My ideal research/annotation tool

January 9, 2008, [MD]

I was reading a bit about different innovative text editors on Mac today. Of course, I have known about TextMate for a long time, and although it mainly changes the way programmers do work, some of the plugins are also useful for for example television script writers. Now I came across a bunch of different text editors/writing tools that aim to help people who write texts, whether literary or academic. This blogpost for example, I am writing in WriteRoom, a simple text editor that blanks out the screen and displays nothing but your text in green on black in the middle of the screen - no blinking MSN, no GMail notifier or anything else flashy to distract you.

There’s also Scrivener, which I just tried out, and which seems promising. It let’s you easily organize text into discrete chunks, and then reorganize them at will, and has a lot of other nifty features which could very well change the way you write, both academic and literary. It’s refreshing to see people trying to rethink how we use computers to author - rethinking the metaphores that we use. The idea of a blank paper in front of us (think MS Word style) which has been taken up by almost all text editors is intuitive - but also limiting in a way that is unnecessary on a computer.

However, when cooking I thought up what for me would be the perfect research / authoring tool. I constantly read a ton of information, both web pages, pdfs, and more seldom - .doc or .odt files. Sometimes what I am reading is directly related to what I am researching right now, but just as often it is something I just came across while looking for something else, that I still found interesting and wanted to skim through. Or I might just be browsing, reading articles linked from some of my favorite blogs.

My tool would let me view all these media types - odt/doc, pdf, html and maybe even rss (or just integrate with Google Reader, Flickr etc). It would let me very intuitively and easily mark up all the different files - I could easily either click somewhere in the pdf/html/doc/odt and insert a comment, or select a few lines and attach a comment to them, or just highlight some lines. Kind of like track changes in Word, but here’s the thing: I would be able to very easily extract a list of all my marked up text from a given PDF, with page numbers etc.

I could tag documents (regardless of type - it’s all information), and all the documents I ever entered into the system would be stored and fully full-text searchable. In addition, it would archive meta data: Which URL this PDF was downloaded from, what the URL was immediately before I downloaded it (ie. usually the “abstract page” etc), and it would even understand DOIs and common archive formats to be able to automatically extract full citation information and attach that to the files.

So when writing an essay, and remembering that I read something about the banking crisis in Russia a few months ago, and that there was a particularly salient paragraph, I’d be able to very easily find that text back, and drag the paragraph over into my text - which would be automatically footnoted with a citation in an appropriate format. Or I could ask to search all my comments for a given text, and have all the text pieces that had been marked up with that comment extracted and displayed together (properly cited).

Perhaps something similar to this is possible today, using different tools and plugins, but I don’t think there is a simple an elegant way of doing it.

And before I close, one thing that I have been wanting for a long time is a plugin for WordPress which let’s you quickly and easily search for CC licensed pictures, and then let’s you insert them easily into your blog, adding proper citation information below. I try to use illustrations to spruce up my longer blog entries, but first I have to find a picture, then insert a link to it, then flip back and copy the username, add a “Thanks to xxx for the username”, select xxx, add link, copy the link, etc… All this should be automated (of course, people using a CC-0 might help this - but I don’t mind giving attribution to people, just when it slows me down a lot).


Stian Håklev January 9, 2008 Toronto, Canada
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