How Humanists Read and Why We Need a Better (Electronic) Reading Ecosystem

October 10, 2012 § 4 Comments

I just completed an interesting and brief survey on humanities reading practices from Aditi Muralidharan. If you complete the survey, you can see the aggregate survey results. The survey asks questions about whether you copy out snippets of text that you are reading. I found that my reading practices seem similar to many other humanists in the fact that I do copy out snippets, how long they are, and how I use them.  Behind this survey, I hope I’m seeing the promise of improved tools to suport humanities research practices.

Reading and Annotating on My iPad with iAnnotate PDF

I regularly read in digital formats–online, on my computer, on my iPad, or on my iPhone.  Depending on the source, format, and purpose I find myself using different tools.  For webpages, I’m bookmarking, highlighting, annotating, and tagging using diigo.  Highlighting in diigo produces a snippet in my diigo library. For pdfs it’s iAnnotate PDF on my iPad.  If this reading is part of more serious research then it gets added to my zotero library, where I may or may not add notes but will definitely add tags and add it to relevant collections.  To complicate things, I also research via email conversations or live interviews, which get saved into Evernote (well more often for the oral interviews, less often for email, which I usually end up accessing via search or labels, since we use google apps).  I would love a way to link all of these formats and sources, to be able to tag items and easily search them.

As the listing of my own reading practices demonstrates, reading is an active process that also includes highlighting, annotating, note-taking, classifying, and writing.  Since these are all core humanities practices (compare John Unsworth’s list–discovering, annotating, comparing, referring, sampling, illustrating, representing– from a May 2000 Symposium at King’s College), the use of digital technologies—like e-readers and e-books—seems like a natural avenue for integrating technology into humanities teaching and research.  To that end, several institutions within the NITLE network have explored the use of these tools but come up against a barrier. As Trina Marmarelli from Reed College explained in the 2012 NITLE Symposium, although they are interested in “mechanisms for sharing notes and observations. The absence of universally accepted standards for these features (and for e-texts in general) is a significant obstacle” (“Electronic Texts and Learning: Findings from Two Pilot Studies.” 17 April 2012. http://symposium.nitle.org/concurrent-sessions-tuesday-april-17-2012/session-1a-teaching-with-tablets-and-e-book-readers-papers/electronic-texts-and-learning-findings-from-two-pilot-studies-marmarelli/). Beyond e-readers, we need standards, interoperability, and links between e-readers, computers, webpages, etc.  I want a linked reading ecosystem.  Until this challenge is solved, e-readers and other electronic forms of reading hinder productive, collaborative humanities research and teaching.

So, while I’m not sure what project prompted the survey I mentioned in the beginning of this post, I really hope it’s one that will make my electronic reading practices easier.

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§ 4 Responses to How Humanists Read and Why We Need a Better (Electronic) Reading Ecosystem

  • silverasm says:

    Rebecca, I hope so too. This is all in service of my text analysis system, WordSeer.

    What I was trying to get at with this survey is how to make the evidence-finding, interesting-passage-exploring process as seamless as possible for humanists who are reading electronic primary texts within the system. (I know electronic primary sources are pretty uncommon right now, but they’re only getting more common, so the sooner this is figured out, the better).

    So, at a high level, when they’re reading, how do they read? What kinds of annotations (underlines? marks? squiggles? notes?) do they want to make? For what purpose do they annotate text? What do they want to do with the annotations they make? How do they want to organize them? When do they refer to them? And how can information retrieval help them find useful or interesting information based on what they’ve marked?

    Not all those questions were in my survey, because I was interested in copied-out snippets of text. But these are the questions I’m thinking about right now.

  • I think you capture the real need with “as seamless as possible”. So, will it be possible to have WordSeer integrate with or at least export to other tools we are using?

    I look forward to seeing your results!

    • silverasm says:

      Yes exactly! Exportability is key. At minimum, export to some .txt or .rtf files that you can copy-paste into a Word document or Scrivener. Where each quote comes exported with all the relevant citation information, cross-references, and any extra handwritten notes you might have made.

      Same with electronic underlines or highlights or marginalia.

      That’s definitely the minimum requirement I’m seeing from the survey and interviews, for any really useful text analysis tool based on close reading.

  • I am working on an e-textbook project right now, so this is timely. I concur on the lack of standardization and literature does speak to that, as well as the the need for better interface design and features. That said, it is possible to create a fairly seamless active reading ecosystem with the plethora of technological devices and applications available to us.
    My own workflow is similar to Rebecca’s, with some additional components: I use Dropbox to store all my PDFs, Bookends for bibliographic management, and Scrivener for writing. All three speak to each other and can be used collaboratively as well. Worst case scenario, Google Drive will all you to do much of what you describe above and in a collaborative environment. And I am looking forward to using a stylus with iAnnotate on my iPad ;).

    But these are merely the tools that facilitate the process. The real issue, in my mind, is the active reading process itself. I am curious as to whether this behavior is unique to humanists, and how it compares to readers from other disciplines such as social scientists for instance. Also, just how do you define a humanist in this particular context?

    And now I’m thinking of at least two other studies that can come from this connected to my project. Thank you for the inspiration and the conversation ladies!

    P.S. Totally unrelated, but why is it so much easier to comment elsewhere than write on one’s own blog? Mine is languishing! 😉

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