Peter Meyers has a useful blog post on 3 ways to improve ebook note taking over at O’Reilly Radar. As he points out in his post, note-taking is one of the ways in which print books still kick the ass of digital books, since they allow you to “[j]ot notes anywhere you like…[h]ighlight non-contiguous phrases on a page, editing out all the boring bits and spotlighting the author’s best points…[d]raw arrows…[c]onstruct simple diagrams…[and] [e]asily review all this stuff by flipping through the pages of a book”. Meyers suggests that the best way for ebook note-taking to catch up is to:

  • Offer pen-like and other rich media markup tools
  • Offer a way to attach a note at either the chapter- or book-level
  • Provide a passage-quoting bulletin board

I particularly appreciated Meyers’ vision for a kind of virtual bulletin board of one’s ebook notes, which reminds me a bit of Pinterest, my latest social media love. If (or almost certainly, when) any of the ebook-makers out there take Meyers up on his point that better note-taking could provide a competitive advantage, I’ll be delighted to see it. But I think both ebook creators and ebook consumers can make an even stronger case for the improvement of ebook note-taking.

In our own research and experimentation with ebooks at SIM, notetaking has been a crucial area of exploration. Like Meyers we’ve been thinking about ways to improve the process of notetaking as an information processing and retrieval tool: the process of annotation is for many people crucial to their ability to master and engage with a text, and the process of reviewing annotation is often the primary way for recalling or reconnecting with something previously read.

But to focus on how note-taking supports processing and retrieval for the individual is to miss the larger opportunity for ebook annotation. What’s really exciting about note-taking in an ebook is the opportunity to collate and converse with other readers. Kindle’s collaborative annotation is an early sketch of what’s possible once note-taking ceases to be a solo enterprise.

Some of the possibilities we’ve been exploring include:

  1. Collaborative annotation organized by your social graph: If I’m reading the latest Gladwell I don’t want to see notes from every reader in North America; I want to see notes from my closest Twitter or LinkedIn pals.
  2. Collaborative annotation organized by reader level: When I’m reading a book about social media, I want to see what’s been highlighted by experienced social media professionals (i.e. my peers). When I’m reading about how to rewire a lamp, I want to see what’s been highlighted by fellow newbies.
  3. Persona management: The ability to create different note-taking personas that have different privacy levels and different sets of friends, so that I can choose to share different sets of notes with different people depending on our relationship.
  4. Social note sharing: Let me authenticate with Twitter and Facebook from within my ebook so that I can tweet or share short passages or the notes and ideas that strike me as I read. Integrate my friends’ updates and tweets into the text — not just based on their reaction to the text itself, but based on other indicators of relevance. For example, if I’m reading about the history of molecular gastronomy, show me the Yelp, FourSquare or Facebook Places check-ins from friends who’ve visited the restaurants referred to in the text, along with their comments on the food.
  5. Note-taking visualizations: As I highlight and take notes on an ebook, I create a digital footprint on that book that can be represented visually to show me which chapters or sections were most relevant to me. My footprint can be collated or compared with others (for example, other people in my class or company) to identify the passages that are most widely salient or alternately that specifically characterize my interest in the text.

This last points to the core challenge in developing appropriate and valuable note-taking functionality for contemporary ebooks: once you plug a book into a network, you need to rethink its boundaries. The idea of sharing a footprint of my reading would be in many cases antithetical to someone who is taking notes in an ebook the way they’d take notes in a print book.

At heart, the beauty of conventional marginal notes lies in its intimacy: deciphering the scrawled notes you wrote on your freshman copy of Mrs. Dalloway will instantly take you back to that reading experience, and you’ll either delight or burn at the sight of your eighteen-year-old perspective. Pick up a used edition with somebody else’s notes and you get the joy and discomfort of seeing inside someone else’s head. Am I the only person who flips through my higlights and marginal notes to check for incriminating evidence before I lend a book out to a friend or colleague?

Once you put a book into a digital, Internet-connected form that intimacy becomes both a risk and a limitation. When I’m reading a self-help book the last thing I want is to risk broadcasting all the places where I’ve written “OMG this is so familiar” next to various tales of emotional dysfunction. But if I’m reading a book about online community management I’ll be downright frustrated if I can’t share my comments and corrections with both my colleagues and my clients.

While Meyers is right to take inspiration from the traditional patterns and advantages of marginal annotation on printed books, a note-taking system that borrows primarily from the print metaphor is destined to miss out on the transformative possibilities of electronic publishing. Much of that potential lies in the convergence of social media and epublishing — a convergence that will bring uncomfortable as well as exciting opportunities to those who treasure the traditional experience of taking notes on a print book. Undoubtedly publishers will attempt to offer the best of both worlds. But they’ll need to take note of the intrinsic tension between the intimacy of marginalia and the exposure of online conversation.