All dressed up and nowhere to go? The strategic role of digital humanities annotation tools
The topic of annotation is one of the most active research areas within E-Science and Digital Humanities fields. It has been nearly two years since the comprehensive and widely accepted W3C Open Annotation Community Draft was written to define what an annotation is (under the terms of formal semantics and in a computational perspective) and how it should be serialised digitally. At the same time, many of the digital research infrastructure projects in the European Union included the development of annotation services into their agenda. Notably, and showing the rapid growth of interest, annotation services which have a longer history are recently getting new attention. Consequently, the lightweight Annotator.js developed by the Open Knowledge Foundation was adopted for further development by the Mellon Foundation funded hypothes.is project, while annotation environments like CATMA were broadly discussed at last year"s Digital Humanities in Lausanne.
Undoubtedly, the potential of annotations has increased significantly due to the development of digital technologies. The de-materialization of annotations – their physical separation from annotated objects and the linking capacities of information technologies – has created new scenarios and potentials for annotations which were not feasible in the past. However, the identification of these new scenarios alone is not sufficient for the demands of humanities research. Without a methodological evaluation of new annotation practices and their association with traditional annotation activities, the efficient use of digital annotation tools is questionable. Furthermore, existing annotation data which becomes more and more openly available needs expressive context metadata to be interpretable in a meaningful way, considering the variety of backgrounds this data may have.
Infrastructure projects as well as Open Annotation do not primarily operate within this scope because their efforts head towards unifying and formal aspects of annotations and annotation services. Accordingly the W3C community group mentioned above defines annotating as: “the act of creating associations between distinct pieces of information”. It is significant that this definition sounds more like a description of the web architecture itself and that any further specification which includes a logical separation between annotations and annotated object is missing. On the one hand this fact represents the level of abstraction with which it is possible to express the issue of annotations technically when using a computational point of view. On the other hand it emphasizes the need to theoretically and methodologically rethink annotations on the same level.
There were several attempts to perform this task, however results are not complete. Prioritizing the efficient application of the model, methodological terms provided by Open Annotation (oa:Motivation) are partially inconsistent. Research studies which deal with the issue have strong domain-oriented boundaries or only include traditional annotation scenarios under digital terms. A new integrative perspective which combines computational and non-computational annotation practices is needed. This perspective must be aware of ongoing changing technological conditions for annotations while not ignorine the fact that annotating is primarily a cultural technology.