Arbitrary Annotations

Through the process of annotating The Tales of John Oliver Hobbes (hereafter JOH), I have come to realize just how arbitrary annotations really are. Until recently, annotations have always been the helpful notes located at the bottom of a page – always furthering my understanding of what is happening in the text, giving a definition, and, at times, recommending further reading. I’ve never thought about how much work these extra tidbits of information really are to incorporate in either a print or digital text . . . until now.

When first introduced with the task of annotating JOH, I was instantly overwhelmed and confused. I found myself asking questions like what are the guidelines? what is considered common knowledge? what will the majority of readers definitely not know? Unfortunately, Wikisource did not do much to calm me down with its how to page for annotations. The most clearly defined  rule states that “all annotations on Wikisource are expected to be objective. Interpretive annotations are never allowed.” This concept caused great confusion for me – aren’t the majority of annotations (technically) interpretive in some manner? I mean, unless you are the author, annotating a piece of literature is really just guess work – no one can ever truly and confidently know exactly what an author was alluding to throughout his text. So this rule made me nervous – what happens if the almighty Wikisource gods decide that my annotations are, in fact, interpretive? Do they get taken down? Do I now have to start over from scratch, even more nervous than before? Unfortunately, if you continue reading the guidelines you run across phrases like “the method of annotating a work remains a matter of judgement for individual Wikisource users.” In one simple sentence, Wikisource undermines it’s own previously outlined rule – if its a matter of judgement, then once again the field of annotations has been blown wide open.

So how does one decide what deserves an annotation and what does not? Personally, I ended up choosing to annotate things that I didn’t understand myself, as well as lines that rang with memories of sunday school and learning the Bible. But is that to say that I’ve provided enough supplementary information that will satisfy the needs of every reader? …. If I’m being completely honest, the answer is probably not, but I can hope.

When it comes down to it, annotations (in both print and digital forms) are really just arbitrary guesses – what the editor or annotater thinks the reader needs to know. Because of their arbitrary nature, I think that it’s impossible to really cover everything …. and at a certain point, isn’t there such a thing as too many annotations?

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3 Responses to Arbitrary Annotations

  1. duttpuneet says:

    Michelle, to have a dialogue here with your last question, “isn’t there such a thing as too many annotations?” I would say both yes, and no. And here’s why.

    For myself personally, I prefer zero annotations. If I’m curious, and I need to understand what a word means, then I look it up myself. But that’s coming from a place of leisurely and joy reading (which has not happened much, since this program has started, but I aim to remedy that, once it does end). I find it terribly annoying to constantly have to remove my eyes, flip to the back of the book, or to check out the bottom. My linear mode of reading is disrupted, and I get grouchy. And I don’t like to get grouchy when I joy-read. It’s dangerous and it’s risky, because it involves only my own interpretations and emotions. (I know, terrible thing right?)

    However, for purposes of scholarly research, it’s a matter of ripping a text apart and chewing each word, so, in this case, there aren’t too many annotations, in fact, the more interruptions, the better (I guess). It saves the person researching the text a lot of extra trouble, though, this is another strange matter, because, would you not want to double-check the facts anyway? Not everything in the annotations will be correct, or relevant, because as you mentioned earlier, no editor can know precisely what the author meant by using those specific terms.

    So yes and no, but personally for me, none, thanks very much.

    • michelle.keith says:

      I agree with you completely Puneet! I too find annotations to be more of a nuisance than anything else (especially now that I’ve been a part of the process). I do find that they distract from the text, they also make me somewhat lazy. In a text that doesn’t have annotations, I am much more likely to look up things that I do not understand. However, if a text has annotations, I assume that every extra bit of knowledge or concept that I need to understand will be explained to me – if it’s not in the annotations, then it must not be very important, which is obviously not the best approach to take, especially when studying literature!

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