3 ways to improve ebook note taking

It's time for ebooks to evolve beyond their basic note-taking tools.

This is part of an ongoing series related to Peter Meyers’ project “Breaking the Page, Saving the Reader: A Buyer & Builder’s Guide to Digital Books.” We’ll be featuring additional material in the weeks ahead. (Note: This post originally appeared on A New Kind of Book. It’s republished with permission.)

Is anyone happy with today’s ebook note-taking tools? I’m talking about what you get with Kindle, Nook, iBooks, and so on. You can highlight passages and add notes, but that’s pretty much where things start and stop.

Think about how limited that is, compared to what you can do in a print book:

  • Jot notes anywhere you like (e.g. blank pages in the back) to keep track of your overall reaction to the book.
  • Highlight non-contiguous phrases on a page, editing out all the boring bits and spotlighting the author’s best points.
  • Draw arrows, circles, and all manner of geometric curlicues, reminding you of how this section here relates to that point over there.
  • Construct simple diagrams (e.g. tree-like structures), if you’re the type who likes to think about ideas in terms of hierarchies.
  • Easily review all this stuff by flipping through the pages of a book.

None of that’s possible on any mainstream ebook reading system today.

So here are some suggestions, which, incidentally, I think would be perfect for an eager-to-experiment underdog (Kobo, are you listening?). Add a beefed up note-taking system similar to what I describe below and soon, I bet, you’ll get more business from serious readers.

Offer pen-like and other rich media markup tools

You’d be able, for example, to draw a big bracket around a chunk of text and then an arrow from there to another spot. (Bonus points if you could write directly on the arrow, as many of us do when scrawling notes by hand.) Highlighting non-contiguous passages would, finally, be possible. Heck, why not let readers also record audio- or video notes? We improve memory and interpretation the more we annotate material in personalized ways. Talk about interactive books.

Offer a way to attach a note at either the chapter- or book-level

This one’s a no-brainer. Plus, it’s dead-simple to implement and would help note-taking nerds do what they love: keep track of thoughts that relate to large chunks of text (as opposed to the current systems, which limit notes to whatever sentence or passage has been highlighted).

Provide a passage-quoting bulletin board

Think of this as a personalized mash-up tool, one that lets you grab bits as you read, add notes to them, and then assemble the whole shebang on a kind of virtual corkboard. This idea directly addresses why serious note-takers mark up their text: to add personalized commentary in order to make the original text more meaningful, and more memorable to them. That’s where the real value in, say, a business book lies: not simply what Malcolm Gladwell has to say, but what he makes you think about your own business and how you might implement his takeaways.

As with so many digital tools, this feature could deliver plenty more value than its analog equivalent. Specifically, this tool would let a reader quickly “grab” chunks (think: something like a header or sub-header within a chapter) and then post them on this virtual notepad. Each of these idea snapshots could be circled, repositioned, enlarged (great for emphasizing relative importance), annotated … really, whatever you might do to encode these reminders with the sort of personalized info we drum up when taking notes. Here’s a quick-and-dirty sketch that gives you the gist of what one of these guys might look like:

Marginalia diagram

Each of these headers (written by the reader, auto-generated by one of those text-summarizing utilities, or pulled from a passage’s nearby headers) would, on tap, expand to reveal the full text “beneath” the blurb, as well as any notes you’d made.

What kinds of note-taking tools would you like to see added to your digital books?

Associated photo on home and category pages: Marginalia by Cat Sidh, on Flickr


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