Annotating EBooks—And Collecting Data

My first thought was that I would like to collect readers’ annotations on books in the future, but knowing nothing about ebooks I figured there was a chance this had already been done. And of course, it had. And so in this post, I’d like to review briefly where the technology is at currently, and where it could go in the future.

It turns out the Hypothesis program had the same idea to annotate books, and just a few months ago in September as we were starting school they announced “the world’s first open-source, standards-based annotation capability in an EPUB viewer.” The annotation program, similar to the program available for Internet users to install and use to annotate web pages, is available on the “two most popular open-source frameworks, Readium and EPUB.js.” People are able to annotate within closed groups or publically just like on the web browser version.

However, the focus is on how to improve this experience for the annotators and not on how publishers can capitalize on the results of this program (understandably, as Hypothesis’ mission is to create “open source software, [push] for standards, and [fosters] community.”

If the engagement data was collated into a report that was shared with publishers on a monthly or weekly basis so that publishers could see numbers of comments, what pages were bookmarked, what people were commenting on, or even the comments themselves if they were made public, this would be an amazing way to track readers’ impressions. But as far as I can tell if publishers want to see what annotations have been made they have to go to that specific page or book in order to see engagement. Publishers have hundreds or thousands of books—with many hundreds or thousands of pages. It is highly unlikely that they will be able to use this software in a way that would be meaningful to them from a data collection perspective. In addition, the software would need to be accessible on all devices that feature all types of ebooks in order to create a well-rounded picture; and the reports generated would need to also be able to pull data from individual devices’ built-in annotation capabilities.

So if the one hurdle in capitalizing on annotation software is to have it produce reports, the another hurdle is to get readers actually using the software. People still need to create an account, install the software on their device, and then open it to highlight sections and type notes. None of these are complicated steps, but they all require actions that we have to inform people of and convince them to take.

While I’m dreaming, I’d like to look for other ways to reduce friction and make annotations just as simple as picking up a pen and scribbling in the margins of a book. For example: the software could come already installed on EPUB readers, the readers’ accounts could simultaneously log them on to Hypothesis and the account associated with their device so they wouldn’t require yet another account, or the program itself could allow readers to highlight passages with a swipe of their finger.

The possibilities are endless—and so are the challenges!

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