15.161 annotation

From: by way of Willard McCarty (willard@lists.village.Virginia.EDU)
Date: Sat Aug 04 2001 - 03:09:44 EDT

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                   Humanist Discussion Group, Vol. 15, No. 161.
           Centre for Computing in the Humanities, King's College London

             Date: Sat, 04 Aug 2001 08:00:47 +0100
             From: Willard McCarty <willard.mccarty@kcl.ac.uk>
             Subject: annotation

    Francois Lachance, in Humanist 15.158, becomes both serious and playful
    with my comments on use of the Palm hand-held machine for note-taking. He
    wonders first, if I read him correctly, what happens once the brevity
    imposed by pen-and-3x5card note-taking is no longer necessary. I have
    wondered about that too, as I have noticed myself transcribing the author's
    words on the Palm rather than summarising them as I once had to, especially
    the case when I am able to use the fold-out keyboard. A gain or a loss?
    I'd say a difference for sure, a new set of conditions to adapt to. The
    only reliable test I know in the short-term is the "don't-look-back" test,
    which in practice seems a difficult one for new gizmos to pass. (No, this
    has nothing to do with Lot's wife nor the Bobby Dylan song....) The
    electronic OED passed it effortlessly -- I have literally not opened the
    covers of my printed edition since the OED on CD came into my life, except
    for a brief and frustrating period when some bits of my computer weren't
    working. Experience suggests that the Palm will pass it too.

    Certainly going back to the book is the mark of a good book as well as of a
    careful scholar. During a session of note-taking one tends to "highlight"
    parts of a book relating to immediate interests, and under the
    circumstances in which I usually take notes, varying moods and states of
    attention can profoundly affect what I notice while doing it. So in my more
    serious bouts of note-taking, I either buy the book in question or
    photocopy the relevant bits so that going back is as easy as possible. I
    have tried scanning in these bits, so that I could paste the text into the
    annotation field of my bibliographic manager, but as you can imagine this
    really is impractical. When all the techie props are unavailable, I fall
    back on the note-taking method I was taught during my MA year, in a
    research methods course that is one of the few (post)-graduate courses I
    can actually remember the contents of. I think this fact of memory says
    something about (post)-graduate training, but that's another topic.

    Although I have great respect for handwritten notes, letters &c., I do find
    the transcribing of them from the travelling 3x5 slips to be highly
    problematic and frustrating. Often I am simply unable to understand the
    necessarily very brief note and/or why I took it -- brevity not allowing
    for enough explanatory gloss. Very closed behind is the frustration of
    trying to find the noted text on the page when the note shares no obvious
    words with it. The liberty to transcribe a bit means that a few ipsissima
    verba can be put down to aid the finding. Then, too, bouncy vehicles mess
    up handwriting; the Palm mechanism filters out most unwanted jiggs and
    joggs. The difficulty of transcribing into the computer in fact means that
    it usually doesn't happen, so my notes remain scattered, easily lost, very
    difficult to search etc. Slips also tend to fall out of the book, ending up
    on the floor of the tube train or wherever, and only sometimes do kind
    people notice and point to them.

    It is salutory when thinking about note-taking techniques, especially so
    the more obsessive one gets, to remember Eric Auerbach in Istanbul during
    the war, without any of his books. It can indeed be very liberating not to
    be compelled to furnish references, simply to say what one thinks and
    perhaps even knows. Public lectures are very useful in that respect. From
    the reader's perspective, too, notes can be annoying. Both Northrop Frye
    and Jaroslav Pelikan tried out various alternative devices to avoid the
    nagging little superscripted pointers-to-more -- though they are hardly
    worse than the hyperlink. Norbert Hinske, a German philosopher I met a few
    months ago, infamous for the number and detailed quality of his footnotes,
    wrote and published a little book entitled Ohne Fussnoten after he retired,
    he said (as I recall) to mark his liberation from all that.

    But to return to the notes out of which footnotes are made, or not. One of
    my favourite devices still is the 3x5 card, whose ease and flexibility of
    multiple rearrangement simply isn't to be matched in the electronic
    environment. If only one could have something like Powerpoint for
    note-taking that would produce 3x5 slips on one's printer. Note-taking
    software really should have the option to produce slips.

    Once upon a time I did some amateur interviewing as part of a project to
    develop note-taking software. My colleagues and I identified a number of
    people in the University, divided them up, interviewed each about his or
    her note-taking techniques. I was greatly surprised to discover the extent
    of variation, all the way from no note-taking whatever to the most detailed
    kind. So I concluded that when one talks of these things, one should not
    assume much common understanding of what the practice actually consists of.

    I suppose the fundamental question is always how to reach one's intended
    audience in the best way possible with the tools at hand -- or not at hand,
    if they would get in the way. How not to fall in love with the devices of
    communication, or to love the act of communication more, which does not
    necessarily mean giving up handy tools but can. My expressed enthusiasm for
    the Palm is of course contingent. I do what works for me, and this changes
    from one project to the next.

    We might find it useful and stimulating to discuss the technology of
    annotation, about which precious little work has been done for the kind of
    note-taking humanists are most familiar with. Comments?


    Dr Willard McCarty / Senior Lecturer /
    Centre for Computing in the Humanities / King's College London /
    Strand / London WC2R 2LS / U.K. /
    +44 (0)20 7848-2784 / ilex.cc.kcl.ac.uk/wlm/

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