What Are Annotations?


annotation, n.

1. The action of annotating or making notes.


3. a. concr. (usually pl.) A note added to anything written, by way of explanation or comment.

Oxford English Dictionary

The definition of the OED (see right) seems straightforward enough. Thus our project’s guidelines incorporate a similar, yet expanded definition in the very first paragraph: “Annotations are little notes that provide useful information to enhance the understanding of a text. There are different categories of annotations like vocabulary, historical context, etc. Depending on the text, some categories will be more important, some less, and some will not be used at all.” The conscious application of these categories just starts to describe our understanding of annotation and the (meta-)reflection on annotation in practice and theory.

It is part of the “Annotating Literature” project to develop the practice of commenting on a text. Annotations, as any kind of text, bring a set of questions concerning their usage which are useful to think about in this context. What kind of information is given? To whom it is given? And how can it be displayed to the greatest benefit? To exemplarily tackle these problems, we began by a “building” categories (the one referred to in the last paragraph) for different kinds of information and/or knowledge. The most basic kind of annotation is a simple dictionary check to help readers with English as a second language. But it also can include etymological information on, or the historic use of the annotated word , which is especially helpful with older texts. In addition to the basic vocabulary category, another fundamental kind of comment is the fact check. This “Factual” category encompasses crossreferencing data from history, geography, science etc. Comments on a text’s structure and style take note of e.g. the metre of a poem or the narratorial situation of a prose text. Adding to the text are the contextual categories which often connect the literary text with its times or maybe other texts (intertextual). In longer works it is useful to introduce an intratextual comment type that refers to the repeated use of motives or vocabulary within the same text. Higher level annotation might add a “theoretical” category that adds conceptual framework from philosphy or theology implied by the literary text or points to special ways to read the text from literary criticism. Each text might have a specific set of comment categories.

Which categories to display in a text also depends on the target audience. For a hobby reader, or a foreign language reader, the basic categories of vocabulary or facts might be enough. If the annotated edition is provided for the purpose of higher studies or academic use, the knowledge imparted has to be “deeper” contentwise. The different approaches possible have to be wholly reliable, and thus citable – a necessity in a text’s academic use.

How the results of a work are displayed also plays a crucial role in the development of what were traditional footnotes in books until the internet became a major medium. Modern electronic ways of packaging information, sorting it to generate a highly customized output, have the power to change the whole structure of annotation. A book in its “printedness” has to specify exactly what information it has to give at a certain material point on the paper, and once printed, the information is likely to become the fixed metatext of the literary work in this specific edition. Electronic publishing offers up tools to change this by its possiblities in linking informations in new ways or adding different kinds of information in that it can incorporate multiple media: graphic content, audio content, traditional writing or directly integrating other works via hyperlink. The idea of “annotation” therefore has changed: every kind of information can become part of an annotation. To develop a viewer, or a screen reader, that not only displays these amounts of information in a productive, orderly, easy-to-use fashion, but at the same time enables the recipient to exactly choose what content he’s interested in, is therefore one of the’s projects goals.