You likely read, and perhaps also write, annotation every day. Annotation influences how we interact with texts across everyday contexts. Annotation provides information, shares commentary, sparks conversation, expresses power, and aids learning. This is why annotation matters.
And if you have managed to graduate from college
without ever having written ‘Man vs. Nature’
in a margin, perhaps now
is the time to take one step forward.
—Billy Collins, Marginalia
On April 18, 2019, a redacted version of the Report On The Investigation Into Russian Interference In The 2016 Presidential Election, by Special Counsel Robert Mueller, was released to the public by the U.S. Department of Justice. Annotation shaped how the report was shared and interpreted.
Approximately a tenth of the entire report was redacted, or blacked out . Redaction is a type of annotation. To provide a rationale for extensive redaction, the Department of Justice also annotated each redaction according to one of four color-coded categories. According to an analysis by The New York Times, about 70 percent of the line-by-line redactions concerned ongoing investigations (white annotation), almost 20 percent related to grand jury material (red), and the remaining redactions concerned either classified information, such as investigative techniques (yellow), or personal privacy (green).
In addition to the report’s redaction-as-annotation and annotation-of-redactions, media reporting of the report’s conclusions about possible coordination (popularly referred to as “collusion”) and obstruction of justice did more than offer a summary of key findings. Journalists annotated the report to provide their readers with information, analysis, and commentary. The Washington Post published a page-by-page analysis titled “The Mueller report, annotated,” NPR offered “Highlights from the Mueller Report, Annotated,” and Politico reporters contributed “An annotated guide to the redacted Mueller report,” among other examples. Annotation across these publications varied in detail, scope, visual style, and interactive features.
Over the past few years, leading media organizations have embraced an annotated approach to journalism. Annotation by reporters frequently accompanies political speeches, debate and interview transcripts, the release of legal documents like the Mueller report, and analysis of news conferences. Why the trend? On the one hand, annotation is easy to feature because it’s similar to established journalism practices, like quoting experts, hyperlinking to supporting resources, and presenting media content. On the other hand, annotation goes a step further by illustrating both granular detail and germane context. Annotation allows journalists to comment more transparently, to more informally share behind-the-scenes or insider perspectives. Annotation is also proving to be an effective fact-checking strategy.1
Journalistic interest in annotation is not confined to politics. Following Ta-Nehisi Coates’ successful turn authoring Marvel’s Black Panther comic, The New York Times published “Captain America No. 1, by Ta-Nehisi Coates, Annotated.” This online article featured exclusive previews of the comic, insider commentary by Mr. Coates as head writer, and a few spoilers for good measure.2 In 2017, the Times also featured the author Margaret Atwood annotating key episodes and scenes from the TV adaption of her celebrated novel The Handmaid’s Tale. Yet in both form and function, how different is annotation in The New York Times Magazine’s “Talk” interviews, a featured introduced in 2019, from Listrius’ annotation of Erasmus’ Moriae encomium, “a standard appendage to the work” since the 1515 Basel edition?3
That which is fit to print - be it the news, or social commentary, or religious doctrine - has for centuries been fit for annotation, too. While it’s not newsworthy to observe that journalism is changing rapidly in our digital era, it is distinctive to note how annotation traditions and conventions are reinvigorating journalism as more connected, more interactive, and more relevant.
The ways in which, and the reasons why, journalists annotate represents but one small set of practices within the broader genre of annotation. Marginalia thrived in England during the sixteenth century, as studies of book culture during the rule of Elizabeth I and James I demonstrate.4 Annotated books were routinely exchanged among scholars and friends as “social activity” throughout the Victorian era.5 Some of the most significant commentary about the Talmud, first written in the eleventh century, has been featured prominently as annotation in print editions since the early 1500s. Today, scientists’ annotation of the human genome and proteome for large-scale biomedical research relies upon techniques that are both similar to and also very different from linguists and historians who have translated, annotated, and digitally archived Babylonian and Assyrian clay tablets.6 From the annotatio of Roman imperial law to the medieval gloss, annotation nowadays helps people to write computer code, evaluate chess games, and interpret rap lyrics.
Perhaps annotation has already appeared in this book, too. Annotation is a form of self-expression, a way to document and curate new knowledge, and is a powerful means of civic engagement and political agency.
Annotation provides information, making knowledge more accessible. Annotation shares commentary, making both expert opinion and everyday perspective more transparent. Annotation sparks conversation, making our dialogue - about art, religion, culture, politics, and research - more interactive. Annotation expresses power, making civic life more robust and participatory. And annotation aids learning, augmenting our intellect, cognition, and collaboration. This is why annotation matters.
You likely read, and perhaps also write, annotation every day. Whether handwritten or digital, this book will help you to define, identify, and author annotation. More importantly, this book will discuss five essential purposes of annotation that contribute to cultural, professional, civic, and educational activities. Annotation is written within the warp and weft of our texts, patterning the fabric of daily life. This book will help you to understand how that happens and why that matters. We’ll start by introducing a key idea that appears throughout this book - annotation is an everyday activity.
The Scottish author Kenneth Grahame, best known for his novel The Wind in the Willows, observed in an 1892 essay, “The child’s scribbling on the margin of his school-books is really worth more to him than all he gets out of them.”7 Imagine your high school literature course. Or picture those classic scenes from Dead Poets Society. Maybe your English teacher assigned Toni Morrison’s Beloved. While reading, perhaps you highlighted key passages, noted plot devices, and commented on structure and dialogue. How else to comprehend two chapters, back-to-back, famous and famously unconventional, both of which begin “I am Beloved and she is mine.”? You might have shown these annotations to your teacher - “you see, I did the reading!” - or used them as references when writing a final paper. Or do you recall jotting down formulae for molecules and compounds in the margins of your chemistry textbook? Writing to students in 1940, the American philosopher and educator Mortimer Adler declared, “Marking up a book is not an act of mutilation but of love.”8
What is everyday about annotation in school? Annotation may have been an expected or required academic practice. You’ve likely annotated as a part of many different courses and inside many different texts. Maybe annotation in school helped you to develop an idiosyncratic notation system that you still use today. Or maybe you were taught a more formal convention. Annotation happens every day in school and is an everyday activity for students, for “at every stage, students working with books have used the tool of annotation.”9 And graduation from high school or college probably didn’t get you off the hook; as we’ll discuss, annotation is an everyday activity for many professionals, like journalists, programmers, scientists, and scholars.
But we’re not all scientists or scholars who annotate as a part of our job. Let’s bring this idea of everyday annotation a bit closer to home. Some of us may fondly recall measuring the height of a child against a doorframe, making a small pencil mark, and then writing down your child’s name and the date. Or maybe you were that child and this family ritual also helped you to practice writing your name while growing up. As you, or your child, aged, so too did these measurement marks travel upwards, edging ever closer to the upper frame. This, too, is an act of everyday annotation, stretched over time and etched with love. While this type of annotated measurement might not have happened every single day, it did record an aggregate of day-to-day changes. And the annotation - the marks, the names, the dates - served as a visual and daily reminder of growth added to the text and texture of life.
Annotation is an everyday activity whether it makes journalism more viable or schooling more valuable. Annotation is an everyday activity whether it contributes to scientific discovery or catalogues a child’s growth. Annotation is an everyday activity because different types of notes, whether political commentary or a child’s name, are added by many different types of people - journalists, programmers, parents and children - to a variety of texts, like transcripts, and code, and even a door jamb. In these cases, and in many others discussed throughout this book, it isn’t our prerogative to suggest which examples of everyday annotation are more or less remarkable (and yes, pun intended). Rather, it is our job to highlight how these various types of annotation share five common purposes - to provide information, to share commentary, to spark conversation, to express power, and to aid learning. Annotation makes knowledge more accessible, perspective more transparent, discourse more interactive, authority more contested and complex, and education more vibrant.
As print culture developed in Renaissance Europe and books become more widely available to a reading public, so, too, did “marginal material” flourish and serve various purposes. During the 1500s, annotation added details and examples to books, and provided references, corrected or objected to an author’s statement, emphasized importance, evaluated arguments, provided justification and translation, and even parodied the text, among other functions.10 It wasn’t until 1819 that Samuel Taylor Coleridge first used the term “marginalia,” from the Latin marginalis (or “in the margin”), when, as a literary critic, he wrote about another author’s work for Blackwood’s Magazine.11 Were you to ask more contemporary scholars about annotation, they might suggest annotation facilitates reading and later writing, the ability to “eavesdrop” on other readers, that annotation provides feedback and opportunities for collaboration, and “call[s] attention to topics and important passages.”12 And when Sam Anderson wrote his 2011 essay What I Really Want Is Someone Rolling Around in the Text, he recalled experiencing annotation as additive, useful, social, a means to collaborate with a text, and as “meta-conversation running in the margins.”13 Then again, a computer scientist will tell you that annotation means labeling data - images, text, or audio - for the purposes of identifying, categorizing, and training machine learning systems.
So how to define annotation? Merriam-Webster defines annotation as “a note added by way of comment or explanation.” And the Oxford English Dictionary echoes with: “A note by way of explanation or comment added to a text or diagram.” In this book, we’ll take an even simpler approach and define annotation as:
We’ve settled upon this definition because it gives us flexibility to explore the broad genre of annotation, both handwritten and digital, textual and visual, from different periods of time, and that serve different cultural and civic purposes. You might notice that unlike the standard-bearing dictionaries, our definition does not include the terms “comment” and “explanation,” denoting two annotation purposes. And that’s because, in our assessment, annotation serves five equally important, and sometimes overlapping purposes: Providing information, sharing commentary, expressing power, sparking conversation, and aiding learning. Our definition of annotation will allow us to explore wide-ranging issues of authorship, intent, and expression.
Most immediately, our definition of annotation requires us to ask - and answer - three questions. First, what is a note? Second, what does it mean to add? And third, what is a text?
Notes, according to literary scholar Andrew Piper, are “records of the quotidian.”14 In our earlier examples of everyday annotation, we featured various types of notes. A note can be a word, phrase, sentence, or even extended prose written in a textbook or cookbook. Some scholars have argued that signs and nonverbal codes are not notes, that notes must be discursive and responsive.15 However, to embrace the full repertoire of annotation we also suggest that a note can be a symbol, like a question mark, exclamation point, or an asterisk. Copyediting marks are notes, and so too tick or tally marks like those added to the Lee Resolution, or The Resolution for Independence, passed by the Second Continental Congress on July 2, 1776. The Lee Resolution features 12 marks tallying the “united colonies” that voted for American independence.
Notes help mediate the relationship between reading and writing. For Piper, notes are “silent embers,” indicating “where the often mind-numbing, repetitive mundaneness of our daily lives bump into the high-flying acrobatics of human intellect.”16 In 1947, a high-flying moth bumped into Harvard’s Mark II Aiken Relay Calculator, was removed by computer operator William Burke, and then taped to the computer log - popularizing the existing term “debugging.”
To discuss what counts as a note and how notes work, we need to introduce a new idea - multimodality.
With roots in rhetoric and semiotics, the concept of multimodality has long influenced how we understand and participate in acts of communication. A full theoretical review of multimodality is beyond the scope of this book. For our purposes, it will be sufficient to start by explaining how different forms of media are characterized by different types of modes. Earlier, we mentioned Toni Morrison’s Beloved. Beloved is a book, and books are a category of media. In the case of Beloved, this media artifact uses a textual mode of communication between Toni Morrison, the author, and you, the reader. Of course, media in the same category can feature different modes. Children’s picture books and your coffee table book featuring landscape photography exemplify a visual modality, whereas books written in braille demonstrate the importance of a tactile mode.
To further understand the relationship between media and mode, let’s briefly revisit two examples that we’ve already mentioned. Margaret Atwood’s novel The Handmaid’s Tale has been narrated by the actress Claire Danes to create an audiobook, another type of media, which allows for communication with listeners via an aural modality. Ta-Nehisi Coates, the lead writer of Black Panther, worked alongside a team of illustrators and colorists who, together, created a series of comic books (yet another type of media) that communicated with readers through both textual and visual modalities. Furthermore, both The Handmaid’s Tale and Black Panther demonstrate how a specific text can be adapted from one type of media to another; the former from a book into a television show, the latter from comic books into a feature film. And when that happened, the primary modality of both texts also changed to favor a visual mode.
Just like different types of media communicate through various modes, so, too, do notes communicate through multiple modes. As records of the quotidian, words, symbols, images, and even animated GIFs may all be notes that communicate through a textual mode, or a visual mode, or an aural model. When we discuss what counts as a note in this book, and when we describe how notes function in relation to a text, we do so with multimodality in mind. Annotating Beloved in literature class likely meant adding textual notes to a book that also communicated through a textual mode. Alternatively, adding textual notes to an image, or vice versa when adding a doodle or an image atop a text, suggests that the concept of multimodality - or what Piper describes as the “multidimensional” qualities of notes - will help us to examine notes and their relationship to annotation.
Consider all the various media you interact with every day - books, newspapers, magazines, and comics (including these texts’ digital versions), as well as movies, video games, podcasts, and social media. Your daily media diet likely features various modalities: Textual, for the media you read; visual, for media you watch; tactile, for media you touch, like touch screens at a restaurant or museum; and aural, for your favorite podcasts. Have you ever noticed annotation associated with this media? If so, what do these notes say and through what modalities do they speak? If, as Piper suggests, notes are “technologies of oversight,” then as multiple notes are added to a text over time, it’s likely that a group of notes will come to demonstrate the multimodality and multidimensionality of annotation. Importantly, notes are not only written; notes, in our view, may be more than words.
We now understand what notes are, how notes function, and that notes are multimodal. Let’s survey a few records of the quotidian in a variety of everyday scenarios. You’re reading a favorite book, jotting words and symbols in the margins; this is your “private exchange” with the author, a means of “talking back to” the text.17 An educator reads a student’s essay and returns it covered in red-inked copyediting marks, or does the same using a digital annotation application. You and a colleague use collaborative word processing software to write a report for colleagues in your organization, a version of augmented intellectual work anticipated by, among others, the inventor and Internet pioneer Douglas Engelbart in the early 1960s.18 In these instances, we recognize the importance of idiosyncratic meaning-making, how a student’s first draft is improved through expert feedback, and how a report is co-authored thanks to professional processes. The addition of notes while reading a book, revising a school assignment, or authoring a report communicates an important message: To add a note is to act with agency.
The word agency is traced back to the Latin verb agō meaning to act, to do, or to make. In our discussion of annotation we’re not referring to the type of organizational agency that makes stuff, like an advertising firm or a government bureaucracy. Rather, we’re interested in how an individual or a group acts and makes stuff, as when copy editing an essay or collaboratively writing research. And when doing so, it’s likely that people will annotate, that they will add some type of note to a text, that they will author a “responsive kind of writing permanently anchored to preexisting written words.”19 Our expansive view of annotation suggests notes are not only responsive writing (notes might be GIFs), and also that more than written words are annotated (buildings can be annotated, too). What really matters, in this discussion of agency, is the fact that when a note is added - when people exercise agency in different contexts, under a variety of circumstances, and for many purposes - an annotation is permanently anchored to a text.
What does it mean to add? Adding is to act with agency. When we discuss annotation in this book, agency means that someone has permanently anchored a note to a text.
This book you’re reading - whether printed on paper and bound together, or as a digital epub - is a text. We’ve mentioned a lot of texts so far: Beloved, The Handmaid’s Tale, Black Panther. We began our introduction by referencing multiple news articles written by journalists and published by media organizations; those articles are also texts. If you’ve made it this far into a book about annotation, then you’re likely familiar with a diversity of material and digital texts. In forthcoming chapters we’ll discuss medieval manuscripts, religious scripture, works of art, hashtags, computer code, legislation, and all manner of images - they’re all texts, too.
What makes something a text? First, a text has an author. Someone, or maybe a group of someones, authors a text by writing, composing, speaking, drawing, or through photography. Second, a text is defined by its content. A text conveys a “main message.” Some would say that texts have a “body,” and that texts are distinguished by a given style or subject. As we’ve discussed, texts are also defined by different forms of media; one text is a comic book, another a film. And texts communicate messages through different modes including, as with comic books, multiple modalities at the same time. While different types of annotation like marginalia, glosses, and rubrication have historically appeared as notes within books (as we’ll discuss in Chapter 2), the breadth of what we count as a text is a reminder that annotation may be permanently anchored to much more than books.
The features of a text should resonate as familiar given something you’ve likely authored today, if not quite recently - a text message. You’re the author of the text message. To author your text message, perhaps you wrote words, or used an emoji, or included a photograph or GIF. The content, or the body, of your text quite literally conveys a message: “Here’s the book I recommended,” or “Let’s go see a movie this weekend.” And depending upon whether you composed with words, or with emojis, or with images, your text message communicated through a textual mode, via a visual mode, or maybe with multiple modalities.
Why discuss the qualities of texts and this example of text messages? For two reasons. First, the defining features of a text - an author, message, structure, and style - are similar to the features of notes - which are quotidian, include both words and signs, and are multimodal. Both texts and notes can take the form of different media and communicate through different modalities. The second reason is this: the interplay of a note added to a text can best be understood by introducing the concept of intertextuality.
Intertextuality is essential to further articulating annotation as a note added to a text.
Simply put, intertextuality describes the relationship between texts. A relationship between two (or more) texts might be established for the purposes of comparison, or alliteration, or interpretation, or as a means of fact-checking or critique. In some cases, an intertextual relationship may be explicit. This book, so far, has referenced Beloved and Black Panther on multiple occasions to help illustrate key ideas. In doing so, we’ve begun building a series of intertextual dialogues among these texts. In other instances, an intertextual relationship may be implicit. For example, there is both implicit and interpretive intertextuality among James Joyce’s Ulysses and Homer’s Odyssey, as well as between the Odyssey and the Coen brothers’ film O Brother, Where Art Thou?
Of course, the idea of intertextuality is a bit more complex than just explicit or implicit references among texts. The Russian philosopher and literary theorist Mikhail Bakhtin, writing throughout the 1930s and 40s, suggested that the nature of language is dialogical. He argued that both written and spoken language is always in dialogue with other texts and authors. We agree with Bakhtin’s view. What you write and what you say is dialogical because it’s responsive to other people (like a teacher or colleague), other texts (like the Odyssey), as well as other ideas (as when, for example, you hold a sign or chant during a protest). And because we embrace the idea that written and spoken language is dialogical, we can now suggest that annotation - the addition and permanent anchoring of a note to a text - is dialogical, too.
Not only is annotation dialogical, we can also observe that all annotation is intertextual. And rather than take our word for it, let’s be expressly dialogical and put our book and ideas into dialogue with another text and set of ideas. Figure 4 includes a quote by the French philosopher Jacques Derrida. In addition to this quote, we’ve exercised our agency - to express our authorial power, to spark a response from you - by annotating Derrida.20 Here, in dialogue with one another, is what we have to say about intertextuality and annotation. And maybe you, too, have something to say.
So what does Derrida mean by annotation helping to prop up one discourse on another? Let’s revisit a few of the examples we’ve already discussed. When journalists annotated the Mueller report, annotation established an intertextual relationship between the report (as one “discourse”) and other discourses or dialogues, such as referenced evidence, an expert’s analysis, or established fact. When you annotated Beloved in a literature course, you created an intertextual relationship between Toni Morrison’s book (her discourse) and your own discourse comprised of reactions and wonderings. And your annotation of Beloved also added marks of evidence for when, subsequently, you were in dialogue with peers and your teacher. Just as annotation is multimodal, so too is it intertextual.
We’ve now established that annotation is an everyday activity. It’s likely that you read and write annotation regularly, perhaps on a daily basis. We’ve also introduced the ideas of multimodality, agency, and intertextuality, and suggested that the act of adding notes to a text is both multimodal and intertextual. As we close this introductory chapter, we’ll do so by sharing one more example of annotation in action. And rather than reference other texts or present hypothetical scenarios, we’ll turn our gaze inward and describe this very book.
Annotation was integral to how we wrote and received feedback about Annotation, how The MIT Press published the book, and how, perhaps, you’re reading and responding to the book right now.
The first full draft of our manuscript was shared publicly for the purposes of open peer review by The MIT Press using the online publication platform PubPub. Throughout the summer of 2019… [ADD SUMMARY OF OPEN PEER REVIEW PROCESS, INCLUDING TOTAL PARTICIPANTS AND ANNOTATION, EXAMPLES, ETC.].
This book, in its published form, also features various forms of annotation. The MIT Press has established a number of structural conventions that are consistent across all the books published as part of the Essential Knowledge series. As you may have already noticed, this book includes a Notes section just before the Bibliography (it starts on page XXX). This section of Notes is a collection of annotations. Organized by chapter, Notes presents to you, the reader, a total of 208 endnotes that we felt were important to add to the body of our text (even if, at times, it’s difficult flipping back to these endnotes rather than reading more proximal footnotes21). In addition to Notes, this book includes a Glossary of key terms (see page XXX). We’ll discuss the origin and purpose of glosses and glossaries next, in Chapter 2. All glossaries are a curated list of annotations, and that goes for the Glossary in this book, too. Finally, just before the Index, this book includes suggested Further Readings. As researchers of literacy and learning, we’ve read and written quite a bit about annotation. We’ve selected a list of readings that we hope you might put into further dialogue with our book as you continue to explore annotation. In appending these Further Readings to this book, we’ve added yet another note to this text. Together, the Glossary, Notes, and Further Readings provide three different types of annotation that are integral to this text, adding both structure and insight for you, our reader.
And speaking of our readers, what of your annotation? Have you underlined or circled a word or phrase? Have you written an interlinear annotation, such as a word or symbol between the lines of text? Or have you added marginalia, a responsive type of discourse? And have you cursed us out, or called us names, or disagreed vehemently with our ideas? If you’ve yet to do so, now might be the time! Maybe you’ve borrowed this book from a friend. Marking up this book makes your thinking visible, allowing your friend to someday see what you thought about annotation and how you responded to our ideas. Or maybe you’re reading this book for a class or as part of a research project. Annotating this introductory chapter about annotation may help you to experience multimodality, exercise agency, establish intertextual relationships, and expand dialogical language among other texts, people, and ideas.
We don’t believe a published book is meant to live as a pristine artifact unadulterated in perpetuity. As Mortimer Adler wrote 80 years ago, the marked up book is the “thought-through book,” for it is “a conversation between you and the author.” And we certainly haven’t written the final word about annotation. We’ve hopefully written some useful words about an important topic so as to start a dialogue. We welcome your words and annotation throughout, about, within, and atop this text, too.
Annotation is essential because we interact with a variety of texts everyday, texts that are both digital and material, and texts that communicate through various modalities and may also be multimodal. We interact with these texts dialogically by adding our own thoughts, questions, reactions, and reminders. Annotation is also important because our intertextual interactions with texts cross multiple contexts - the personal, the academic, the professional, and even the commercial and civic: “Printed marginalia, functioning at their most creative level, open doorways specifically, insistently for the purpose of crossing the text-context threshold.”22 Annotation follows us into, and then changes because of, the different ways in which we interact with texts across everyday contexts.
Annotation matters because it provides information; knowledge becomes more accessible because of annotation. Annotation matters because it shares commentary; perspectives become more transparent because of annotation. Annotation matters because it sparks conversation; dialogue becomes more interactive because of annotation. Annotation matters because it expresses power; authority becomes more contested and complex because of annotation. And annotation matters because it aids learning; education becomes more vibrant because of annotation. We’ll be discussing all of this, and more, as we explore how and why notes are added to texts.