Bookmark for Marginalia and Note-taking

Annotation function in Utopiadocs.
Annotation function in Utopiadocs. Copyright © 2012 Lost Island Labs.
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Nathaniel Hawthorne
Herman Melville
New York, NY; Salem, MA, 1846-1850. ©2012 The President and Fellows of Harvard College

Earlier this month, we saw the release of the Open Annotation Community Group’s specification of the Open Annotation Core Data Model, an interoperable framework for creating annotations that can be easily shared between platforms.  The work, directed by Robert Sanderson and Paolo Ciccarese, began in earnest about six months ago, although it was proceeded by longstanding efforts within and between the editors of the Annotation Ontology and the Open Annotation Collaboration.  Under the auspices of the W3C, the efforts merged into the Open Annotation Community Group (OACG).

The OACG model defines an annotation as “a set of connected resources, typically including a body and target, where the body is somehow about the target,” and the full model  “supports additional functionality, enabling semantic annotations, embedding content, selecting segments of resources, choosing the appropriate representation of a resource and providing styling hints for consuming clients.”    Public rollout events are scheduled for 9 April (Stanford University), 6 May (University of Maryland) and 24 June (University of Manchester).

Back in November last year, while the Open Annotation Community Group (OACG) was thrashing through how to handle collections of annotations and other ontological issues, the Radcliffe Institute for Advanced Studies at Harvard University held a two-day symposium called “Take Note,”  marking the conclusion of a two-year project on the history and future of note-taking.  The project also resulted in a virtual exhibition of objects and works from the Harvard University Collections with notes ranging from a price list inscribed on a potsherd to a clothes list on papyrus found in an Egyptian garbage dump to Herman Melville’s annotations of his review copy of Hawthorne’s Mosses from an Old Manse (see image above).    The exhibition was curated by Greg AfinogenovAnn Blair and Leah Price, and interestingly, the OACG’s Paolo Ciccarese contributed to building the exhibition’s website.

So besides Paolo Ciccarese’s involvement, what’s the connection between these two events?   Perhaps the link is captured in three comments from the participants:

Bill Sherman, historian at the University of York and author of Used Books: Marking Readers in Renaissance England, commented to a reporter,  “We’re now in a moment where we’re leaving behind fewer traces of our reading than ever before…. We may have moved to the turning point where…we’ll have to find new ways to leave more behind.” And as Matthew Kirschenbaum has spelt out in Mechanisms, historians will have to learn new ways to decipher what is left behind.

David Weinberger, author of The Cluetrain Manifesto and long-time blogger, tweeted (according to the Harvard Gazette reporter), “”Collaborative notetaking via etherpad or GoogleDocs etc. is often a great way to go. Fascinating to participate in, too,’ during an afternoon presentation that explored digital annotation tools.”  Like Bob Stein, the co-founder of the FutureoftheBook.com, Weinberger is a champion of social reading and collaborative creativity.

Another participant told the Gazette’s reporter, “’I was struck by the request that we send our notes into Radcliffe because my reaction was, “You know, my notes are really none of your business. My notes are my private thoughts, my private collaborations.” Until I am dead, I don’t really need other people looking at them.'”  That last comment is particularly fetching:  one wonders whether William James and Herman Melville had such an eye on posterity as they scribbled their notes now on display across the Web.

As the book evolves and we annotate works in our ereaders (offline or online), how do we ensure that they persist, and whether offline or online, how do we handle how private or public those notes will be?

Earlier this month, Books on Books raised proprietorial questions about annotated ebooks in response to Nicholas Carr’s article “Used e-book, slightly foxed” sparked by the Amazon patent for selling pre-loved ebooks.  On his site, Carr responded with his own questions:

“[W]hat’s the relationship (legal and otherwise) between an e-book and the annotations added to it by its reader? Are the annotations attached to the particular copy of the e-book, and allowed to remain attached to it when it passes to a new reader, or do the annotations exist in a separate sphere — say, in a personal online database that is the property of the individual reader? … what right does the copyright holder (in particular, the author) hold over the way an e-book is presented? If annotations, or other metadata, in effect become part of the text, permanently or even temporarily, then does that represent a modification of the work that requires the consent of the author? You can’t publish an annotated print edition of a book under copyright without the copyright holder’s permission. Do different rules apply to an e-book?” (Carr’s questions elicited an interesting comment at Futureofthebook.com:  “perhaps the interdependence of print and screen books is inevitable….”)

In some respects, by digitizing and reproducing others’ property (appropriately acquired through bequests, gifts and so on), the Harvard University Collections’ virtual exhibition illustrates Carr’s questions and those of the symposia participants — even the comment from Future of the Book — in a beautifully “tangible” way.  Think upon it.

 

Bookmark for the “Used e-book, slightly foxed”

In “Used e-book, slightly foxed,” Nicholas Carr ponders Amazon’s widely reported patent on a method allowing the resale or giving of ebooks and other digital objects.

"Tiny Library Filled with Wee Books and a Deep, Dark, Secret,"  Artist, TheMistressT.  Accessed 10 February 2013.
“Tiny Library Filled with Wee Books and a Deep, Dark, Secret,” Artist, TheMistressT. Accessed 10 February 2013.

Matthew Kirschenbaum might dispute Carr’s view that there is no difference between the new and used ebook however.  In his book Mechanisms: New Media and the Forensic Imagination, he explores the nano-differences between masters and their digital copies, much as textual bibliographers have delved into the meaningful and revealing differences among print editions and even copies of the same print edition.

And with the recent publication of a W3C specification for Open Annotation of digital text, what might be inside that used ebook?   As Baratunde Thurston, author of How to Be Black and founder of Cultivated Wit, writes:

What if you could download books that had been pre-annotated? I would pay extra to read Freakonomics with commentary by Paul Krugman,The New Jim Crow with notes from editors at The Nation, or the Bible annotated by the creators of South Park. A book could always inspire new layers of meaning, but now it can host that inspiration and a slew of associated conversations.

Thurston’s proposition though is more akin to the digital equivalent of the Norton critical editions or Robert Strassler’s oversized, beautifully enriched Landmark editions of Thucydides, Herodotus and Xenophon.  Still, a pre-loved ebook is a different virtual matter and might be desirable to some hapless, non-haptic readers.  No doubt, resellers of used ebooks will want to assure their customers that their digital goods are free of lesser annotators’ bytes of marginalia and the latest viruses and Trojan horses favored by vandals and hacksters.   How will eBay cope, assuming it can come to terms with Amazon’s patent claim?

But to bring Thurston’s proposition and Open Annotation together suggests another market: the collectible ebook.  Can there be such a thing as a rare ebook?  Which libraries will be bidding for Clay Shirky’s ebook collection after he has shuffled off his digital coil?

The implications for DRM and copyright are delicious.  Recall the hoax that Bruce Willis was considering legal action against Apple over his desire to leave his digital music collection to his daughters?  If his collection’s metadata contained extensive annotations providing insight into the music or, more likely, the celebrity himself, why should iTunes’ Terms and Conditions override the family’s claim to the Die Hard star’s intellectual property that they could share (or not) with future celebrity biographers?

This year looks set to be one of important bookmarks for the evolution of the book: secondary markets for ebooks, Open Annotation, social reading and still more devices and applications for reading.