vol. 26 no. 2, June, 2021

Book Reviews

Kalir, Remi and Garcia, Antero. Annotation. Cambridge, MA: MIT Press, 2021. (The MIT Press Essential Knowledge Series). xvii, 212 p. ISBN. 978-0-262-53992-0. $11.53.

I imagine that, for librarians of a certain age, the notion of annotation is closely associated with the card catalogue. Once upon a time budding librarians in the UK would be instructed to read W.C. Berwick Sayer's little pamphlet First steps in annotation in catalogues, which was first published in 1918, revised in 1932, and again in 1948 and 1955. Clearly, it was found useful. Even then, the function of annotation in catalogues was a matter for debate. Sayers notes that the American view of annotation was of appraisal, whereas the British view was that it should elucidate, commenting that, When carefully compiled the note gives the enquirer practically all the information he needs to determine whether the book is suitable for him or not.

This little book from MIT Press, in its very aptly named Essential Knowledge Series, takes, as we might expect a much wider view of the nature of annotation. Indeed, the authors may never have experienced a card catalogue with annotations! For the authors, Annotation, as we define and discuss, is the addition of a note to a text. (p. xii). This includes notes added to a text by a reader, map labels, reviews written by travellers about their Airbnb lodging, or by readers about books bought from Amazon, or the marks made by teachers on the essays submitted by their students, and many more. Perhaps not surprisingly, Sayers also identified other forms of annotation, noting, for example, that the publisher's blurb on a book jacket was a form of annotation, designed to persuade the reader to buy the book.

Following the introduction, five chapters deal with the purposes of annotation: providing information, sharing commentary, sparking conversation, expressing power, and aiding learning. In the Introduction the authors treat the redaction of a text by obliterating the words as a form of annotation: this seems rather perverse, since it can hardly be called the addition of a note to a text. In the example given, different colours were used to indicate the reason for masking the text, but, in general, that is not done, and the greater volume of redaction leaves the reader completely unaware of any reason for hiding the text. The true annotations, in the authors' terms, was performed by the newspapers and magazines that commented on the report, for example, that of the Washington Post (The Mueller report..., 2019)

Chapter 2, Annotation provides information, deals with a variety of annotation types, from interpretative inserts to medieval manuscripts, through the marginal comments made by previous readers of a book, to the formal footnotes to the scholarly edition of a literary text. Labels are another form of informative annotation: for example, in the template for this html text I can insert a label, such as, <!--Enter appropriate data in the metadata fields--> as a reminder that this has to be done for anyone using the template. The authors note that metadata may be a form of annotation: for example, this extract from the html code for a paper in the journal is clearly informative: <meta name="keywords" content="business analytics; knowledge structure; text mining; co-word analysis; topic modelling" />.

In this category, one of the most extensive examples of annotation I have come across is the L-Space Web, devoted to the work of the author Terry Pratchett. This includes The annotated Pratchett File, v9.0, which has thousands of words of annotation on the Discworld series, including, for example, this on the Colour of magic page:

- [p. 18] The inn called 'The Broken Drum' is burned down in this book. The later Discworld novels all feature an inn called 'The Mended Drum'. The novel Strata contains (on p. 35) an explanation of why you would call a pub 'The Broken Drum' in the first place: "You can't beat it".

This novel, alone, has almost 5,000 words of annotations of this kind, contributed by thousands of Pratchett fans.

In Annotation shares commentary (Chapter 3), we come to what are now widely accepted phenomena, which we think of perhaps, simply as communication, rather than annotation. Here, posts to Twitter are defined as annotations, with the whole of Twitter being defined as a text. Perhaps the comments on Facebook might be more readily defined as annotations, but it is also clear that if we click on a 'like' button, we are also commenting. The authors make the important point that a comment may not be textual: for example, I use a photoblog service called Shutterchance, where people comment on the images presented. However, sometimes members will provide a 'comment' on their own images in the form of a video, often a music video, that has some relationship to the subject or title of the image. For example.

This chapter also includes an extensive account of the structure of the Jewish Talmud, in which commentary plays a major role in the interpretation of the original text.

In Chapter 4, Annotation sparks conversation, the Website Frankenbook is chosen to illustration how annotation can provoke conversation. Frankenbook, to quote the site:

is a collective reading and collaborative annotation experience of the original 1818 text of Frankenstein; or, The Modern Prometheus, by Mary Wollstonecraft Shelley. The project launched in January 2018, as part of Arizona State University’s celebration of the novel’s 200th anniversary.

Of course, the use of annotation to spark conversation is not an invention of the digital era. In former times, for example, in the 18th century and earlier, it was not uncommon for scholars to copy letters they received on scientific topics, annotate them and send them on to other scholars, who might well reply in a similar fashion. (See, for example, Hatch, 1998).

Chapter 5 deals with the ability of annotation to express power, taking as a first example the work of Alexandra Bell, who creates large posters presenting revised pages from the New York Times, to illustrate racial stereotyping. The authors then go on to discuss the etymology of annotation, noting that,

An annotatio was a specific means of exercising imperial law in post-Augustan Rome throughout the fourth and fifth centuries. Annotation was a genuine mark of power.

Today's manifestations of power, according to the authors, are rather less formal and legalistic; for example, the marks made by a teacher on a student's essays, may be viewed as an expression of the power of one over the other, but is that the case if the intention is to help the students, rather than to criticise from a great height? However, the authors appear to accept Foucault's conception of power as a disembodied force, which is not an uncontested view.

No one, I think, would argue against the central proposition of Chapter 6 that, Annotation aids learning. There must be very few university library books that have not been annotated and one time or another by the generations of students who have passed through. The authors note that annotation does not necessarily improve learning and cite research that found no relation between success in science quizzes and annotation of the related text. Other work on, for example, social annotation (i.e., shared annotations among a student peer group) can be beneficial, presumably because such annotation is serving the further affordance of annotation of sparking conversation.

The final chapter looks to An annotated future in which shared annotations, linking documents of all kinds, provide the information infrastructure, 'a hybrid synthesis of computing tools and cultural norms'. Quite how this might be achieved is not spelled out in detail and I remain unconvinced: there have been many attempts to produce collaborative working tools, Microsoft's Sharepoint is probably the best known of these, and it is possible to work collaboratively on a document, say a project report, or a scientific paper. However, the tools provided are not always user-friendly and sometimes the developer's ability to create different kinds of tools exceeds the user's need for them.

Even though card catalogues have long since disappeared from libraries, and even though annotation began to disappear from such catalogues earlier, I am still a little surprised that the authors make no mention whatsoever of this manifestation of annotation. Its loss is to be regretted since, as Sayers noted, titles frequently fail to convey the nature of the subject matter of a book. I once found a book entitled The mirror in the roadway, classified as fiction, but when I picked it off the shelf I discovered that it was a work of literary criticism, and that the title is a quotation from Stendahl. If the cataloguer had been required to write an annotation for the book, it could not possibly have been mis-classified. Today, computer catalogue entries occasionally carry annotations, and sometimes present the contents list of a book. However, the idea that a catalogue entry should include information on the coverage of the text and the level of prior understanding needed to read it, appears to have disappeared completely from library practice.

As you may now gather, this is a very interesting little addition to the MIT series, making one think and stimulating ideas. Anyone interested in communication could read it with profit.

By now, the reader will have understood that this review is an annotation of the original Annotation, and that the citations and other links are annotations of this annotation. Further annotations to Annotation can be found at the PubPub open review site.


Hatch, R.A. (1998). Correspondence networks. https://bit.ly/2T4dbFe Internet Archive

The Mueller report, annotated. (2019, December 2). The Washington Post. https://www.washingtonpost.com/graphics/2019/politics/read-the-mueller-report/ Internet Archive

Sayers, W.C.B. (1948). First steps in annotation in catalogues. Association of Assistant Librarians. [The first part of this text is available at http://jot101.com/2014/06/berwick-sayers-on-annotation-i/ Internet Archive] and the second at http://jot101.com/2014/06/berwick-sayers-on-annotation-2/ Internet Archive.

Professor T.D. Wilson
June 2021

How to cite this review

Wilson, T.D. (2021). Review of: Kalir, Remi & Garcia, Antero. Annotation. Cambridge, MA: MIT Press, 2021. Information Research, 25(3), review no. R715. http://www.informationr.net/ir/reviews/revs715.html

Information Research is published four times a year by the University of Borås, Allégatan 1, 501 90 Borås, Sweden.