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Annotating for better reading, thinking, and research

One of the primary ways in which we as print readers within the Western tradition interact with texts is through annotation (including underlining, highlighting, textual notes, bookmarking, or other markings). Yet today we often assume annotation needs to be a primarily personal and solitary practice. After formal annotation practices declined from after the Middle Ages with the advent of print media, annotation as a collective hermeneutic practice has in fact begun a return in the last decades with the possibilities opened up by new digital technologies. Considerable research has studied users’ annotations as static, finished units of textual production, but we entirely lack an account of annotations’ dynamic aspects: the reader in the moment of annotating; the other reader in the moment of encountering another’s annotation.


Reading is a process of interacting with a text, and annotation provides markers of that process. Moreover, an annotation system with the cross-linking affordances described here should theoretically support deeper learning as it makes the negotiation and synthesis process visible. These claims point to two primary, though interrelated, directions for research – modeling learning from reading and comparing systems with different affordances for cross-linking.

Under the primary direction of Emily Schneider, our director of research, we are studying how Lacuna Stories creates an online learning system through integrated notetaking tools that support knowledge construction by providing scaffolded options for interacting with written texts. Learners are able to annotate and organize multiple texts and media, creating visible traces of the networks of associations between concepts and annotations as they read.

We aim to bridge the gaps in our knowledge of annotation as a hermeneutic tool centered in four key areas, that of:

  • Annotation as a real-time interpretive action for an individual
  • The potential for digital annotation as a real-time interpretive action involving the mediation of other readers’ annotations
  • Annotation as a process of network creation through the references to other potentially relevant texts presented in a transmediated environment, and
  • Annotation as a socially situated practice contingent on readers’ environments