Digital Reading Practices

On February 2, 2016 by Bay ByrneSim

Unlike some of the other team members, Remix the Manuscript is my first foray into the digital humanities. I use computers like typewriters with the internet, i.e., for word processing and research. In my current job, as the Edward C. Lathem ’51 Fellow at Rauner Special Collections Library, I use the computer to find physical objects — usually old ones. But my new involvement with Remix meant that I had to do some more research about what this whole “digital humanities” thing meant.

I started with the links and PDFs in our “Readings” folder on our Zotero group. Because this was a digital project, I decided to go digital and not print these articles. But I am an annotator, much like the previous annotators of the Brut. So I began to experiment with the annotation capabilities of two basic PDF readers: Preview and Adobe Acrobat Reader DC, while reading Grayson Cooke and Amanda Reichelt-Brushett’s article “Archival Memory and Dissolution” in Convergence

Adobe Acrobat Reader DC frustrated me in about five minutes. The “Edit PDF” option took me to a page that kept saying “Learn more” which led me to a webpage where I could buy the “Pro” option. However, I finally realized that “Comment” held the key. From this  you can draw red lines and shapes, cross things out in blue, highlight in a fierce yellow, and annotate in Helvetica 12. It is all aesthetically unappealing. But I have a practical objection to Adobe’s commenting feature. When you add a comment, it vanishes into a little yellow thought bubble unless you hover over the object (highlight, line, carat). I annotate to mark topic changes — much like the annotations in the Brut that denote new subjects. Having my text vanish into a comment bubble defeats the point. Perhaps I could use the Text annotation? It refuses to stick to the left margin, writing my comments over the text itself.

Adobe annotations on article abstract

Adobe annotations on article abstract — note the wavy line quality of the red line drawn with my mouse, but the perfect spacing between the highlighted lines.

Preview is less horrible, though the basic functions are the same. You can highlight (in five soft colors!), draw lines, type text, attach sticky notes — with the same annoying vanishing text as the comments in Adobe Reader. But the highlighting is fascinating. After selecting text, the highlighter marks become irregular, seemingly to mimic the uncertain and wavering human hand. The programmers devoted time to make this look like the analogue version of the action.

Annotation and highlights of Preview

Preview highlighting on article abstract — note the irregular quality of the highlighted lines.

But neither of these annotation systems allowed me to annotate with the swiftness and fluidity that I do in non-digital settings. So I’ll be heading back to paper and pen the next time I want to read a PDF.

So how does this relate to the Brut? I would love to see a digital annotation system that could:

  • translate/transcribe the medieval annotations written on the manuscript
  • allow users to make their own digital annotations on digital files

We can use the annotations in the manuscript to make historical arguments, as Ulrich has. But how are scholars in the digital age supposed to mark texts, pass them around, and gather many opinions, questions, and thoughts into one place? Several projects, including Dartmouth’s own DanteLab and Open Utopia on the Social Book, turn digital texts into online spaces for scholarly collaboration, allowing readers to annotate and generate content.

Part of my project for Remix will be researching different online publishing programs, and potentially, these programs’ annotation capabilities. Do they integrate annotations, or not? Publishing seems to be about the corpus of the text and delivering the content to the reader, while annotation is about the experience of the reader with (and within) the text. I’ll be teasing out these ideas over the next sixth months, and will be reporting back about today’s platforms for digital publishing and reading.

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