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3 ways to improve ebook note taking

It's time for ebooks to evolve beyond their basic note-taking tools.

This is part of an ongoing series related to Peter Meyers’ project “Breaking the Page, Saving the Reader: A Buyer & Builder’s Guide to Digital Books.” We’ll be featuring additional material in the weeks ahead. (Note: This post originally appeared on A New Kind of Book. It’s republished with permission.)

Is anyone happy with today’s ebook note-taking tools? I’m talking about what you get with Kindle, Nook, iBooks, and so on. You can highlight passages and add notes, but that’s pretty much where things start and stop.

Think about how limited that is, compared to what you can do in a print book:

  • Jot notes anywhere you like (e.g. blank pages in the back) to keep track of your overall reaction to the book.
  • Highlight non-contiguous phrases on a page, editing out all the boring bits and spotlighting the author’s best points.
  • Draw arrows, circles, and all manner of geometric curlicues, reminding you of how this section here relates to that point over there.
  • Construct simple diagrams (e.g. tree-like structures), if you’re the type who likes to think about ideas in terms of hierarchies.
  • Easily review all this stuff by flipping through the pages of a book.

None of that’s possible on any mainstream ebook reading system today.

So here are some suggestions, which, incidentally, I think would be perfect for an eager-to-experiment underdog (Kobo, are you listening?). Add a beefed up note-taking system similar to what I describe below and soon, I bet, you’ll get more business from serious readers.

Offer pen-like and other rich media markup tools

You’d be able, for example, to draw a big bracket around a chunk of text and then an arrow from there to another spot. (Bonus points if you could write directly on the arrow, as many of us do when scrawling notes by hand.) Highlighting non-contiguous passages would, finally, be possible. Heck, why not let readers also record audio- or video notes? We improve memory and interpretation the more we annotate material in personalized ways. Talk about interactive books.

Offer a way to attach a note at either the chapter- or book-level

This one’s a no-brainer. Plus, it’s dead-simple to implement and would help note-taking nerds do what they love: keep track of thoughts that relate to large chunks of text (as opposed to the current systems, which limit notes to whatever sentence or passage has been highlighted).

Provide a passage-quoting bulletin board

Think of this as a personalized mash-up tool, one that lets you grab bits as you read, add notes to them, and then assemble the whole shebang on a kind of virtual corkboard. This idea directly addresses why serious note-takers mark up their text: to add personalized commentary in order to make the original text more meaningful, and more memorable to them. That’s where the real value in, say, a business book lies: not simply what Malcolm Gladwell has to say, but what he makes you think about your own business and how you might implement his takeaways.

As with so many digital tools, this feature could deliver plenty more value than its analog equivalent. Specifically, this tool would let a reader quickly “grab” chunks (think: something like a header or sub-header within a chapter) and then post them on this virtual notepad. Each of these idea snapshots could be circled, repositioned, enlarged (great for emphasizing relative importance), annotated … really, whatever you might do to encode these reminders with the sort of personalized info we drum up when taking notes. Here’s a quick-and-dirty sketch that gives you the gist of what one of these guys might look like:

Marginalia diagram

Each of these headers (written by the reader, auto-generated by one of those text-summarizing utilities, or pulled from a passage’s nearby headers) would, on tap, expand to reveal the full text “beneath” the blurb, as well as any notes you’d made.

What kinds of note-taking tools would you like to see added to your digital books?

Associated photo on home and category pages: Marginalia by Cat Sidh, on Flickr


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Comments: 6

  1. Hmm, my iLiad ereader had most of that in 2006/7. Agreed, some of it not very intuitive to use, but it was there. Not sure why later readers didn’t include it.


  2. As a small publisher (Karina Library Press), I have been reviewing platforms for the last couple years that would give ‘neomarginalia’ abilities to our authors’ works. For me, though, one of the most important aspects of this would be the right kind of social model. I would like to be able to share comments/questions/insights on and in eBooks.

    We should also be looking at using neomarginalia as a source of book metadata….

    One last thought: I would like readers to be able to mark a sentence, or even a word in digital book and setup notifications on that scope; so that if someone else provides public marginalia, that thread around that scope can be tracked.

    There are bits and pieces of a neomarginalia platform, but nobody has put it all together. When it is put together, it will need to be in a way that doesn’t distract from the book simply being a book also.

  3. @Michael: Totally agree with your point about integrating social graph intel into shareable comments. I’m working on a post right now that points to one example that’s getting close: Glo Bible and their integration of the YouVersion Bible reading service. The big question remains: when will Amazon integrate Twitter/Facebook, etc. into their highlighting/notetaking feature?

  4. I’d settle for something a lot simpler– ability to add notes and quote linked to a point in the text, which refer directly back to where they were linked, and a way to gather these notes external to the book so that they are useful in different contexts, and with different tools.

    The limited notetaking in ebooks now doesn’t make it easy to get my notes out of the book.

  5. Gregor…Not sure if you know this (I just discovered it myself) but if you use the Mac-based Kindle app you can copy & paste to extract your notes and highlights. Assume the same holds for the PC version of Kindle. Still not nearly as easy as it should be, but at least it offers a way to grab your notes & highlighted passages.

  6. This is exactly what I’ve thought and tried to get at for years. However, as a software developer, I think it goes even further than just “you can’t do this in current software”: software actually makes it harder to do some of these things. For example, a book has a fixed size and shape. This makes it obvious where you can annotate. Any arrows from “here” to “there” will actually get to the place they mean to get to, and it won’t just be arbitrarily changed. However, software allows us the flexibility to change the text size (no longer the need for a specialised “Large Print” book). This is a good feature, but does remove the unambiguous positioning (what do free form annotations mean with a different font size and pagination?)

    And (despite my negativity) don’t forget that digital does have advantages too. Searchability is the one that springs to the top of the list, I think. I have vast numbers of notes in notebooks that I know I will never be able to find what I want in them.