• Analog tools,  Pedagogy,  Scholarship,  Writing

    Annotating Books and Other Texts

    Annotating a book image showing a textbook page and an annotated poem
    Annotations don’t have to make sense to anyone else
    Image: LLS

    As a child, I was horrified by people who wrote in books. In high school, I’d go through my textbooks at the start of the new school year and carefully the penciled scribbles and doodles left by previous students. Once I started college I was expected to write in books, to annotate books, to know how and what to annotate. At the time, I rejected the very thought of annotating books; it just felt wrong. I wasn’t going to to do it.

    I successfully avoided annotating books until my senior year as an undergraduate English major, when I first took my first Chaucer class in Middle English. The Robinson Chaucer, while an admirable scholarly text, was not student friendly. There were no notes on the page; they were all appendices at the back of the book. I resorted to making careful glosses using a fine point orange-body Bic Pen (my favorite tool for annotating books for decades).

    As I read more texts in Middle and Old English and Celtic languages in graduate school, I used  marginal notes to help me find particular passages, and glossed difficult words and concepts that weren’t otherwise explained by the text. Once I started teaching, I glossed with colored pencils in order to make finding a particular passage or note easier while lecturing and leading discussions. I still regularly annotate books, and thought I might save others some time by explaining how and why I annotate.

    What Does it Mean to Annotate

    Here’s a formal dictionary definition of annotate from the American Heritage Dictionary:


    To furnish (a literary work) with critical commentary or explanatory notes; gloss.


    To gloss a text (s. v. American Heritage Dictionary annotate).
    And here’s the entry for annotation:
    1. The act or process of furnishing critical commentary or explanatory notes.
    2. A critical or explanatory note; a commentary (American Heritage Dictionary, s.v. annotation).

    In other words, when we annotate a book or text, we mark it up, via marginal notes or glosses, marks in the text itself, or highlighting and underlining passages in order to create additional meaning and understanding for ourselves.  By careful annotation, we make a text our own. Careful, thoughtful annotation helps us engage with the text and remember it.

    Annotating books (or other reading matter) helps us read as an active, engaged reader more likely to remember what you read. When we annotate or mark texts to emphasize the important information, the goal is to emphasize the key points or concepts. Don’t simply highlight or underline everything. Prioritize the material that you know you will use later in your own work, or that you want to be able to find quickly and easily later.

    Glossing and Marginal Notes

    Annotating a book in the Middle ages; this detail image from the Lindisfarne Gospels manuscript showing a scribes Old English glosses between lines of Latin
    Detail from British Library Cotton Nero D IV Lindisfarne Gospels f.203v showing Old English interlinear glosses translating the Latin scripture of the primary text in the darker Uncial script.

    Glossing, or making notes in the margins and within the text itself can help enormously when you locate something you read and need to remember. Glossing can be either a note that summarizes or comments on a passage or it can be a label, for instance, adding the word distinction in the margin, to note when an author draws a distinction between two items, or analogy, when an author compares an unfamiliar concept to a familiar one. Or you might gloss something with short note to provide a definition of an unfamiliar term. This last method was the most common kind of gloss in earlier eras when scribes would annotate a foreign term with a marginal note, as in the image to the right from the 8th century Gospels of Lindisfarne. A monk named Aldred added Old English glosses between the lines of the Latin text of the Gosples as a translation aide. Medieval and earlier glosses like this eventually resulted in the modern glossary, a collection of terms appended to a book). Etymologically Modern English gloss derives from Middle English glose, from Old French, from Medieval Latin glōsa, from Latin glōssa, foreign word requiring explanation, from Greek, “tongue, language” (American Heritage Dictionary s.v. gloss 2).

    Highlighting and Underlining

    Highlighting, that is using a colored marker or pencil that colors text so that the text is still readable through the color, is a useful technique for annotating books. It is different from underlining in that the entire line(s) of text are colored in highlighting, whereas underlining usually means to draw a thin line under the line of text.

    Don’t get carried away with underlining or highlighting. If you highlight or underline more than about 15% of a given page, you’re probably not prioritizing the information. Only highlight those concepts or points that are most important.

    As an alternative to underlining or highlighting, consider annotating by drawing a vertical line in the margin to mark the passage in question, possibly with a note in the margin about why it’s important.

    Annotation Styles and Codes

    It’s a good idea to create your own personal style of annotating books. You might circle important concepts, and underline terms and definitions. Consider using the margin to summarize key points with a brief note. It can also be useful to use the margin to ask questions that are answered in that section of the text. Many readers use a question mark in the margin to make it easy to find a section or concept that they do not understand. It’s helpful to create your own personal style of annotating. You might circle important concepts, underline terms and definitions, or summarize key points with a brief note in the margin. You can see an example of one way of annotating a text here.

    Chart from Levenger's showing one set of marks for annotations
    Levenger’s Helpful Marks for Readers

    In some cases, you might want to have a short note on the flyleaf of a book, if you’ve used special annotation symbols just for that book.

    Keep It Clean

    Many readers particularly students planning to resell their textbooks hate the idea of annotating books. Sometimes it’s just a personal dislike; sometimes it’s because the book in question isn’t yours, so you shouldn’t mark it permanently. In that case, consider using post-its that you can remove before selling the books or keep in books you own. There are special stickynotes designed explicitly for making notes about a page as you readAlternatively, I often take notes by hand in a notebook or pad of paper or on my computer as I read instead of or in addition to marking up the book.

    Digital Annotation

    If you routinely use .pdfs or ebooks, there are digital equivalents for the forms of annotation used in printed books. There are minor differences in the methods for accessing and creating the annotations based on the app in question, but the basic methodology is similar. Typically you can make digital marginal sticky notes, dog-ear pages or book mark them with a note, highlight text, and underline. With most .pdf readers, you can also draw circles, arrows, and other shapes, on the .pdf pages.

    Why Annotate?

    Annotating has two primary purposes; it allows us to find particular passages or ideas in a text, and it aids our memory and understanding because as we closely read and think about the text, and engage with it by annotations, we make the text our own. We add personal meaning and interpretation.

    Tools for Annotation

    You don’t actually need fancy tools to annotate books or documents. But the right tool can make a difference in legibility and utility.

    Smaller sticky notes, the familiar 1 3/8 inch x 1 7/8 inch notes are useful for making marginal notes without marking the page. Page flags make it easy to find the pages and passages you know will be important without writing in your books.

     Sometimes it’s helpful to take extensive notes about a page without writing on the page. These removable notes have tabs that you can label, making it easy to find the specific topic you’re looking for. And you can use them to take notes while you read and then remove them, either to save in a notebook for later use or discard when you no longer need them. There are a lot of different kinds of sticky notes, with all sorts of uses. It’s often convenient to have a portable assortment to use not only for annotating, but for note-taking, and marking sections for review.

    Taking notes while you read, either in the book or text itself or on paper is often particularly useful when you’re researching for use in something you write later. Cornell notes, which have a central area for the note, a margin for comments or page references, and a summary field at the bottom for questions or ideas to emphasize can be particularly helpful in annotating and taking notes about what you are reading. You easily print your own; there are many free templates to print your own online, or you can use paper you already have, and draw some lines with a straight edge. I did this for years, and eventually made my own template.

    A multi-pen with red, blue, and black ink, and a .05 mm mechanical pencil is exceedingly useful as an all-purpose writing and annotating tool. You can use it to make color-coded annotations, take notes, and you have erasable pencil too.

    The utility of highlighting passages with very visible color is that they’re easy to find. But sometimes it’s better or easier to use pencil to make notes and marks that you can erase later. These Apsara pencils are smooth-writing dark graphite wood-case pencils and they come with a sharpener and an eraser. You will be surprised how nice these are to write with, and by the quality of the sharpener.


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  • Commentary,  Culture and Society,  Scholarship

    I Need a Shredder

    It’s been just over a month since I started my digital migration.

    I’m making slow but steady progress on getting rid of paper. I’ve been getting digital statements where possible for several years now; but the pre-digital years have been in file cabinets. I’ve gone through a couple feet of old financial data, and sorted it into trash and items to scan. I’m scanning them in, slowly, and getting rid of the originals.

    Picture of Amaxon's Basic 12 Sheet cross-cut shredderI desperately need a shredder; I’ve had to stop tearing up and scissoring old statements etc. because it’s too hard on my hands. I’m looking at this Amazon Basics 12-sheet crosscut shredder because it will also shred CDs (as I destroy old backups) and easily handle the average scholarly article.

    I’ve started reducing paper in terms of scholarly articles, and to a lesser extent, books.

    Many of the journals most pertinent to my academic field aren’t included in the full text databases available through my local libraries. Medieval Celtic studies is a little obscure. Accessing, never mind obtaining, digital scholarly articles is difficult if you don’t have an academic affiliation with a research institution with JSTOR and Project MUSE accounts. As an individual, it’s prohibitively expensive, and often, not not even possible to buy articles, (and when it is, a single article is often $10.00 or more, none of which money goes to the scholar who wrote it).

    That degree of inaccessibility means I need to keep hard copy versions of quite a few articles that I photocopied and that won’t scan well.

    • I already have an archive of .pdf scholarly articles and monographs that are indexed and listed in a spreadsheet. I’m checking printed and photocopied articles against that spreadsheet, and shredding those that I have as .pdf files.
    • I’m thinking about how to store the hardcopy articles. A filled file drawer is often difficult if not impossible for me to open and close, and doing it repeatedly is just not on. I thought about using comic book storage boxes, but they’re not quite tall enough for 8.5″ x 11″ paper. Still thinking about alternatives to file cabinets, including baskets with lids that will fit a standard bookshelf.
    • I’ve reduced the number of printed books I have by some hundreds. I’ve culled books I don’t need or no longer want. I’ve reduced it a bit more by replacing lots of fiction with ebooks, if they’re obtainable without DRM. I’ve lost too many expensive scholarly facsimiles, thanks to Adobe’s changing DRM, to have any faith in the longevity of DRM. I don’t mind DRM on a book I also have in printed form, but I’m no longer willing to buy DRM ebooks unless I have a printed copy too.
    • There’s a small problem with replacing scholarly books with digital versions that are Epub files in that citations are tricky, but I reckon I’ll cross that bridge when I come to it; I haven’t yet.

    Converting the paper bills etc. to digital is serving as a test case for scholarly hard copy conversion. I really want the articles to be searchable, if possible. That desire has me mulling over Evernote’s paid version. I’m also thinking about trying DEVONthink Personal. There’s also the possibility of relying on OS X’s Spotlight, too. I already use tags, which should help with Spotlight.

    I used to use reference managers, first EndNote then Bookends. But after trying several, including open source reference managers, I’m not a fan of reference managers. First, they don’t easily migrate. Second, I never could get the work-with-your-word-processor part to work well or predictably, either with MicrosoftWord or with Mellel. Currently, I’m using Pages for final formatting, anyway. So for now, the spreadsheet method suits me for managing bibliographic data. I like that it’s easily portable, and easily shared. No special software required.

  • Commentary,  Publishing,  Scholarship

    VDM or Verlag Dr. Mueller Has a New Tactic

    I’ve written about VDM (Verlag Dr. Mueller), an exploitive academic/scholarly mill before.

    Writer Beware writer advocate and writer Victoria Strauss notes that VDM has a new wrinkle:

    . . . a company called Bloggingbooks that wants to publish your blog in book form

    Read Writer Beware’s warning about Bloggingbooks.

    Run away; you can do this yourself, if you really want to, via any number of online service companies. You won’t make much money, but you are less likely to be exploited.

  • Pedagogy,  Scholarship,  Software

    Free Evernote Premium Account for College Students

    Evernote is giving giving away premium Evernote accounts good through the end of the school year (June 30, 2012), to US college students with a .edu email address.

    This is a fabulous offer; Evernote lets you take notes, stash .pdfs and Web pages for research and access them from just about any computer, or iOS device. It’s a super tool.

    See the link above.

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  • Scholarship,  Software


    I always check out new blogging and CMS platforms, so when I started hearing about Pinterest.com, I took a look, and then tried Pinterest. Pinterest describes itself as “Pinterest is an online pinboard. Organize and share things you love.”

    Pinterest isn’t really directly comparable to any of the extant blogging or CMS systems; it’s most similar to Tumbler. Pinterest is image-driven. An image is scraped or uploaded, re-sized, and the original URL is retained as a link. There’s a field for a brief comment, and other people can comment on posted images or “pins.” Each Pinterest “board” is presented as an image collage; you can click-through via any individual image and see the associated comments, a larger view and the original link.

    Each Pinterest account can have several boards. Boards can be associated with a number of pre-defined categories, as well as shared between several posters. You call also “follow” individual boards, or all of a Pinterest account’s pins and boards. The top page of the site features recent “pins” and comments.

    • Find an image online (or a local image from your computer.
      You use a bookmarklet on your toolbar or you copy the URL and log onto your Pinterest account.
    • You pick one of your boards, or one that you have posting access to.
      You paste the URL into a field.
    • Pinerest asks scrapes the images and shows you reduced versions of the images on the page, and asks which image to use.
    • You select an image, and Pinterest grabs the image, reduces it if necessary, , and the URL, offers you a field for a comment and posts or “pins” the image to your board.
    • Other Pinterest members can re-pin your image, like it, or follow you or aparticular board.

    Pinterest is not suited for building a presence online by itself; it is however an interesting ancillary to an established presence. It looks to me like Pinterest has more utility as a research tool and memory aid. Pinterest thus far (it’s still an invitation-only beta) is most enthusiastically being used by recipe collectors, and dedicated shoppers with specialized wish-lists. You’ll see people planning weddings or designing rooms, and using Pinterest to collect images and ideas. It’s an extremely useful research tool for writers. There are a lot of people using Pinterest to track recipes, items to buy as a sort of visual wish list, but also people collecting images for buildings, locations, furnishings and clothing to use in writing, especially in terms of historic style and location. My friend and graphic designer Michael Rowley has a board featuring typography, off to the right.

    I’ve created a few boards here. I’m using it for recipes, but also as a research tool for the garden and for a couple of scholarly articles I’m working on. I can see some potential issues with respect to image copyrights—I suspect that Pinterest is relying a bit forcefully on safe harbor clauses, and the fact that what users are doing with scraped images is pretty much what search engines do with scraped images. I notice that as of today, Pinterest allows rights-holders to opt out of having their content used.

  • Publishing,  Scholarship

    The Academy Doesn’t Prepare Humanists for Publishing Professionally

    When I was filling out all the paperwork for filing at UCLA, not even the library seemed terribly clued in to copyright. For instance, as part of the filing process, UCLA students are asked to grant permission to ProQuest to microfilm the dissertation. Page 26 of the UCLA Graduate Division Policies and Procedures for Thesis and Dissertation Preparation and Filing states:

    Students are required to complete and sign the ProQuest Agreement form regardless of whether they do or do not copyright the dissertation. Signing the form does not affect control of the manuscript; it simply allows ProQuest to microfilm the manuscript for UCLA.

    I did not waive my copyright; despite having the library return the form to me, with the instruction to waive my copyright, I refused. I also did not give ProQuest/UMI permission to sell my dissertation.

    So imagine my surprise when in June of 2009 I received a letter from ProQuest that included the following:

    We see that you didn’t order pre-publication with our previous discount, but you can still order at a special price. The standard hardbound edition, which is normally $74, is just $46 now, a 40% savings! And if you order multiple copies, you can save even more. Consider who else might want to have a quality-bound copy of your work: your advisor, your committee, the graduate school, mentors, or even colleagues or family.

    Remember, I explicitly indicated that I did not want my dissertation offered for sale; the reason I didn’t want it offered for sale is that ProQuest/UMI charges too much, even for unbound copies. Graduate students, the people most likely to be purchasing dissertations for research, don’t really have spare cash.

    I wrote ProQuest; I got back a form letter basically saying, yes, in fact, there were “two restrictions” on my dissertation and they would remove it from their catalog. As far as I know they have, and I’m gratified, but I also less than happy that UCLA provided ProQuest/UMI with my contact information; UCLA did not have my consent.

    Despite the pressure, and sometimes, encouragement and mentoring to publish in scholarly journals during graduate school, humanists, including tenured and well-published faculty, seem astonishingly clueless about trade publishing or book-length publishing. I’ve sat on more than one hiring committee for English creative writing instructors whose c.v. includes vanity published books. I’ve even seen PublishAmerica as the publisher of record. That’s not really acceptable as an academic credential, any more than a self-published book should be acceptable as a qualifying publication for hiring, promotion, or tenure.

    By the way; while I’m not OK with someone else profiting from selling my dissertation, I’m quite willing to give it away. If you want a bound copy, why not take a look at lulu.com?

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  • Culture and Society,  Scholarship,  Writing

    Trials and Tribulations

    I managed to avoid commenting on the first pseudonymous Chronicle of Higher Education article by “Ivan Tribble,” “Bloggers Need Not Apply. Tribble’s piece included a less than professional description of the academic review process, one that didn’t reflect well on either the author or the school. I thought Tribble was, well, profoundly clueless. I noted that a number of others who are wiser, smarter, and better writers than I am said what needed to be said, so decided not to comment. I was more than somewhat amused to notice that a week later the Chronicle published an article urging academic book authors to promote themselves and their books with a blog.

    When Tribble published an even dafter follow-up to his first appearance, “They Shoot Messengers, Don’t They?” I only knew that the piece had been published because of a reference in Quod She by Dr. Virago, and comments from a few other bloggers. I noted that Tribble’s complacency and pompousness had devolved to a snide whine.

    In the initial post, as Dr. Virago points out, Tribble complains that the bloggers interviewed for a recent job essentially provided too much information about their personal lives. He isolates three specific examples, including one engaging in misrepresentation, one that essentially suffers from “TMI,” Too Much Information or personal revealation, and one blogger he identifies as “Professor Turbo Geek,” who has an obvious interest in digital technology. Regarding the “Turbo Geek,” Tribble writes:

    It’s one thing to be proficient in Microsoft Office applications or HTML, but we can’t afford to have our new hire ditching us to hang out in computer science after a few weeks on the job.

    I suppose I should be filled with umbrage; I certainly qualify as a Turbo Geek, albeit not a professor, but I’m more interested in Tribble’s scholarly cluelessness. Many schools are delighted to hire humanist scholars who know enough Perl to write text parsers, analysis tools, or concordances, scholars who routinely teach with technology, and know where to find a Yogh in Unicode and the best way to digitize a manuscript leaf under ultraviolet, and how to properly utilize online databases for bibliographic research.

    The naivete of comments like this one, again from the first essay, made me realize I was dealing with someone truly clueless:

    We’ve seen the hapless job seekers who destroy the good thing they’ve got going on paper by being so irritating in person that we can’t wait to put them back on a plane. Our blogger applicants came off reasonably well at the initial interview, but once we hung up the phone and called up their blogs, we got to know “the real them” — better than we wanted, enough to conclude we didn’t want to know more.

    As a job applicant interviewer and potential academic with “Turbo Geek” cred, I look at the situation differently. I’d have googled applicants before the interview, and any applicants the committee had reservations about would have been set aside in favor of more suitable prospects. That’s fairly common, and has been for at least five years. Frankly, when I apply for jobs, academic or geek, I’m doing a fair amount of googling myself regarding my prospective employer and colleagues. I check Nexus-Lexus, and various other proprietary data sources as well as the usual on and off-line bibliographic sources. I’m likely to talk to or e-mail people I know, in industry or the academy, to ask them about my prospective colleagues and employer. It’s not like background checks are new, after all. When I’m hiring, after the interview, I call the references and talk to them—often this is the point where you really learn about candidates, since much of the other data is carefully constructed by a candidate with specific rhetorical goals.

    In his follow-up piece Tribble concludes:

    As my original column made clear (and many amid the outcry reiterated) when it comes to blogging, I just don’t “get it.” That’s right, I don’t. Many in the tenured generation don’t, and they’ll be sitting on hiring committees for years to come.

    It’s true, Tribble doesn’t “get it,” but he’s fortunately part of a rapidly shrinking minority. Yes, people do write stupid things in blogs, and some people write inappropriate or unprofessional posts—and some are fired for it. Intellectually engaged schools and companies have blogging policies, and that helps enormously. It’s been my experience that the people who are truly unprofessional online (and I’m not convinced Tribble’s initial three example bloggers are) are likely to be unprofessional off-line as well. These issues are hardly exclusive to the ‘net; they happen in traditional publications, and coffee shops and living rooms too. Some people even write editorials delineating inappropriate hiring practices.

  • Scholarship,  Software

    Bibliography Software

    I’m looking for free or cheap (under $100.00) bibliographic database software. I’d like something that uses MySQL, Perl, and/or PHP and that includes a GUI, or that one could fairly easily create a browser-based or AppleScript/AppleStudio GUI. Yes, I know, there are academic bibliographic products like EndNote or ProCite, but they cost an arm and a leg, are proprietary, and have horrible interfaces. I’m fine with paying for good software, but those applications really don’t work for me. In fact, almost no one I know, whether graduate students or faculty, uses them because they’re so poorly designed that they’re almost impossible to use.

    I don’t need an application that interfaces with a word processor (though I won’t kick and scream if someone offers the feature!) but I need to be able to create entries for journal articles, essays in essay collections, and books. I need to be able to include a fairly long summary or annotation for each item—at least 1,000 words. I need to be able to search for strings based on fields (author, title, keyword). And I need to run it either on a Mac running OS X 10.3 or on a Unix server. Right now I’m still using a HyperCard stack I made, and while it’s fabulous (she says modestly) I know that it has a fairly limited lifespan, and it uses XCMDS that I can’t rewrite to use with Revolution. In other words, I’m really looking for a good bibliorgraphic database, before I give up and roll my own.

    I’ve done the obvious thing— looked at VersionTracker, SourceForge and other collections, but so far, I’ve not found anything. If you have any suggestions, please use the Comment link below.

  • Commentary,  Culture and Society,  Scholarship

    Linking and Citations

    In the various discussions of whether or not bloggers are journalists, or the distinctions between war bloggers and tech bloggers, or what we do when we blog, perhaps we’ve taken for granted one of the most distinctive qualities of blogs and blogging: linking.

    The emphasis on linking in blogs appealed to me immediately; linking is, after all, a way of creating footnotes and citations, something that as a medievalist, I must do all the time. But because of the emphasis on linking in blogs—the ease of creating citations, of providing source text and gloss side by side, bloggers make it easy for their readers to verify their data . As bloggers we present our sources with our conclusions, allowing us, as Ken Layne put it, to “fact check your ass.”

    Updated 11/20/2005:Thanks to Ken Smith’s heads up I’ve updated the links in this post.

  • Commentary,  Culture and Society,  Scholarship

    Information Architecture or Scholarship

    According to Gerry McGovern at New ThinkingJ R R Tolkien was an information architect.”
    McGovern writes:

    Information architecture is concerned with the organization and layout of content. It is a discipline that has evolved over centuries, finding its roots in writing and printing. J R R Tolkien was a master information architect. He created complex genealogical and geographical architectures. If you want to master information architecture you need to acquire the type of skills Tolkien exhibits.

    We used to call that scholarship. A scholar is, after all, what Tolkien “was,” in adddition to being an inventive writer and artist. He certainly identified himself in his roles as a philologist and medievalist as a scholar, as did his employer, Oxford University.

    It is the task, and the joy, of scholars to accumulate information, organize it, and provide a naviagation system, whether of pages and indices or links to assist readers in making use of the information. It’s what they do.