Annotation as Curation

This is the rough text of my presentation for a panel at the Charleston Conference, 2018, along with Heather Stains and Gary Price.

We are at the beginning of a new internet as we know it. I believe the arguments over what is or isn’t data in scholarly circles has the potential to matter less if the activities that we need to perform are still possible. I am always and forever highlighting the value and importance of the Taxonomy of Digital Research Activities in the Humanities (TaDiRAH), as I believe it provides a roadmap for understanding a wide berth of what MIGHT be next generation style scholarship.

TaDiRAH offers useful definitions of enrichment and annotation:

  • Enrichment refers to the activity of adding information to an object of enquiry, by making its origin, nature, structure, meaning, or elements explicit.
  • Annotating is the activity of making information explicit through comments, metadata or keywords. This can be annotations, linked open data, or, general metadata. (Condensed description at my liberty).

Indeed, just this week Miriam Posner asked fellow (non-digital) humanists “If someone were to call the sources you use “data,” what would your reaction be? If you don’t consider your sources data, what makes them different?” Elizabeth Berry Drago replied, regarding images/prints, that her research materials are not data because they “contain more than a body of information. They also contain a host of arguments about, and interpretations of, that information.”

So, the importance of Annotation as Curation is in the potential an annotated object gives to apply or extract scholarly arguments and interpretations from it. Thus far, that has been mostly contained in metadata records, scholarly discourse in literature, or in educational environments like museums or cultural heritage sites. What the WC3 standard for annotation gives us is the ability to move, or dare I say democratize, knowledge(s) in and across many open online spaces, objects, and sites.

See it in action at

In my limited experience, this is where a standard/toolset like International Image Interoperability Framework (IIIF) is poised. The example above is from an online exhibition, curated and annotated by the folks at Cogapp, a digital media agency for museums and archives, examining different layers of this painting of the Drummond Family. On the surface this appears to be what museums and others have done forever — the vast potential comes in when annotations, now a web standard, can be collated, inducted to conversations, and ultimately “published” along-or-inside the images online. There’s a depth of technical work that I don’t fully grasp behind IIIF, but I am endlessly excited about the possibilities it affords, and I’ll encourage you all to look up the work of my NCSU colleague Jason Ronallo.

Like any good scholarly communication librarian, I would argue that scholarship, publishing, and knowledge sharing can and should happen at multiple points along a spectrum of intellectual output. I have gained great value from what I’ll call “close (community) reading,” utilizing annotation to discuss a work.

Here’s some specific examples from my own experiences:

  1. I co-taught a course on “public humanities as scholarly communication” at the FORCE Scholarly Communication Institute this year. We, the instructors and class participants, collaboratively annotated the readings in the weeks leading up to the class, so the work of getting on the same page happened prior to our time together.
  2. Right at the beginning of my Fulbright fellowship studying the place of public scholarship, I happened to catch a tweet linking to a new pre-print for an article titled “How significant are the public dimensions of faculty work in review, promotion, and tenure documents?” by Alperin, J.P., Muñoz Nieves, C., Schimanski, L., Fischman, G.E., Niles, M.T. & McKiernan, E.C. (2018). After it was posted online a graduate course at Simon Frazier took it up as a class exercise to annotate and discuss the paper online, and so I, looking for an on-ramp for my work, had a really enlightening conversation with the students across time zones, fields of expertise, and career perspectives, all within the annotation window on top of the pre-print.
  3. This fall, in a beginning initative as the Open Knowledge Librarian at NCSU Libraries, we established a reading group called the Open Exploratorium. The group will explore NCSU Libraries current investments and future opportunities in advancing openness in research production, practices, and publication. Since I am abroad for a few months, we are utilizing to co-read and have conversations as we refine an open agenda.

In fact, I have already done that thing where I can’t remember where I saw or read something that inspired an idea that I need to cite, pulled up the document and retraced my thoughts through the annotation layer/discussion alongside the work itself.

So, annotation as curation is modifying my behaviors as a researcher, engaging with a work, and also as a researcher linking works and ideas together, metaphorically and technically. I think we’re still very early in how this might change the scholcomm system as we know it, but at a microscale, my own experiences allow me to see how I can highlight new methods in my interactions with researchers as a librarian.

Based on my current research interests and work, I can’t not think about anything I/we do in the information business without fitting it into my ‘everything is infrastructure’ point of view. The Confederation of Open Access Repositories published “Behaviors and Technical Recommendations of the COAR Next Gen Repos Working Group” in 2017, and it continues to inform my thinking. Like TaDiRAH, I like to take their recommendations way out of context and apply them where they fit for me, but, I think there’s a there, there.

The report offers a relatively straight-forward concept — repositories as we know them are fine, but there is a possibility for them to supplement the scholarly record in new and fascinating ways, if they adapt and adopt some of the recommended behaviors.

Annotation has a key role to play in next-level, web-based scholarship

One concept they tease out in the report [PDF]is that the next generation repository should be “active” meaning providing support for versioning, commenting, updating, linking across resources, and you guessed it, annotation. For me, this is the most exciting possibility that standards/technologies/tools like annotation offer — the human to human element interlinked with, on top of, enmeshed inside a historical image, a scholarly paper, a complex data visualization, or an open access monograph.

So, in my estimation, Annotation is Curation is Scholarship is Collective Knowledge. And we are just starting to see the benefits or what annotation could offer to scholarship, to data curation, or to the interconnectedness we speak about so often wanting for our web-based world.