Marginalia is still alive in the digital world

Joep Kuijper on the Openmargin marginalia platform and iPad app.

The New York Times recently featured an article bemoaning the death of marginalia at the hand of digital publishing. Referencing a post by Joe Wikert, I wrote about how creating a solution to a problem is usually more effective — and difficult — than simply pointing out an issue or assuming there’s no recourse.

There are, of course, solutions to the digital marginalia obstacle, and a startup in the Netherlands has brought one to the table. The creators of Openmargin are readying an iPad app for review at Apple’s App Store that allows readers to add personal notes to digital text in a communal-type setting. So, book groups can make notes together and readers can discover other like-minded readers.

In an email interview, Joep Kuijper (@joepkuijper), co-founder of Openmargin, talked about their new app and how Openmargin works. Kuijper said they are just finishing up beta testing and expect to submit the app to Apple in the next couple of weeks. Our interview follows, as does a video demo of the application.

How does Openmargin work?

Joep Kuijper: People are already using the margin of a book to add personal notes to the original text. With ebooks, it’s possible to make this margin into an open margin, an open space where the readers of the same books share their notes with each other. To this end, we developed the Openmargin app for the iPad, with a reading environment where readers can highlight passages. When readers tap on a passage, they enter the open margin, where they can leave a note and explore those of others.

Through Openmargin, readers also can discover like-minded people. Discovery is based on a thematic match with the specific sentences in the text that have been highlighted. There’s also a web platform where all the notes are collected in a profile. Looking through this profile is like looking through another person’s bookcase full of marginalia.

What are the roles of authors and publishers on this platform?

Joep Kuijper: An author has a special place on the platform — having written the book, he or she has essentially started the dialogue. We think it would be a good thing if the author also acted as a host. This would give ebooks added value because they’re not just text anymore, they’re also a place where the reader can be in direct contact with the source — the author.

For this to happen, the tools aren’t enough. Authors still need platform and branding support — this is where the publisher comes in. The publisher is also the one with the overview. They might, for example, connect several authors and propose that they annotate each other’s books.

Is there an option to notate only for personal use (i.e. notes for a class)?

Joep Kuijper: There are no personal groups. All the readers of one book are the group. Or even more specific: the readers around one sentence are a group. This also means you’re not in a dialogue with friends, but with peers you’ve probably never met before. We think this is the interesting thing about Openmargin. It’s an implicit network where the relationships are based on the specifics in a text. And your relationships develop and grow along with your reading habits.

Who owns the marginalia?

Joep Kuijper: The user is the owner. There will be a creative commons license so we’re able to present the notes on our platform.

Are your long-term plans for Openmargin more platform-oriented or more software-oriented?

Joep Kuijper: Openmargin will be more platform oriented. We built the iPad app to show the world how this idea works, but we also built an API through which other ereading device developers can plug into our platform. The API can have a big impact because people will be able to share their thoughts and give feedback. That said, we’re taking software very seriously at the moment because we want to set the example for the user interface. The software design has to be elegant in order for users to like the platform.

The Openmargin demo video follows:

This interview was edited and condensed.


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