Digital Annotation: Don’t Just Own a Book, Possess It

Annotating a book is an art, and the digital world is making it easier, better, and more useful.  E-readers, web tools, and annotation software have brought this age-old task into the 21st Century.
People have been hesitant in the past to annotate in their books, for chiefly two reasons. First, if they didn’t own the book, they didn’t want to incur the cost of buying it. Or if they were in college, they didn’t want to devalue the cost of the book to the point that they couldn’t resell it. That’s completely understandable and the proper thing to do, indeed.  Although, a number of college students (well, my roommates at least) actually liked buying used texts that smart people had already highlighted, but that’s another story.
The second reason that people have been reluctant to annotate books is a bit more perplexing. Many people have attached some sort of misplaced devotion to the book itself. I mean they’re literally paying homage to the pulp that the author’s genius is printed on. They deem annotation as a mutilation of a masterpiece (a masterpiece of pulp, glue, and cloth, my friends!).

Three Kinds of Book Owners

Mortimer J. Adler summered up book readers in his 1941 essay “How to Mark A Book” in The Saturday Review of Literature:

There are three kinds of book owners. The first has all the standard sets and best-sellers —unread, untouched. (This deluded individual owns wood-pulp and ink, not books.) The second has a great many books—a few of them read through, most of them dipped into, but all of them as clean and shiny as the day they were bought. (This person would probably like to make books his own, but is restrained by a false respect for their physical appearance.) The third has a few books or many—every one of them dog-eared and dilapidated, shaken and loosened by continual use, marked and scribbled in from front to back. (This man owns books.)

The Need to Annotate

Why annotate, though? Annotating gives readers a deeper understanding of content. Readers who actively engage the text remember the content longer than the casual reader does. It lets the reader get personal with the text by asking questions, clarifying and arguing points, and praising the author’s ideas. For writers, too, this is certainly the dream of what readers will do with their content–not not just read it, but devour it, and and ultimately possess the knowledge and not just remember it for a test.
Author’s certainly annotate when they read. Check out how David Foster Wallace annotates Don Delillo’s Players. As Adler might put it, that’s not an act of mutilation, that’s an act of love. The point is, great readers are doing this as they read. To some it comes naturally. Others have created their own process. Others, still, need to be taught how to annotate. Instructors should teach and model the annotation process to the readers who need it the most.
Keep in mind that highlighting text, while important, is the lowest form of annotation. You can see from Wallace’s annotations that there’s much more to annotation than highlighting text. Highlighting says you’ve identified something important, and you’ve changed its color.  That’s a good start, but often highlighting becomes mindless and does nothing more than mark the trail that you’ve read (much like shaving cream does when you shave):


Digital Annotation

Some instructors have tried to get around the textbook mutilation issue by having students annotate on a separate sheet of paper, and this does help, but only by the slightest of degrees. Annotations really need to be married up with the actual text to get the full benefits of connecting the two and for reviewing later.
Digital books have broken this wide open.  You no longer have to show some misplaced sense of reverence to paper by not marking on it. Instructors can now teach the art of annotation and students can interact with their digital texts in an active manner unlike in the past.

Annotating e-books is similar to how you would annotate regular books, or as my daughter calls them, “what our ancestors read.”  E-readers allow virtually endless note insertions, where the users can make connections to the real world, ask questions, make predictions, voice disapproval or even outrage, dissect, analyze, ponder, and theorize.

E-readers let users go public with their annotations.  Most have a “share” feature that sends annotations right to Facebook and Twitter for peers and the rest of the world to see.  The Amazon Kindle store even features the most popular highlights right on its website.

Bet you didn’t know they were collecting that data!  (A feature you can turn off, by the way. But why?)
There are numerous apps that let you annotate web pages and pdf documents, as well.  If an assignment calls for students to read a web page, have them mark it up in Diigo.  They can share their annotations with their instructors and make them public for everyone to see.  All the app stores have great pdf annotators for tablets, and there are a number of web-based apps, too. Check out Notability and and Foxit to start with.

Future of E-Readers

E-readers, take note, you’re doing a brilliant job, but we need to draw in our e-book annotations, too. Currently, the Sony Reader is the only e-reader that allows the user to draw with the annotation tools.

Why is drawing so important? Using your visual, motor, and cerebral processes together help create new neural pathways in your noggin that stick.  Drawing comes  naturally to the genius thinkers in their note-taking process. (See Divinci’s notes here.)  If your ready to take your note-taking or presentation skills to the next level, visual note-taking will put you over the top.
If you had misguided devotion to pulp and typography, you will be able to shed that in your e-books.  Seriously, on the digital level, an e-book is just a bunch of 1s and 0s.  Content reigns supreme here, as it should be.
Your students shouldn’t just be empty vessels when they read. Have them interact with the author. Annonating is the equivalent of participating in class. Soon all of our books on the shelf will function as art work. The real reading will go on with e-readers. The price and tools will justify it.

Adam Renfro

Adam was a classroom English teacher for ten years and began teaching online in 1998. He now works for the North Carolina Virtual Public School, the 2nd largest virtual school in the nation. Adam has blogged for Getting Smart since September of 2011.

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Michael Linville

Love the post. I would like to know where the author got the sources justifying the claims under The Need to Annotate though.
Also, is it really transformative having a student interacting with a book in class if they aren't also interacting with their peers and teacher? That is where the real magic of technology lies in my opinion.

Adam Renfro

Thanks for the comments, Michael. I followed the recommendations of the College Board in its article on annotating. Also notes from John Medina's "Brain Rules."
Definitely agree that interaction with peers and teacher is paramount. Just avoid the "sit quietly and read to yourself" time. Turn that into an active reading time. Younger students . . . okay, almost all students . .. will need this modeled for them. I designed and printed bookmarks that had the Rules of Annotation on them for my students when I was in the classroom.
Also like how the e-readers let you share your notes and highlights on Twitter, Facebook, Goodreads, and others. That's a cool way to interact with your peers, too.


I'd love this article more if it discussed the ereaders ability to export their annotations into a document. My kids need to read a book over the summer, pull out quotes and annotate them. It seems like you should be able to do this with various ereaders, but I've found it challenging on the Kindle Fire and haven't really read that it's any better on other devices.

Jay Dugger

I feel a little surprise that your reference to Adler's essay had no link to the original whole. A quick copy-and-paste to a search engine yields this URL.
Comments annotate too.

Adam Renfro

Carrie, this link shows how students can export and download their annotations in Kindle.
They do have to have an Amazon account. Not sure how your school has the e-readers set up.
Thanks, Jay!

Jake Barnes

The Wallace annotations are hilarious! Safe to say no other human being has spent so much energy annotating the publisher's press blurbs... And his annotations are all over the map. He’s got notes to himself about the IRS. Looks like he grabbed the nearest surface handy to jot down a few thoughts. If he’d been sitting on the crapper he probably would have annotated the toilet paper!

Adam Renfro

haha, yes, interesting to get to peer into a mind like Wallace. I read that when F. Scott Fitzgerald died, he had a copy of The Great Gatsby in bed with him that he was annotating and editing.
Still enjoy someone who uses a book for engagement as opposed to trophy on a shelf.

Jeff Martin

Hi Adam - I really enjoy your posts - particularly this prescient post on digital annotations.
I'm a JHU literacy facilitator trying to find out if there are apps out there that connect students (with their custom annotations) and teachers (who can see and process these annotations as formative assessment data).
I've seen decent student interfaces, and tools for teachers to gather/grade student data (and even tie them to standards), but not the whole shebang that ties them all together.
Do you know if such an app exists? I've got an audience at JHU to pitch it and would love your feedback if you'd be so inclined.
Thanks much!

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