Robin Camille Davis
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The future of marginalia

February 22, 2011
Tags: books, future, internet, library, tech

The NYT clearly has eyes only for the Newberry

The New York Times published an article on Monday entitled "Book Lovers Fear Dim Future for Notes in the Margins." I got really excited about it, especially since G. Thomas Tanselle and Heather Jackson were quoted. But it turned out to be more of a list of reasons why marginalia in bound books was important and valuable and interesting, with only this passing glance at what the title promised:

It [marginalia] is a rich literary pastime, sometimes regarded as a tool of literary archaeology, but it has an uncertain fate in a digitalized world.

“People will always find a way to annotate electronically,” said G. Thomas Tanselle, a former vice president of the John Simon Guggenheim Memorial Foundation and an adjunct professor of English at Columbia University. “But there is the question of how it is going to be preserved. And that is a problem now facing collections libraries.”

I'm betting Tanselle had a lot more to say about the topic, but Dirk Johnson, the author of the article, then starts writing about the Newberry's collection and little else for the rest of the piece. I was disappointed. He did not even mention projects like Open Bookmarks, which is working toward a framework where one's "notes, annotations and references are synchronised across platforms and applications."

Bookmarks in ebooks: a challenge

The concept of electronic marginalia sometimes strikes me as yet another feature of print that we are forcing into the new electronic format (like page numbers [which are admittedly necessary, Amazon]). But while I won't speak for the reading experiences of other people, I'll say that I read best by writing down paraphrases, marking up the text, reading it all later in context, and sharing it with someone else. There's still no good way to do any of that, even on the Kindle or iPad or other ereaders. A few reasons:

  • diverse file formats, some of which are extremely clunky (e.g., poorly scanned books + OCR = no go)
  • all kinds of proprietary barriers (Apple, Sony, Amazon, and Barnes & Noble only want to attract and retain customers)
  • thus no accepted method of annotation (OpenBookmarks has suggested a standard, simple XML schema)
  • the interface for "marking up" a text is, invariably, ugly and difficult to use, regardless of software or device.

The placement of the "bookmark" is the biggest issue here, I think. Even if you wanted to share annotations with someone else whose ereader device supported the same method and format of bookmarking, it could be extremely difficult to ensure you were reading the same version of the same text. Why? First, because books have always been published in different editions (paperback, hardcover, different publisher/editor/country, etc.), and second, because so many digital copies now exist in myriad formats from myriad sources. It is so easy to make, disseminate, and alter digital copies of a work (or "expression", for you FRBRies), and there's no reliable way to check the sameness of texts that might be in different formats.

Well, let's say you and your reading buddy have miraculously found the same copy of the same work, perhaps verifying the Open Library ID number. How would positioning work there? By "page"? By text string? It would be hard to pull off.

What would be awesome, and what is already awesome

But I dream of being able to view and rearrange all of my highlights and annotations in one place, and keep them forever, and import annotations from my brilliant friends. And how neat would it be to mark up the same book twice, and compare my reactions to the text from when I was 15 to when I was 25? It makes me giddy when cool people share their bookshelves, but how delightful would it be if my favorite authors released their notes on what they read?

We've long been yearning for this level of intertextuality, and in some ways have reached it — our friends and favorite authors write notes and respond to each other online all the time (case in point). Despite what the books-are-dying-and-so-is-my-soul crowd says, we're reading more than ever, in new and different formats. And we're definitely writing more than ever, too. Surely marginalia has a place in the new ecology of reading. We just haven't been able to carve it out yet.