The Coming of Document-Oriented Annotations

Traced hands on the rear free end-paper of an 1853 copy of the Works of William Shakespeare [source].

Traced hands on the rear free end-paper of an 1853 copy of the Works of William Shakespeare [source].

Here’s my reply to Simon Guigue from Read, “a startup that builds an app to read ebooks”, who asks:

I reach you today since I imagine you might write write blog posts on Medium or elsewhere – sometimes with quotes etc. – I can imagine you might sometimes feel this pain with ebooks. I’d be really interested to know if you feel such a pain when you start reading an ebook (ePub files) on your tablet or mobile. Often people say it’s laborious to extract what they’ve highlighted from an ebook to somewhere else. Do you actually feel this pain too? And if so, i’d be interested to know how you manage to export your highlights & quotes eventually? (Up until copy/paste manually)

I actually don’t export highlights and quotes. In fact, the issue to me is not so much how to export highlights but how to connect them to the publication. When you use the Kindle, every annotation belonging to every ebook is saved into a file called My Clippings.txt as follows:

La galassia Gutenberg (Marshall McLuhan)
- Your Highlight on page 229 | location 3506-3507 | Added on Monday, 16 June 2014 15:10:58

L’indifferenza degli studiosi medievali nei confronti dell’esatta identità degli autori di cui studiavano i libri è innegabile.

Within this paradigm, that could be called ecosystem- or device-oriented, the distance between the annotation and the text to which it is referred to is very high. The opposite happens when you annotate a PDF using, for instance, Acrobat Pro or iAnnotate: in this case the annotation is embedded into the document. Here, there is no distance between the annotation and the related text, both visually and structurally. I’ll call this ‘document-oriented’ paradigm.

I believe document-oriented annotations have several advantages. In terms of interface, users can browse the annotations while they browse the text. The fact that the annotations stick with the document means that they can be easily shared with other people. In terms of preservation, document-oriented annotations are more practical: they aren’t dependent of a specific application or platform. In PDFs, the annotation layer is technically detached from the source one, therefore the original text is preserved.

While this system might not be ideal, I use it thoroughly. I go as far as to save webpages in PDF in order to annotate them and store them up. This is one of the cases in which the ‘humble’ PDF proves itself not so humble.

I was curious to know what the IDPF thought about it, so I stumbled into the “Open Annotation in EPUB” (May 2014). The purpose of the draft is to define “a profile of the W3C Open Annotation specification [OpenAnnotation] for the creation, distribution and rendering of annotations for EPUB® Publications.”

Acknowledging the need for both ecosystem- and document-oriented paradigm, the authors propose “standalone collections” and “embedded ones”. The former are needed when, for instance, “a publisher [wants to] sell annotations separately from their publications, Reading Systems need a way to synchronize annotations between devices, and so on.” The latter are necessary when, for instance, “publisher [wants] to include one or more collections of annotations in the default distribution” (interestingly, the publisher’s needs are the ones generally exemplified). While standalone collections are saved into a zipped JSON file, embedded ones are included into the EPUB container and listed in the Package Document manifest.

It’s also interesting to see how the issue of annotations brings very diverse understandings of the book as medium to the fore. According to Matt Garrish, “being able to create [annotations] is an integral part of the reading experience for many readers, no doubt, but technically they have nothing to do with the structure of an ebook itself. They’re more like a layer that lives on top of the format.” In my perspective, annotations have very much to do with the structure of a book and, therefore, of an ebook. In fact, if we consider the evolution of the codex, we realize that annotations, in form of gloss and later marginalia, have been a constitutive element of the social life of books.

Luckily, it looks like some people are building tools to annotate EPUBs according to the Open Annotation spec. For instance, Jake Hartnell is developing Epub.js motivated by the fact that “no one should own annotation or books, just as no one owns the standards that make up the web.” Hopefully, I should be able to make document-oriented annotations in EPUB files soon.

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