Explanatory Annotation in the Context of the Digital Humanities

Annotation has become one of the most popular themes in the reception and editing of literary (and other) texts. In the context of digital editions: explanatory annotation spreads in proportion to the growth in electronic texts, amazon x-ray and genius.com being only two proponents of this development, according to the guest editors of IJHAC: International Journal of Humanities and Arts Computing special issue (Volume 11.2, October 2017). There is a risk that the proliferation of annotations does no longer enrich but clutter the text, and the reader is at a loss as to how to actually understand it.

In talking about the decision to pursue this special issue, the journal editors, Paul Ell and David Bodenhamer, stress that,

“digital humanities occupies an uncertain disciplinary space. Its subject matter and many of its methods mimic traditional scholarship but clearly it is something different, or so the use of computing technologies and advanced visualization make it appear. What we often fail to recognize is that the ability of researchers to take advantage of the remarkable technological advances of the past two decades does more than address traditional questions with ever-increasing amounts of data or even raise new questions. It also creates an entirely new understanding of approaches we thought were well-settled. Such is the lesson of this special issue on explanatory annotation in the digital humanities.”

Using annotation to enhance a text is an old practice but digital technologies have revitalized it. What once was a practice of notes that reflected what was in the mind of the scholar now uses a variety of now-standard digital techniques—hypertext, mark-up, and the addition of images—combined with new approaches such as natural language processing and AI, all managed in a collaborative space.

IJHAC 11.2 cover image
“Explanatory Annotation in the Context of the Digital Humanities”, IJHAC Volume 11, Issue 2, October, 2017

Annotations document a reader’s experience of a text, which, especially in digital annotation, may become a social practice. Any kind of commentary situates a text communicatively. In particular, literary texts, which are sometimes considered to be being non-pragmatic with regard to their communicative function, are brought into functional contexts through explanatory annotation. These texts are being treated as utterances that are meant to be understood; they draw on resources of knowledge that should be made accessible to the readers. This means, in turn, that the reader is being activated: making use of the resources with regard to the meaning of the text as a whole will remain the reader’s task; accordingly, understanding is not passive reception but active engagement.

Read guest editors, Matthias Bauer and Angelika Zirker’s, explanation in more detail in the issue’s ‘featured article’: Explanatory Annotation of Literary Texts and the Reader: Seven Types of Problems.


Teri Williams
Teri Williams
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