When reading, I consider the ability of highlighting and taking notes a basic requirement. If I can’t do it in some way, even with rudimentary copy and past, my reading experience becomes much less rich.

The possibilities

The arrival of digital reading should help us with annotations, improving them and opening new possibilities.

Some of the obvious improvements over analog include:

  • No need to be afraid to mess a book or document.
  • Write without being conscious about the length of the note or trying to fit a small blank space at the side of the page with tiny letters.
  • Easily and quickly delete the annotations, without damaging the pages.
  • Browse and search through all your annotations fast.

Besides that, we should also explore new ideas and possibilities, instead of just mirroring what we used to do in paper. On the other hand, obviously, not everything is progress: some analog features are difficult to replicate.

The actual state

However, the actual state of it always bothered me. After all these years, we still lack a standard way of handling annotations. They work in different ways depending on the file format, the platform you are using and other details. This causes many problems, such as:

  1. Your annotations can easily get spread over all kinds of services, apps, etc.
  2. Interoperability is nearly nonexistent. I can’t browse the annotations I have in different platforms in a central place.
  3. They can get vendor locked.
  4. They are stored (and exported) in many different formats.
  5. Importing annotations from one place to other varies from difficult to virtually impossible.
  6. Good luck if you ever want (or need) to change software while reading a ton of books… You’ll probably need to stick to both and go back and forward to see your annotations spread over them.

All that is inelegant and inefficient. We still get the benefits I listed above, but in a limited and messy way. Worse yet, we barely advanced in exploring new ideas and possibilities. Consequently, we are far from taking advantage from all the possibilities the digital opened to us.

Storing and exporting

Let’s see some examples of how things work currently.

  • PDFs: If you are reading PDFs, many software support that you annotate them directly on the file.

  • ePubs: In the case of ePubs, each reader stores the annotations internally. Some of them do allow exporting, with a varying degree of convenience. But to which format? Well, it also depends on the app. It can be a fancy docx, a messy txt, a well-formated markdown, etc.

    In particular, Google Play Books stores your annotations with their copy of the book, and allows you to export it to a Google Docs file, which also gets automatically updated. (IMO one of the best solutions out there, yet far from ideal.)

  • DRM’ed books: For DRM’ed books, such as the ones you buy on Amazon, the situation is similar to what I just described for ePubs. With the glorious exception that you are stuck using their reader apps.

  • Kindle: About the Kindle, specifically, I talked on this post. TL;DR: also a mess.

A possible solution and more problems

We just saw that many software have some way to export your annotations. Observing that, we could think of a solution like this:

So it is just a matter of using applications that support exporting to a nice format. Use them to read the book and annotate it. Export the annotations when finishing the book. Store all them in a same folder.

This is more or less my current strategy (which I will detail next), but it is still far from ideal.

For example, what if you want to see your annotation IN the book? Let’s say I want to build my digital library, and all my books would have my annotations, like on real life. How would a separate folder with tons of annotations files would achieve that?

Worse than that. As I said, e-books annotations should open us to a world of possibilities, including searching them, browsing the book by them, etc… None of those is given by a html or docx file with my highlights.

Also, some analog features such as “having my notes at the side of the relevant part of the text” are missing from that solution.

A second solution: books and annotations together

So what can we do to have a personal library with our digitally annotated books?

Well, since each app has their own internal method of storing the annotations, you’ll have to pretty much stick with a particular software all your life.

This has, at least, 4 problems:

  • First, the most obvious one.

    You may want to switch to other software in the future, with features you consider useful.

  • You have to count to the software to be operational until your death.

    For example, you may decide to use Play Books, and add all your books to there, but… If you ever stop using it or if it is discontinued, all you’ll have are your Google documents. Your annotated library is gone. You cannot browse your ePub anymore with your annotations.

  • Migration is a pain.

    Let’s say, for the sake of the argument, that you found that perfect software, that you’ll use forever, and it will surely never drop support or stop working. OK, let’s just use it forever and all is solved, right? Not quite. How would it import the annotations for all the books you’ve read until today?

  • You may buy a new e-reader device.

    If you buy a new e-reader device you’ll probably not be able to import the annotations from this software. Bye-bye, library.

So no luck.

My strategy

If you read until here, you’re probably thinking “what a mess”! And I agree.

I’ll try to shine some light with my current strategy to keep my digital annotations:

  • Pick an app/platform/e-reader and try to stick the most to it. E.g.: your Kindle, Google Play Books, etc.
  • Make sure to find a way to periodically export your annotations from it to a universal format, such as plaintext, PDF, etc.
  • Also convert the readings you do out of that platform to a universal format.
  • Keep everything stored and organized in a directory or database.

This aims to:

  • have all your annotations in one place
  • have most of your content annotated (on the platform you pick)
  • be safe against your annotations being vendor locked

Of course, a lot of how you implement that strategy and how well it works depends on your habits, formats and platforms used. Here is One example of it in action:

  • Platform pick: Google Play Books.
  • Do most of your reading there on Google Play Books.
  • Enable the built-in sync of annotations to Google Docs.
  • For your readings outside Play Books, save your annotations in markdown format and store in the same Google Drive folder.

It’s a shame that, in 2019, the best strategy I developed for myself still has some important compromises. For the future, I hope we finally get a standardized way of doing all that.

Btw, if you happen to use the Kindle, this post might interest you.