Annotating the Scholarly Web

The Scholarly Communications program awarded $752,000 to the Project. will enhance its open source software platform and implement annotation services within ProjectMuse, Michigan Publishing's Journal of Scholarly Publishing, Scalar, the multimedia authoring and publishing application developed at the University of Southern California, and MLA Commons, an online platform for scholarly collaboration and networking. 

Scholarly Communications also made grants to the Universities of Oklahoma, Oxford, and York, Johns Hopkins University, and the British Library to support projects that involve the annotation of digital primary sources.  These projects will also be consulting closely with

The recent awards represent one way in which Scholarly Communications is now assisting libraries and publishers in making digital scholarly publications and primary source collections more usable and useful. 

Why Annotation? 

According to Don Waters, Mellon's senior program officer for Scholarly Communications, "annotation has been a core scholarly activity for several thousand years.  There is a long tradition of scholars making notes and comments on passages in ancient texts such as the Talmud and the Homeric poems.  Today, scholars working with digital sources need easy-to-use tools to annotate them."

John Unsworth, a pioneer in the digital humanities, and currently the vice provost for Library and Technology Services at Brandeis University, has argued persuasively that annotation is one of the "scholarly primitives," an activity necessary to most types of scholarly research across disciplines and over time.  However, Unsworth wrote about annotation online in 2000 and said that "shared annotation is, for all scholarly intents and purposes, impossible on the Web.  Some interesting though clunky schemes and workarounds have been developed…, but there's not a lot you can do in this regard."

Unfortunately, the general state of the art remains much as Unsworth reported it fourteen years ago.  Helen Cullyer, Mellon's program officer for Scholarly Communications, observes that "few websites of scholarly or other resources have capabilities that allow users to annotate specific pieces of content.  Although many software applications for viewing and reading now provide users with some kind of annotation mechanism," she said, "the highlights and comments made within these products are usually locked into proprietary formats, cannot (or cannot easily) be exported or shared, and the mechanisms do not allow annotation of all online media types, such texts, image, and video."

Imagine, a scenario in which you could annotate texts, images, and videos within the same interface, view your annotations of the same content in a different format or in a different software application, and share those annotations with ease.

Cullyer asks us to, "imagine, a scenario in which you could annotate texts, images, and videos within the same interface, view your annotations of the same content in a different format or in a different software application, and share those annotations with ease.  This scenario, which will change the way that scholars engage with each other, their students, and the public, is now beginning to take shape in a variety of projects funded by the Mellon Foundation."

Mellon's interest in annotation began in 2009 with a series of grants to support the Open Annotation Collaboration (OAC), led by the University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign.  Operating within the context of the linked data and Semantic Web technologies, OAC has now developed open standards, for digital annotation. 

These standards have served as the basis for two further Mellon-funded initiatives at Stanford University:  Shared Canvas, a data model for representing digital facsimiles of manuscripts; and the International Image Interoperability Framework (IIIF), a set of common protocols that repositories can use to display and share images.  When Shared Canvas and IIIF are implemented in software at both the repository and user level, scholars will be able to search, view, analyze, and annotate images from different institutions with ease.

In 2012, the OAC team began to work with the developers of the Annotation Ontology project, which is based at Massachusetts General Hospital and is focused on annotation of medical data and resources.  The two initiatives have combined their work to create one, unified Open Annotation model.

Adoption and Implementation

The recent grants of the Foundation are now aimed to promote broad adoption and implementation of Open Annotation standards, Shared Canvas, and IIIF.  With Mellon funds, will implement a variety of features within online scholarly publishing platforms, including:  real-time updates of annotations, compatibility with all major Web browsers, and support for annotation on mobile devices.  According to Dan Whaley, the CEO of, "scholarship revolves around the multitude of ways we exchange thinking— a continuous dialogue of ideas, insights and critique.  Open Annotation represents a powerful new scaffold for this exchange anywhere the Web exists.  Our mission is to develop the tools to bring this scaffold to life, and to partner with the Humanities to ensure this capability reaches the widest possible audience."

The Universities of Oxford, York, and Johns Hopkins University will be implementing Shared Canvas within repositories of digitized manuscripts and early printed books.  The University of Oklahoma will develop annotation services for the Digital Latin Library, and the British Library will create annotation tools for use with its digitized collections. 

All of these projects are contributing to the realization of a vision that will change scholarly communication.  As Allen Renear, dean of the Graduate School of Library and Information Science at UIUC has commented about these efforts:  "Annotation of the Web will be as transformative as the Web itself."

For more information, contact

Don Waters or Helen Cullyer.