Annotated Books Online: the public as a contributor


Dafne Jansen, Bert Massop, Tom Tervoort and prof. dr. Arnoud Visser.


Over the past decade, libraries have been working hard to make their special collections digitally available to both researchers and the general public. Libraries strive to provide high-quality information from reputable sources, for example by making objects such as manuscripts, early and rare printed books (or even just the texts thereof) available online. The public is treated solely as a consumer, not a contributor. This one-directional approach leaves no room for one of the most fascinating aspects of the digital age: on-line participation and collaboration.

We present Annotated Books Online, an on-line interactive archive of early modern annotated books. In the early modern period, readers were used to writing their thoughts and remarks on the margins of their books; an activity that is now frowned upon by most librarians. Such annotations can however tell us a lot about the mindset of the time. Annotated Books Online enables researchers to collaborate on transcribing and interpreting such annotations. Instead of a traditional textual per-book or per-page approach, Annotated Books Online provides graphical tools to attach relevant information to any specified area on a scanned page. Researchers can upload their own digitized books and collaborate on material provided by others, thereby eliminating the traditional one-directional approach. Results are immediately made available to the general public, bringing the spirit of Wikipedia to the world of early modern books.

While Annotated Books Online is intentionally limited to early modern annotated books, its open-source nature allows it to be adapted for any other domain of knowledge where position-dependent information on digital objects is involved. We discuss several questions that projects like Annotated Books Online raise for us librarians, such as:

  • Instead of participating solely as content providers, do we envision a bigger role for ourselves as information brokers?
  • What do we want to do with the valuable information that the public (in this case even high-quality information by specialized researchers) is generating when transcribing and interpreting these digital objects?
  • Annotated Books Online enables its users to upload objects from libraries from around the globe, creating their own collection based on content instead of physical location. Should we reconsider the way we treat our digitized collection as an extension of our physical collection?

Dafne Jansen is a project manager in the Innovation and Development division of Utrecht University Library. She has worked on several projects that focus on scholarly communication and online collaboration.

Bert Massop and Tom Tervoort are students Computing Science at the Utrecht University Graduate School of Natural Sciences. They are the active developers of the Annotated Books Online application and derivative projects in cooperation with the Utrecht University Library.

Prof. dr. Arnoud Visser is professor extraordinarius of Textual Culture in the Renaissance Low Countries at Utrecht University. He is the Utrecht representative and coordinator of the Annotated Books Online project.


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