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Fendt, Kurt E., Massachusetts Institute of Technology, USA,
Kelley, Wyn, Massachusetts Institute of Technology, USA,
Zhang, Jia, Massachusetts Institute of Technology, USA,
Della Costa, Dave, Massachusetts Institute of Technology, USA,

Taking Reader’s Response Theory as the basis, this short paper discusses approaches to enhancing reader interaction with literary texts through social annotation and visualization tools. The integration of multimedia repositories, collaborative annotation mechanisms, and advanced visualization techniques creates a digital environment for students and scholars alike and provides readers with rich tools for both interpreting literary texts and visualizing reader interactions with these texts. Examples will be drawn from Mary Shelley’s Frankenstein and Herman Melville’s Moby-Dick.

Notes in margins of books fulfill several functions for the individual reader: recording thoughts and associations while reading, marking important passages or references to other parts within the same text, noting possible links to other texts and documents, or simply creating a reference point to come back to in a subsequent reading. From a cognitive point of view, marginalia offer insights into the interaction of a reader with a given text and offer hints towards understanding the process of reading and sense making. Reading a book that already contains notes by another reader can be both enlightening or distracting, yet it allows us to encounter another person’s reading experience, forming another layer of meaning that might influence our own interpretation. It’s this interactive nature of the reading experience, the constant interaction between the text itself and the reader’s response to it that, according to Wolfgang Iser in the Implied Reader (1974)1, allows us to interpret a literary text. The result is a ‘virtual text’ that is formed by a text and the reader‘s interaction with it.

For centuries, marginalia have served as instantiations of a rich reader engagement with a text, often providing hints to interpretations from different times, languages, and cultures thus forming critical insights into texts that would otherwise be lost. With more and more texts being digitized or already born digital texts available online or on electronic readers, the notion of marginalia in a digital space poses a number of interesting questions. How can we preserve, enhance, and expand this critical interaction especially with literary texts, particularly when we consider the social dimension offered through digital media? How can we make use of large digital text, image, video, and audio repositories to help us represent a text as a ‘multi-dimensional space,’ as a ‘tissue of quotations drawn from innumerable centers of culture’ (Roland Barthes)2? What if we had digital tools that allowed us to even visualize how readers experience a text by following their interactions, for example by graphically representing their annotations across the whole text? How do readers discover connections within a text, across different texts, to source texts, to adaptations in other media, or derivative texts? What if we could finally visualize the ‘act of reading’ (Iser) and analyze a literary text from the perspective of both the author and the readers?

A multidisciplinary research team at HyperStudio, the Massachusetts Institute of Technology’s Digital Humanities Lab within Comparative Media Studies, has been exploring these questions, developing digital tools that allow readers to create multimedia annotations to literary texts, and testing them in the literature classroom. HyperStudio has created specific visualization tools that allow for a visual representation of the structural features of a text and, more importantly, offer graphs that show the reader interactions with a given text both on page and whole book levels. At the same time, these visualizations also serve as navigational mechanisms through the texts and annotations, both fine-grained and on a whole-text basis.

Pedagogically this work is informed by a wide range of theoretical and practical approaches: concepts of media literacy, work on interactive and collaborative text editing, a pedagogy of close reading and critical writing devised to place literary texts in relation to their multimedia sources and adaptations; and new Digital Humanities tools for visualization, data mining, and social networking.

At the heart of these different approaches lie theories and technologies for understanding the mix as a central feature of new media ‘literacies’ or ‘competencies,’ in Henry Jenkins’ terminology3. The notion of remix borrowed from popular musical forms has come to define new modes of artistic production and consumption that inspire active creators. Similarly in academic scholarship and pedagogy, an appreciation for how artists borrow and rework cultural materials has energized the study of creative processes. In a literature classroom, traditional methods of close reading, source study, and literary analysis can merge with newer interpretive models to view texts in creative flux: as fluid vessels for recombining older forms of inspiration and engendering new ones in different media adaptations. Reading literary works as textual remixes reinforces strong close reading and critical skills while rejuvenating source study. We see text annotation at the center of this notion of remix.

The visualization approaches have been informed by a range of current online tools for visualizing texts but also by artistic representations of text corpora such as David Small’s work4, timeline tools such as HyperStudio’s Chronos5, and playful approaches such as the ones by John Maeda6. Existing visualization concepts such as word clouds, word trees, phrase nets are only a few of the online visual tools that help us graph occurrences of single words or the relationship between words within texts. Popular visualization tools such as the ones available for experimentation at IBM‘s Many Eyes7 or scholarly tools such as Voyeur8 help us quickly discover word frequencies and usage patterns. Google’s Ngram Viewer9 makes the leap beyond the single text and searches across ‘millions’ of books and displays occurrences of single or multiple words as line graphs along a timeline that spans decades or even centuries. While these tools help us greatly analyze a range of linguistic aspects of the work of an author, they tell us little about how readers interact with literary texts. The tools that HyperStudio is developing allow us to visualize how readers interact with a text, how they discover connections within a text, across texts, to source texts, to adaptations in other media, or derivative texts. In the end, they aim at visualizing the ‘act of reading’ (Iser) and helping to analyze a literary text from the perspective of both the author and the readers.

From a software development point of view, we are using principles of agile development and co-design, involving students, faculty, designers, and assessment specialists from the outset. Building on HyperStudio’s Ruby-on-Rails-based platform Repertoire, the text annotation tools feature shareable text repositories, easy role and group management, filtering of annotations via tags and search, and display of overlapping annotations from different users/groups. The visualization tools will allow a seamless transition from fine-grained display of annotations to a global view of annotations within a whole literary text.

We recognize that there are a number of text annotation tools available, both open source and commercial, that include some of the features we are describing here.  However, the approach to annotating texts with multimedia materials, annotation across texts, a deep integration of visualization tools for both textual features and reader interaction, combined with a strong educational focus, is unique in the field.

Early feedback from students using a prototype of the annotation tools in two literature classes at MIT has shown a deeper engagement by students not only in processes of close reading and creating references to external sources but also in students’ requests for private workspaces where they could upload their selection of literary texts and annotate them in the same way for their own research, not even related to any class assignments. In addition, the HyperStudio team has also received a number of feature requests from students. One feature in particular was in great demand (on our schedule for later implementation): the flexible comparison and joint annotation of two texts side-by-side. Each text can be independently defined as source, version, base, or adaptation, allowing for the display of referenced annotations even when the related text is not present. Additional features such as annotation of non-contiguous portions of text and the creation of multimedia essays based on reader annotations will be implemented in a next phase.  By the time of DH2012, HyperStudio will have tested the annotation tools and visualizations in half a dozen courses and conducted extensive assessment.


This work was supported by the MIT Class Fund and the MIT SHASS Teaching and Learning Fund.


1. Iser, W. (1974). The Implied Reader; Patterns of Communication in Prose Fiction from Bunyan to Beckett. Baltimore: John Hopkins UP.

2.Barthes, R. (1997). The Death of the Author. In Image – Music– Text. New York: Hill & Wang, pp. 142-148.

3.Jenkins, J., et al. (2006). Confronting the Challenges of Participatory Culture: Media Education for the 21st Century. Chicago: The John D. and Catherine T. MacArthur Foundation. accessed 25 March 2012.

4.Small, D. (1999). Talmud Project. accessed 25 March 2012

5.MIT HyperStudio (2011). Chronos Timeline. accessed 25 March 2012.

6. accessed 25 March 2012.

7. accessed 25 March 2012.

8. accessed 25 March 2012.

9. accessed 25 March 2012.