Digital Humanities Workbench

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Free annotation

Free annotation involves adding all kinds of notes to a text whilst reading/studying it. Besides underlining portions of the text and adding question marks, exclamation marks and other non-textual markers, textual annotations play an important part in the process. Generally speaking, try to make note of questions and ideas you come up with whilst reading the text and try to connect certain words/passages with each other. Literary analysis of a text can involve labelling the (literary) instruments used for relevant words or passages (such as imagery, irony, repetition, Intertextuality, flashbacks) and labelling words/passages that play a role in character development, themes, plot construction and storylines, for example.

Example of an annotated text (click on the image to enlarge).

Note: this type of annotation is used often in interpretative research. This workbench also has a section on formal annotation, which involves adding tags to a text based on a predetermined classification or typology.

Digital annotation

When working with digitized texts, there are several digital tools that can support working with free annotation (see below). Advantages of digital annotation are:
  • Documentation
    Digital annotation allows the process of analysis to be optimally tracked and documented. This also makes it easier to verify reported research results, interpretations and conclusions.
  • Clarity
    Digital annotations are generally clearer than manually written annotations in a printed text. Besides, they can be changed in an easier and neater manner.
  • Shareability
    It is easier and safer to share digitally annotated files with others (colleagues, fellow students, teachers) than annotated printed material.
  • Collaboration
    Various annotation systems offer the possibility of joint (online) text annotation.
  • Analysis
    Using specially developed software, it is possible to process digitally-applied annotations to come to a better understanding of the studied text(s). For example, you can rename and/or group annotations; produce overviews of annotations with an extra option to link to the annotated passages by clicking on a tag; search for particular annotations; create links between certain passages; and create visual representations of the relationship(s) between annotations as networks.


Simple annotation
Word offers simple options for annotation, such as the underline, highlighter and insert comment features. There are various annotation systems for files in pdf format. The more recent versions of Adobe Reader have similar features to Word. However, there are also specific pdf annotators, such as PDF Annotator (available on pc, laptop or tablet) and iAnnotate (for tablets). Most modern e-readers also have simple annotation functionality.

Annotation and analysis
Programs that also allow you to add labels to the text and further process and analyse fall into the category of CAQDAS (Computer Assisted Qualitative Data AnalysiS) and have been developed for various forms of qualitative analysis. Examples of these programs are MAXqda, Atlas.ti (available for students and staff of the VU), and NVivo.

Online annotation
There are a growing number of online annotation environments that also allow joint text annotation. Many of these environments still have limited functionality (simple annotation). eMargin is an interesting environment, because, in addition to basic annotation, it also has features that allow the user to work with labels (tags).

Other topics in this section: Formal annotation