On Wednesday, I had the privilege of attending a NISO working meeting on creating a standard for Open Ebook Annotations. The meeting was held the day before the Books in Browsers conference, and was the third such working meeting, after meetings held in New York and Frankfurt. The purpose was to brainstorm around what the issues are, where work should begin, and what the scope of the standard should be. The meeting was largely attended by entrepreneurs working in the ebook realm, although there were no representatives from some of the biggest players in the current ebook marketplace, Amazon and Barnes & Noble (there was a brief appearance by someone who worked on the Adobe EPUB3 standard).
I attended partially as a representative of CDL, and partially as myself, a person who is interested in how standards are created and who believes very strongly that libraries need to be represented at these kinds of meetings. Unfortunately, there were very few librarians in attendance, but I think we did our best to raise issues that are crucial in our community.
Ebook annotations might not seem like a big issue for libraries, but I think it has the potential to be very important for us in the near future, especially for those of us working in academic libraries. NISO executive director Todd Carpenter opened the meeting with a brief talk about why ebook annotations are so important: reading is, and always has been, a social activity. It may not seem so on its surface. After all, most people read in solitude. But we love to discuss what we’re reading. We make recommendations, we make references to passages in books, we write reviews and give ratings. And in the world of digital reading, we have the opportunity to read socially on a greater scale. Many ebook readers offer the opportunity to make annotations, and to share and save them, but what isn’t always clear now is how to port your annotations, for example, from one system to another. This is related to a bigger problem with ebooks overall, which is how you move your digital books themselves from one system to another if you decide to make a switch, but we’ll save that one for another day.
The day-long discussion frequently raised more questions than answers, but they were all very good questions. I’ll be honest, in the second half of the day the conversation tended toward the very technical, and was often over my head. The room was filled with programmers who are grappling with some of these technical problems on a day-to-day basis. But I came away with a sense of what the key problems are, and some ideas for how these things are going to matter for libraries.
The biggest issue seems to be finding a technical way to locate a very specific place in a text. It sounds like most people working in this area are coming up with a hodge-podge of ways to do this, using several different techniques in concert. But ideally, there would be a standard way of doing this, so that annotations can be easily ported from one “copy” of a digital text to another. The problems around this arise when a digital text changes, or when you’re dealing with multiple editions of a single work, especially editions that might have some significant differences (just think about Bowdlerized versions of Shakespeare, or different translations of Anna Karenina). This is where the issue of identifiers comes up, and where I think the ideas underlying FRBR could come in handy.
Some of the other problems seem to be providing context for an annotation: If you simply quote a passage of text, copyright issues arise (you could potentially piece together an entire book by finding people commenting on every passage in it, but really? Really?). But providing only a technical identifier for a passage removes the annotation from its context, and anyone reading the notes outside of the book itself will have no idea what those notes are about.
For me, as a librarian, I kept wanting to get back to use cases. How are people annotating books, when do they want to share those annotations, and with whom? I’ll take two examples: First, that of a single reader who reads primarily recreationally, and second, a class of students reading an article as a group.
As a solitary reader, I’ll frequently want to highlight a passage and make a note because something strikes my interest, or I want to remember to look something up later, or I want to share a particularly prescient passage with a friend. I might want to make notes in a book and then share the entire book, with the notes, with someone else. I might want to share only a particular passage. The Kindle now allows me to make annotations in a library book, and then make them available to anyone else who checks out that book. I should be able to share my annotations from any ebook on any site: sometimes I might want to share a passage on Facebook, and sometimes I might want to share it on Goodreads, and sometimes I might want to share it on my blog. An open annotation standard should make that possible. It should also allow me to keep my annotations if I buy a book on my Kindle, and eventually want to transfer it to my Nook. It would be nice, too, if I could keep the annotations (with some contextual data), even if I no longer have access to the book. My annotations should be shareable with others, and shareable with myself (I like to think of this as sharing with my future self).
As a reader in a group of readers, like a classroom, it would be great if everyone’s annotations could be shared in a group system, like a learning management system. It would be even better if you could choose which of your annotations would be shared, and which kept private. The class annotations should be saved (along with contextual data, if not the entire book or article) as an archive with the other materials in the LMS. Private annotations could be saved in one’s private learning portfolio. This should be true whether the materials you’re reading are owned or borrowed from the library.
The other significant use case I can see for Open Annotations is perhaps the most significant, and the one most likely to be put into use quickly: The use for scholarly communication. I think an open annotation system could have a huge impact on the way that scholarly communication (in its big-picture shape) happens. If we could publish research openly, and provide an open annotation system for peer review, the big (expensive) journal publishing system might finally be able to be put to bed. There should be a way to validate commenters for the peer review system, and to work published in an open process is considered valid in the tenure system. In fact, the research process could be changed in wonderful ways if we provided systems that would allow researchers to comment on each others research and data, and share information and ideas. We might not even need the idea of “publishing” as we understand it now.
Most of the people at this meeting were thinking of commercial needs and applications, and that’s why I think it’s good to have librarians at the table, and other people who might have non-commercial needs and ideas. There are a lot of issues around this, and my notes, they are extensive (yes, even more extensive than this blog post). It’s a fairly new idea for me, but clearly not for a lot of other people. But I think as digital publishing grows, this issue is going to become more important for libraries, and library patrons, especially in academic libraries. It would be nice if we could get out in front of it now.
What other library-specific needs around ebook annotation do you see emerging? How do you think this might work for your library, and for your patrons? What would you want to see, as a reader?