The Future of Ebook Annotations Is Near & the Possibilities Are Endless
“The typical experience with digital books these days is pretty terrible,” said Dan Whaley, CEO of Hypothes.is, during the opening remarks of an IDPF DigiCon session on Wednesday. “We can read books on a Kindle, tablet, and online and that’s great, but our ability to collaborate with other people while doing that is essentially nonexistent.”
Ebook annotations would change that, said Whaley during a discussion titled, “Annotating All Books: How Web Annotations Will Transform Reading.” Ebook annotations add a layer of conversation on top of book content, allowing readers to discuss that book with other readers in real-time. And annotations are very close to becoming a permanent part of both the EPUB standard and the open web publishing standard, thanks to a partnership between Hypothes.is, EPUB.js, and the World Wide Web Consortium (W3C).
Annotations span a number of use cases, said Whaley, including copy-editing, collaborative research, pre-publication peer review, use in book clubs, citation, and more. There are applications for every facet of book publishing, said Whaley, from trade to scholarly segments. The goal is to create a way for readers to discuss a book digitally, in real-time, and on any platform or device.
Hypothes.is has partnered with the developers of EPUB.js, an open standard for publishing books online, and the W3C to make annotation a permanent feature of EPUB and the open web. Fred Chasen, lead developer of EPUB.js, says that ebooks are especially ripe for annotation because unlike websites, they have multiple identifiers, like the ISBN, book title, author, publish date, and language. “All of this information allows us to anchor annotations to certain instances of the book,” explained Chasen. “It gives us something more than a single URL when we’re trying to anchor annotations, which is great.”
Hypothes.is has also developed a feature called a “fuzzy annotation” which can more loosely approximate where an annotation should be anchored within a piece of content. This allow annotations to stay anchored to a text even after it’s been changed or updated.
In practice, ebook annotations would work like this: Publishers or readers would be able to create a group that shares what Chasen and Whaley call a “book layer.” A book layer only contains the annotations of the associated group so that a user is not overwhelmed by all of an ebook’s annotations at once. The user can pick which book layer he wants to view and add his annotations to. Some book layers could be open to the public to view and annotate, while others may be private and only accessible to group members.
“Imagine if you could tune in to the thoughts of a book club that you participate in or see line by line reviews of a book or article,” said Whaley. “Or imagine over the Bible you could see which passages were referenced by rappers in their lyrics, or tune into the scholarly layer of a comparative literature class contrasting the Old and New Testament.”
The possibilities for annotation and discussion are limitless. “The future we’re imagining is where the book itself becomes the launch pad for discovery and discussion,” said Whaley.
Some in attendance voiced concerns about moderating annotations and limiting the “trolling” of authors. Whaley noted that this is an important point, and one that the W3C Web Annotation Working Group is discussing now. They are weighing how much power to give to creators of a piece of content versus the annotators. Whaley said publishers will have the power to police the layers that they create over an ebook, but there may need to be another policing power created to moderate user-created annotation groups.
Whaley and Chasen expect online ebook annotations to become a reality in the next few years and a lasting feature of how we experience digital content.