Skip to main content
SearchLoginLogin or Signup


Published onJun 05, 2019

Around the time that we first started writing this book, in early 2019, the author and educator Clint Smith tweeted “I really enjoy buying used books because you get some small insight into how someone else experienced that book before you. Every highlighted sentence, underlined passage, circled word, & dogeared page is like being part of a book club with a stranger you’ll never meet.”

Reading Smith’s tweet, we’re reminded of another writer - Edgar Allan Poe - who penned an essay 175 years ago in which he recalled a rainy afternoon reading annotated books in his personal library. For Poe, “... the picturesqueness of the numerous pencil-scratches arrested my attention, their helter-skelter-iness of commentary amused me. I found myself at length, forming a wish that it had been some other hand than my own which had so bedevilled the books, and fancying that, in such case, I might have derived no inconsiderable pleasure from turning them over.”

Maybe you’ve purchased our book about annotation new or used. Maybe you’ve borrowed it from a library or a friend. Whether you’re holding a bound book and reading this as a printed text, or whether you’re holding a device and reading this as a digital text, it’s pretty likely that sooner or later you’ll either come across or author annotation. And when that happens, perhaps you’ll recall Smith and Poe’s commentary about the form, the social function, and the affective power of annotation. Join the book club. Read annotation. Derive some pleasure.

Annotation, as we’ll discuss throughout this book, is many things to many people, to many texts, and to many periods of time. And annotation is a way that we - both you, our reader, and the two of us (Remi and Antero, the authors) - can come together to share information and insight, to engage in dialogue, and to create new understanding and knowledge.

You probably read annotation everyday. You may also write, draw, or create annotation daily, too. Not so sure? Consider these examples.

Check out a book from the library, or purchase a used book, and gain access to the private thoughts and idiosyncratic symbols of previous readers. Surely this resonates with any student who has ever purchased a used textbook.

Turn on the television, watch the evening news broadcast, and read a crawling news ticker. How different is this form of annotation from translated dialogue in a foreign film?

Visit a museum, mall, or an unfamiliar city, and you might consult a publicly displayed floor plan or a map. To help you get from here to there, you rely upon labels (“You are here”), wayfaring symbols, named locations, and suggested routes.

Open your great aunt’s dessert cookbook and notice how a recipe for pineapple upside down cake has been doctored; the amount of certain ingredients is adjusted (“too sweet”), and there are comments about preparation and baking time written alongside decades-old smudges.

Following a weekend getaway, you and your spouse are overwhelmed by annotation requests - write a restaurant review on Yelp to inform other diners, write a review on AirBnB to point future travels toward an excellent host, and write a business review that will display as a geolocated search result on Google Maps.

Or maybe you annotate data because your day job is to train artificial intelligence systems.

Or maybe, as an educator, you teach students annotation strategies to improve their learning and, subsequently, you annotate their essays with all manner of copyediting marks.

Or maybe, like Smith and Poe and generations of readers stretching back into antiquity well before the advent of the printing press, your acts of reading are bound together with acts of writing: “When we read, we take, we transform, we do. This is what we call taking notes… they [notes] are translational at their core, like the ribosomes of human thought.”1

This book about annotation is an invitation to think through the many ways in which people add notes to texts for various personal and professional purposes. That’s what we’ll first discuss in Chapter 1 as we define annotation and discuss how ideas like multimodality and intertextuality help us to understand what it means to add a note to a text. We’ll also introduce five annotation purposes - providing information, sharing commentary, sparking conversation, expressing power, and aiding learning. And each of these core purposes will focus and subsequently structure the following five chapters of our book. We’ll conclude, in Chapter 7, by considering the questions, tensions, and opportunities that may come to define an annotated future.

You may have already noticed that we prefer the term annotation to annotations. Why? Because annotation is a genre. Just as there are various annotation purposes, so too are there many forms of annotation; after all, how familiar are you with medieval rubrication? There are many ways to do annotation, and the doing of annotation is intimately connected to culture and context. Accordingly, we approach annotation as a genre, as a synthesis of reading, thinking, writing, and communicating. We will, on a few occasions, discuss an annotation when describing a particular note. Similarly, the term annotations will only be used when referring to a select group of notes added to a specific text. And we’ll also discuss how people annotate, have annotated, or are annotating a text. For the most part, however, we’ll stick to annotation as we examine this genre of human literacy and activity.

Writing about annotation in Annotation would not have been possible without the support of many people to whom we are indebted for their encouragement, critical perspective, and invaluable feedback.

We would like to thank, first and foremost, the team at The MIT Press including Gita Manaktala for her editorial leadership, Catherine Ahearn for guiding our open peer review via PubPub, and Nhora Lucia Serrano for valuable assistance throughout the publication process.

Taylor Kendal:

I love this Poe/Smith ‘then and now’ opening.

Steel Wagstaff:

If you’re open to it, I’d prefer some kind of introductory note giving some context/attribution for Piper’s quotation. Could be as simple as ‘In the words of Andrew Piper …’ etc

Steel Wagstaff:

One of my favorite examples of this comes from the poet Lorine Niedecker. She made a homemade “cooking book” as a Christmas gift for her friend Maude Hartel in 1964 that can be viewed here: UWDC has also digitized her own personal cookbook, which has this handwritten recipe for ‘Cornmeal Mush’ with a note from her husband Al: “Try sometime an egg in it to hold it better together when frying”!

Taylor Kendal:

Annotation is like a perfect Niedecker ‘Cornmeal Mush’ ❤️

Benjamin Woodcock:

This clarification is great! I will have to incorporate it into my vocabulary as an educator.

Benjamin Woodcock:

Perhaps use the more open-ended term of “partner” to spouse.

Remi Kalir:

Thank you, Benjamin, we will revise accordingly.

Benjamin Woodcock:

Looking to challenge the use of “foreign” here as it implies a Western viewpoint and/or negative in nature adjective of the type of film it is.

Wikipedia is also beginning to address this in their entry about “World Cinema”

In my context as a high school teacher I’m beginning to see more and more educators use “world language” when describing languages that can be taken by secondary students, like Spanish, German, French, Chinese, etc. instead of foreign because many of their classmates or friends may speak the language and do not want to create a negative connotation to someone’s home language(s). This has led me to begin to think about the word “foreign” in multiple uses, too, hence this annotation.

William O'Byrne:

Thank you for this note. I definitely see the challenges as we privilege one language or dialect over others.

I’ve recently been thinking about the need to localize work…in addition to translation. Put simply, just because I translate a survey into Spanish or Chinese…doesn’t mean that it will have the same meaning, effect, or impact.

+ 1 more...
Nate Angell:

I wasn’t familiar at all until I looked it up and now that I see all that Latin, I’m led to pun that I’ve “crossed the Rubricon” (

Taylor Kendal:

Caesar’s infamous crossing of the rubri red Rubricon. I’m curious if there’s also a niche genre of punnotation. If not, there is now.

Nate Angell:

I love that I can read the word “derive” here two ways, both in the way I imagine the authors intended — as an invitation to take pleasure in annotation — and in a related sense taken from the French word “dérive” — as used by the Situationist Guy Debord as “an unplanned journey through a landscape” (