Clive Thompson, in his recent comments on how crowdsourcing has the potential to transform eBooks, refers to a a rudimentary form of crowdsourcing that’s already being studied in print textbooks. The work he’s referring to is by Cathy Marshall, who finds that used-book-buyers place value in the annotations (highlighting and notes) left in the books by previous owners.

Thompson had no link to Marshall’s work, so I got in touch with her, to get more details. As she describes in her papers (listed below), the motivation for her work is to discover effective methods of utilizing readers’ annotations of eBooks. In her early research, done mostly in the 1990′s, she observed students, and interviewed them, as they looked for used textbooks, to see if they favored books because of the nature of the annotations in them.

After confirming that students do, in fact, value annotations, Marshall went on to study the nature of the annotations to find patterns that could be used as models for eBook annotating. In the example below, on the left are four copies of the same page from different reader’s books with their annotations. On the right is the middle paragraph from the page, which all four readers annotated, to determine more precisely what was marked by each reader — which turns out to be the first sentence in all four cases. (The graphics are from the Marshall 2008 paper)

Kudos to Marshall for this ingenious, basic, application of crowdsourcing to books! It’s great that her little-noticed work, started way back in the mid-1990′s, is finally gaining recognition, as eBooks come closer to reality, and producers look for ways to make them more usable.

As Mitch Ratcliffe said in April, creating marginalia (an old name for the annotations of Marshall) is “an art made for the era of crowdsourcing.”

Selected papers of Cathy Marshall on annotations:

Complete list of Marshall’s publications

Eric Rumsey is at @ericrumsey

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