it is—indeed it is so common that it is almost becoming invisible. Social media platforms such as Facebook encourage annotating photos by identifying people’s faces; YouTube videos allow for the easy insertion of brief comments about a video; photo platforms such as Flickr allow for free-form notes that allow people to share tips for taking better pictures, as well as to admire particularly well-composed shots; SoundCloud lets music and podcast fans comment directly on moments in a song or other digital recording. Annotation is so popular at the present time that one site, Genius.com (formerly RapGenius) has gotten into the business of annotating all documents whatsoever, and tens of thousands of users have participated in the collaborative marking-up of a wide variety of texts.

(As this example makes clear, at least in the United States, copyright will be a concern. Although it goes beyond the scope of this essay, it does seem clear that annotation works best when the original document is in the public domain, has been licensed for public use, or is otherwise made available by the rights owners. Having said that, what is convenient about annotation is that it often leaves the source material in place and inserts comments as metadata. Hopefully this approach will be understood as fair use, although that will remain to be seen.)

Not all web writing can be, or ought to be, primarily annotative in nature. Ultimately, students in a liberal arts classroom need to go beyond glossing the perspectives of others, and move toward formulating their own distinctive voice. Having said that, the kinds of annotation practices available today offer a remarkable set of tools for students to begin that work, and in a more collaborative, connected way than has been previously possible.

About the author: Jason B. Jones is director of educational technology at Trinity College (Hartford). With George Williams, he is the co-founding editor of ProfHacker, currently hosted at the Chronicle of Higher Education. Follow him on Twitter at @jbj.

How to cite:

Jason B. Jones, “There Are No New Directions in Annotations,” in Web Writing: Why and How for Liberal Arts Teaching and Learning, ed. Jack Dougherty and Tennyson O’Donnell (University of Michigan Press/Trinity College ePress edition, 2014), http://epress.trincoll.edu/webwriting/chapter/jones.

See an earlier version of this essay with open peer review comments.[25]


  1. Vannevar Bush, “As We May Think,” The Atlantic, July 1945, http://www.theatlantic.com/magazine/archive/1945/07/as-we-may-think/303881/; Douglas C. Engelbart, "Augmenting Human Intellect: A Conceptual Framework," SRI Summary Report AFOSR-3223, October 1962, http://www.dougengelbart.org/pubs/augment-3906.html.
  2. “20 Bizarre Examples Of Medieval Marginalia,” BuzzFeed Community, September 28, 2012, http://www.buzzfeed.com/babymantis/20-bizarre-examples-of-medieval-marginalia-1opu; Maria Popova, "Oh, My Hand: Complaints Medieval Monks Scribbled in the Margins of Illuminated Manuscripts," Brainpickings, March 21, 2012, http://www.brainpickings.org/index.php/2012/03/21/monk-complaints-manuscripts/; Steven Olsen-Smith, Peter Norberg, and Dennis C. Marnon, eds., Melville's Marginalia Online, http://melvillesmarginalia.org/front.php; "Marginalia: Six Personal Libraries," Harvard University Library Open Collections Program, http://ocp.hul.harvard.edu/reading/marginalia.html.
  3. Steven Johnson, Where Good Ideas Come From: The Natural History of Innovation (New York: Riverhead, 2010), pp. 114, 116. Johnson has also discussed his use of DEVONthink online: http://www.stevenberlinjohnson.com/movabletype/archives/000230.html.
  4. For the latest in web-enabled serendipitous discovery, see the new tool by the Center for History and New Media, Serendip-o-matic: http://serendipomatic.org/.
  5. Engelbart, "Augmenting Human Intellect."
  6. Ibid.
  7. Tim Carmody, "Three-step Dance," Kottke.org, May 6, 2011, http://kottke.org/11/05/three-step-dance.
  8. These resources can be accessed at: Pinboard (http://pinboard.in); Diigo (http://www.diigo.com); Delicious (http://www.delicious.com); Mendeley (http://www.mendeley.com); Zotero (http://www.zotero.org).
  9. Adrianne Wadewitz, Anne Ellen Geller, and Jon Beasley-Murray, "Opening up the Academy with Wikipedia," Wikipedia.org, http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/User:Awadewit/TeachingEssay. This essay is also available as "Opening up the Academy with Wikipedia" in the print edition of Hacking the Academy: New Approaches to Scholarship and Teaching from Digital Humanities (Ann Arbor: University of Michigan Press, 2013), p. 84-86.
  10. This is also available as "What's Wrong with Writing Essays: A Conversation" by Mark Sample and Kelly Schrum in the print edition of Hacking the Academy: New Approaches to Scholarship and Teaching from Digital Humanities (Ann Arbor: University of Michigan Press, 2013), p.87-97.
  11. Pinterest is available at http://www.pinterest.com. For an exemplary assignment drawing on the annotative power of popular memes, see Bill Wolf's "WRTS10 Assignment 2: Memes and Remixes," williamwolff.org, http://williamwolff.org/courses/wrt-spring-2010/wrt-assignments-s10/wrts10-assignment-2-memes-and-remixes/. And for a representative collection of assignments using animated GIF files, see the DS106: Digital Storytelling assignment bank, University of Mary Washington, http://assignments.ds106.us/types/animatedgifassignments/.
  12. Julie Meloni, "A Brief Introduction to Omeka," ProfHacker, August 9, 2010, http://chronicle.com/blogs/profhacker/a-brief-introduction-to-omeka/26079; "What is Omeka?" video, http://vimeo.com/6401343.
  13. Jeffrey McClurken, "Teaching with Omeka," ProfHacker, August 9, 2010, http://chronicle.com/blogs/profhacker/teaching-with-omeka/26078; "Back to School Edition, Use Omeka in Your Class," Center for History and New Media, August 20, 2013, http://omeka.org/blog/tag/teaching-and-learning/.
  14. "About the Alliance," The Alliance for Networking Visual Culture, http://scalar.usc.edu/about/.
  15. Alyssa Arbuckle, Alison Hedley, Shaun Macpherson, Alyssa McLeod, Jana Millar Usiskin, Daniel Powell, Jentery Sayers, Emily Smith, Michael Stevens, Teaching and Learning Multimodal Communication, version 58, http://scalar.usc.edu/maker/english-507/index.
  16. "Welcome to CommentPress," Institute for the Future of the Book, http://futureofthebook.org/commentpress/. For a discussion of CommentPress in the context of academic publishing, see Kathleen Fitzpatrick's Planned Obsolescence: Publishing, Technology, and the Future of the Academy (New York University Press, 2011), or watch her video, "Tulane Digital Trends: Kathleen Fitzpatrick and CommentPress," 2008, https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=295_rd1W720.
  17. For a fascinating discussion of pedagogy and CommentPress, see Matt K. Gold's interview with Bob Stein, "Becoming Book-Like," Kairos 15:2 (2010), http://kairos.technorhetoric.net/15.2/interviews/?page_id=33.
  18. Reinhard Engels, "Highbrow: A Textual Annotation Browser," https://osc.hul.harvard.edu/highbrow/.
  19. Augusta Rohrbach and David Tagnani, "Reading with the Stars: Teaching with the Highbrow Annotation Browser," ProfHacker, December 6, 2011, http://chronicle.com/blogs/profhacker/reading-with-the-stars-teaching-with-the-highbrow-annotation-browser/37591.
  20. Bookcision is available at http://www.norbauer.com/bookcision/.
  21. Dan Whaley, "The Revolution Will Be Annotated," Youtube.com, July 2, 2013, https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=2jTctBbX_kw.
  22. Ed Summers, "Cross Format Annotation," Hypothes.is, May 13, 2013, http://hypothes.is/blog/cross-format-annotation/.
  23. Ryan Brazell, "Hypothes.is Just Might Make The Web Relevant Again," RyanBrazell.net, August 16, 2013, http://ryanbrazell.net/hypothesis-just-might-make-the-web-relevant-again/.
  24. The Open Annotation Project's website is http://www.openannotation.org/. You can watch Robert Sanderson and Herbert Van de Sompel, both of Los Alamos National Laboratory, discuss "Interoperable Annotation," video, http://vimeo.com/8481040.
  25. Jones, "There Are No New Directions in Annotations," in Web Writing (Open peer review edition, Fall 2013), http://webwriting2013.trincoll.edu/citations/jones-2013/.

One Response to There Are No New Directions in Annotations

  1. Pingback: Framing Annotation – ProfHacker - Blogs - The Chronicle of Higher Education

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *