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New Annotation Studio tools translate an ancient literary practice into the digital age

Detail, Annotation Studio program
Detail, Annotation Studio program
image courtesy of shass
Wyn Kelley, senior lecturer, MIT Literature
Wyn Kelley, senior lecturer, MIT Literature
photo: Richard Howard/MIT SHASS Communications
James Paradis, the Robert M. Metcalfe Professor of Writing
James Paradis, the Robert M. Metcalfe Professor of Writing
Photo: Jon Sachs/MIT SHASS Communications
Kurt Fendt, executive director, HyperStudio
Kurt Fendt, executive director, HyperStudio

Among the humanities initiatives at MIT are numerous projects in the digital humanities — a field of research, teaching, and creation that couples the disciplines of the humanities with computational approaches. Digital humanities projects often use such methodologies and techniques as web-based media, digital archiving, data mining, geo-spatial analysis, crowdsourcing, data visualization, and simulation.
 At MIT, digital humanities practioners use digital tools and big data to investigate research questions, while also presenting scholarship through, and within, new media forms. We recently talked with the creators of Annotation Studio, an innovative School of Humanities, Arts, and Social Sciences (SHASS) program that is empowering readers and writers — both in and beyond the classroom.

Time was, avid readers wrote notes in the margins of much-thumbed books, adding their own thoughts to the author’s and enriching the volume for future generations. John Adams, for example, is so well known for the witty repartee he exchanged with his own library that whole essays have been written about his annotations and comments. 

The popularity of e-books could sound the death knell of such illuminating marginalia, but the Annotation Studio, a suite of easy-to-use digital tools developed by HyperStudio (the MIT SHASS lab for digital humanities), promises to improve upon traditional techniques for entering marginalia and side notes in books — enabling readers not only to annotate texts across media, but also to share comments with others and to enhance them with links, images, video, and audio.

Drawing on HyperStudio’s educational design expertise, Annotation Studio integrates a powerful set of textual interpretation tools behind an interface that makes using the tools intuitive for both students and their teachers.

The power of annotation

Recently, HyperStudio (a research program of Comparative Media Studies/Writing) received a Digital Humanities Grant from the National Endowment for the Humanities (NEH) to continue developing and implementing Annotation Studio.

“Annotation is a very ancient practice; it’s probably been around as long as reading,” says James Paradis, the Robert M. Metcalfe Professor of Writing and one of the two project directors. “As text becomes digitized, it becomes more difficult to write comments. We think there’s value to letting people annotate in the same space.”

Annotation Studio grew out of an earlier program called Miximize, which was developed at MIT between 2010 and 2011, in close collaboration with Wyn Kelley, a senior lecturer in literature. Kelley had her class use Miximize to insert notes, definitions, and references into a digital version of Mary Shelley’s Frankenstein.

Annotating works digitally has many advantages over old-fashioned note-taking, Kelley says. “It gives students so much more control over their work and so much more connection to the text. And, it relieves them of their inhibitions about writing. I see much better writing when our students use digital annotation.”

Of the new annotation tool, one of Kelley's students said, "I am actually writing down ideas while reading, and by writing them down I’m looking deeper into the text — not like when I just read the book and said, 'Oh, it may mean this.' Now it's more, 'Oh what does this mean?’ Then I keep asking questions, because I am annotating. I am thinking about the text more."

Using an open software system

Recognizing the potential of this digital humanities project, researchers in HyperStudio decided to expand the program’s capabilities, and Annotation Studio was born.

“Every commercial textbook publisher is trying to create this, but they deliver proprietary stuff — not something you can adapt and change,” Paradis says. “We use open software.”

To date, Annotation Studio has been used in writing, foreign languages, and literature classes at MIT. The feedback from students has been positive, according to Kurt Fendt, executive director of HyperStudio and project director. “Students want to use annotation not only for class work, but also for their own writing,” he says. Faculty using Annotation Studio in the classroom, such as Kelley, have been a central part of the development team, providing feedback and suggestions to improve the tool.

A white paper on the project describes the Annotation Studio team as "a combination of classroom instructors, designers, and software developers who meet throughout the academic terms, often with student users, to engage in a collaborative design process focused on end users from the start. Feedback from students and faculty using the prototype has continuously informed software development."

Engaging in the digital age

With the help of the NEH grant, Fendt, Kelley, Paradis and colleagues now aim to further develop the capabilities of Annotation Studio and to make the program broadly available. “We’re sharing everything,” Fendt says.

Other universities worldwide have already begun using Annotation Studio in their own courses, or have taken the code as the basis for their own projects — an indication that digital annotation fills a clear need. “Ten years ago, people struggled to read digitally, now some prefer it,” Paradis says. “We want to return to people the capability of engaging with text — in a digital age.”

Story prepared by MIT SHASS Communications
Editorial and Design Director: Emily Hiestand
Senior Writer: Kathryn O'Neill
Communications Assistant: Kierstin Wesolowski

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