Thoughts on eBooks, and Notes

Do you take notes in your ebooks? I am a chronic note-taker, so the topic of ebook notes is a fairly significant preoccupation of mine. In terms of note-taking and highlighting, most of the significant ebook apps and devices range somewhere between “O.K. to Functionally Non-Existent”, so there is still lots of room for improvement. To that end, the-always interesting O’Reilly TOC (“How to improve ebook marginalia”) brainstorms some of the ebook note-taking features we’d like to be seeing sooner rather than later —

  • 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.

The Guardian (“Ebooks: a more civilised way of scribbling in the margins?) also weighs in on ebooks and “the contested area of marginalia and underlinings.” They correctly point out that main virtues of ebook notes is that they are searchable, indexable, and shareable (ideally). I love searchable book notes. An integrated, easier way to share book notes would be awfully nice, too. GigaOM asks a rather important question: “Who Owns Your Notes in e-Books?

“You buy a paper book and you physically own it. The same is not true of the e-book; the seller can revoke your “ownership” given a violation of set conditions. Even worse, a company can choose to stop handling a given reader, putting all of the content that has been “purchased” in a legal limbo.

These worst-case scenarios are not likely to happen with the big companies, say Amazon and Barnes & Noble, but the fact is these things can happen. While it would be bad enough to lose the right to read the books you have purchased, what if you’ve taken notes in the books you can no longer access?”

Portability of ebook notes is so, so important; they are the notes that you take, and you should not have them locked within a single device, just because that’s the way things are. I think notes and highlighting exporting is absolutely one of the best things about Amazon Kindle. Lastly, here’s a useful post from the Google Books blog — “Take Note(s): Highlighting your Google eBooks


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I run the ThinkLab at the University of Cambridge, and research digital habits, productivity, and wellbeing.

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