The Slow Adoption of Digital Annotation

Up until my late 20s, I thought books were sacred objects that were ruined by creases and marks and the like. A book was there to be preserved so as to be enjoyed by later people. It’s a weird thing to think this when you have a book in your personal library, refuse to sell it, and think this preservation mantra. It doesn’t make sense unless you really hold the people at your future and inevitable estate sale in high esteem. But, I used to think books were artifact-sacred. It was very old school. A long time ago, before industrialism, books did hold this kind of value, but this was when books were scarce and in monasteries or something akin to it, when books were expensive in many ways more than monetary value. But now, there are personal book printers in libraries and small bookstores. There are ebooks. If a book burns, a digital file is ready to make the printing happen again. Books are a replaceable object now, especially if you are buying them from a local bookstore.

The first time I annotated wasn’t in high school. At least I don’t remember it. I was one of those students who believed wrongly that slowing down while reading was massacring the experience of the book. I was always hungry to read and slowing down was not something I wanted to consider. So it was that my first annotations were out of necessity when I became a high school English teacher. As an English teacher, you need to annotate the things you read. There is so much to parse and prepare for. You never know where students might go with a text, what they will find that you haven’t. And you need to be prepared to go with them. I didn’t take these first notes in the books themselves though. I typed them out on a computer. I was in that old camp of the paperless and would sacrifice a good comfy chair to read on my desk so I could type notes out on a computer screen. Then, when a book club got me taking notes for pleasure, I switched to using my iPhone and graduated to a nice comfy couch. I would sit on the couch with a text editor open on my phone and tap in the page number I was reading and then go for the note. Looking back on that weird practice now, a lot of it is just me summing up what I’m reading so I can write my thought so that future me could understand the context. It was arduous, but I didn’t think that way then. I just thought of it as the best way to take notes and not ruin a book. (I’m sure some of my students wouldn’t see this practice at all weird as phones have become replacements for computers for a lot of teenagers.)

Then, an English teacher friend of mine asked to borrow my personal copy of a book to make copies for his students. He immediately started marking in it with a pencil. I was horrified and immediately embarrassed by my horrification. After he was done, he erased the marks and handed the book back. That’s when I knew I was being an idiot. I went back to my classroom, and when I picked that book up again, I marked my notes in the margin like the ways of old and that was that.

I’m glad Jorges Luis Borges is getting a resurgence with all the allusions to his short story, The Tower of Babel. Basically, the story centers around a philosophical exploration of one place that contains all the world’s books. I’m not sure how Borges would feel about the digitization of all of that, but it has come to pass. And we are at a kind of weird place that no one could really foresee, or if they did, people just haven’t come to terms with it yet. When the Kindle was introduced, book lovers both feared the deletion of physical books and also jumped on the digital bandwagon. And now we are at a stasis where both the print and the digital world are rising at about the same pace. Patterns are now emerging as to why people choose either and breaths are hesitantly being exhaled in both camps. But, one has to believe that the technology to make digital books a very regular thing might currently be in some ethereal idea place not yet realized.

If you’ve recently read the very geeky but historically interesting Track Changes by Matthew G. Kirschenbaum or have used a progenitor of the current PCs and Macs, you know that there have been quite a few word processors out there, both in hardware (yes, there were computers designed only to word process) and in software. The problem with most word processors is that filetypes need to be converted if you want to use a different program. This could happen for a variety of instances. Maybe you need to use a work sanctioned word processor and have to convert a filetype from your home word processor. Perhaps a software has stopped updating and it’s a conversion of necessity. Perhaps a new word processor comes out that fits your workflow better than the one you are using. All of these necessitate some sort of conversion with a little bit of anxiety from the fear of inducing formatting mishaps. Perhaps this is why one of the most simplified filetypes today is having a comeback: plaintext.

This is not to say that the more complicated filetypes like GoogleDocs or Word or OpenOffice are going to be extinct in 10 years. I think we have learned enough to be able to convert things when we move to a new operating system or make word processors with “importing” functions. But that is not to say that some of us lazy technology users will forget about a hard drive with a large database of files on it, and twenty years later have no way to read the actual hard drive or the files on it due to newer operating systems and word processors. Technology, as it is, is moving fast enough for us to forget things like this.

So, standards are needed, or at least the standardization of formats that are highly lauded by the writing public like “.doc” or “.docx.” But with that last, you have a war with Microsoft about open-sourcing and the like. And this is where annotations come in. What is our manipulatable reading format or software or standardization of choice for manipulating a file without changing its content?

Sure, we don’t really need the same software to read things on a screen. We’ve been doing that since the advent of screens themselves. But we do need software to store our notes. Apps live and die a lot now, and sometimes I just find myself happy to annotate on physical copies, even if that practice might die in the next 10 years. At least I will have them or be able to scan them. And really, are preserving annotations that important? Many big thinkers, like Oliver Sacks (and, apparently, the pocketbook brand Field Notes), believe that it’s just the writing down of it that is the important bit. If that’s true, then you should probably stop reading right here. But let’s stick with this line of thought because software is a thing we need to come to grips with. We need to find some way of being comfortable with the longevity of operating systems and the programs on those operating systems for information we want to keep for a while.

The obvious first for talking about annotations is the piece of technology that has most people reading books: the Kindle itself. The hallowed one. It’s just that the eink technology hasn’t caught up with the quickness of more comprehensively functioned computers. Tapping out notes is a testament in being very slow and willing to forgive the Kindle for it’s constant inaccuracies. There is the problem of “ghosting,” which means that a letter you don’t tap on the Kindle becomes a reality. Then there is just the lag of it all. Writing longhand is still slower, but it’s way more comfortable writing longhand than switching from the immediacy of tapped smartphone keys to a Kindle.

Highlighting can be cumbersome on any device. It’s a difficult sort of thing to implement. The Kindle is pretty good at this, except when your highlighting takes you to the next “page,” then you might be in trouble, especially if you are highlighting on a computer (which I don’t think works at the moment). And if you want to edit your highlight, you are in trouble again because you might just have to start over. And how to export all this? You have to rely on third party apps to do so, Bookcision or (which is not free). Nothing has changed this from the inception of annotations.

Adobe PDFs represent the tried and true format that most people think will stay around. You can annotate the crap out of a PDF, but is it worth it as far as ease of use? There are so many modes and clicks you need to execute in order to put something down on the page that it’s supremely easier to just print out the PDF, annotate longhand, and then take a picture with your phone and convert it back to a PDF.

Recently, the former rap music annotating site, Genius, started annotating literature. You can find full texts of copyright lapsed texts with full and kind of pretty annotations. And more recently, Genius has starting getting journalists and editors to annotate contemporary articles. It looks well designed, and there are a lot of things it can do: annotate the news, annotate literature, and annotate song lyrics. When I first noticed it, I felt like this was a large answer to a lot of problems: a place where people could annotate easily and a place that might standardize annotation technology. But you can only read stuff on the Internet or things that are freely available. You cannot purchase books with their software, so it is not an all encompassing site.

Then you have all the rest of the book websites: Overdrive, Kobo, iBooks, etc. Your annotations are by default not permanent. The book isn’t yours to begin with. It is a lease, and you can save your annotations, but only 10% of the book can be highlighted — the fear of highlighting the entire book for yourself so you can easily pirate it is a thing — and quotes and the notes that go with them are clipped from the text and put in a chosen format. There they will be for however long, sitting away from the text.

This is another digital vs. analog problem where we haven’t yet come up with something better in the digital sphere to upset the tried and true. Annotations have been mostly successful with writing programs: track changes, social comments on Google Docs, etc. But with books, you need a stylus. Or you need to be really good at tapping with your thumbs and comfortable doing it for long periods of time. Or you need to be patient with screen navigation. You need to really like it so that the ease of just writing things down old school is just balderdash compared to the digital alternative.

I wonder if in the future we will be reading with VR goggles or contact lenses. Surely we would be able to manipulate the world to our satisfaction if we can manipulate a wide swath of virtual real estate. And maybe the world will be a place where everything is a screen. Whatever it is, it has to solve the spatiality problem that books, paper, and pen do so well. That’s the only hinderance to the digital adoption of all analog writing and reading tools. And it might just be a matter of cheapening things up.