Reflections on Annotation as Information Literacy…

03-02-2019 22:02

Since the launch of the new CILIP definition of Information Literacy at LILAC2018 I’ve been thinking quite a bit about the component parts of IL and what would form a curriculum of its study. Perhaps we don’t need such a curriculum… but I find the idea a useful vehicle into reflecting on my learning around IL.

The new definition moves away from the process driven definition of 2004 which focused primarily on IL as an academic and research pursuit. Instead the definition seeks to to take a strategic position placing IL at the heart of a successfully functioning ideal society. In particular it expressly situates IL as a component of critical thought and evaluation of information; in order for this approach to succeed we must consider the issues of comprehension and recollection. This is made clear when we move beyond the high end definition and into the discussion section:

(IL)… enables learners to engage in deep learning – perceiving relationships between important ideas, asking novel questions, and pursuing innovative lines of thought. This active and critical way of learning encourages pupils and students to quickly master factual and descriptive elements of content (‘What’ and ‘How’) and then move on to investigate higher-level aspects such as source, degree of authority, possibility of bias, and what it means in the wider context.” ( p5. (emphasis is mine))

My experience of designing IL teaching sessions has been that teaching staff are mainly interested in the librarians teaching their students to reference. Obviously this is understandable, referencing is an important part of IL. It’s the ability to “communicate information in an ethical manner” as the old definition described it; and it forms a core component of the grading criteria. It can also includes the “when…you need information” in considering the role of citations.

The “where to find it” component of the old IL definition also gets some attention, academic staff are often interested in sessions which teach their students how to make the databases work and in my experience it is common practice in IL teaching to discuss the selection of keywords; part of the process of thinking about the “why you need information”.

Where I feel that IL teaching currently shows limitations (and I admit I speak from the meagre perspective of a new professional) is in the evaluation and context component of IL. For instance I have never sat through an IL session that encouraged the participants to reflect on where an article or conference paper is situated within an authors body of work and whether it represents a starting point, mid-point or end-point in that authors personal journey of discovery, nor have I known an IL (or any other) session to incorporate how to critically annotate a text; this is where I think the new definition can teach us something important.

Perhaps, of course, I am in the minority in regards to this experience (or its lack). Perhaps I will be shouted down in a chorus of “of course we do!”. I hope so. But this blog post represents an early point in my own personal journey of discovery and is drawn from own experience as a student and as a librarian. I’m quite happy to be proved wrong, if wrong I am. I suspect, however, that I am not.

I think the new definition offers an opportunity to think strategically about the provision of IL teaching and what goes into it and expand engagement with both academic and Learning enhancement staff to explore how some of these misplaced elements might be more fully incorporated.

So that is why I’ve been thinking about annotation.

Obviously I know what annotation is, but perhaps I should think a little more deeply about it. A standard definition might be: ‘Annotations are simply notes or comments. The word annotation comes from the Latin root words ad, meaning “to”, and notare, meaning “to note”.’ (

But I think such a definition is too simplistic. I personally find very little about my own annotation process to be simple and a definition incorporating any note or comment lacks context. Annotating doesn’t include smiley faces (unless that’s a symbolic entry signifying something deeper) or remarks on the current weather!

Perhaps a definition needs to incorporate the context of why we annotate, for example:

‘Writing annotations is a way to ensure that you study a text… carefully. In essence, an annotation is an analytical or illustrative note or group of notes added to a text.’ (

So annotation is obviously more than simply notes. It’s about analysis and it is about a careful reading. Annotation incorporates comprehension.

Comprehension is a key component of study, reading literacy and (going by the new definition) Information Literacy. Increasingly as e-resources become a norm in academic study examination has turned to the degree to which students comprehend the text they are reading and an increasing number of studies report a lack. On the train to work recently however a study that caught my eye noted that those participants who read e-material at a slower more engaged pace saw no discernible drop in comprehension when compared to books.

I find this correlation between the speed of reading and its comprehension suggestive. The process of e-reading is designed to be fast and lacking in opportunities to pause and to consider. In other words the issue is, arguably, not the format itself, but the lack of interaction with the text. This is the precisely the purpose of the annotation process.

A fuller definition might be:

‘Annotating is any action that deliberately interacts with a text to enhance the reader’s understanding of, recall of, and reaction to the text. Sometimes called “close reading”, annotating usually involves highlighting or underlining key pieces of text and making notes in the margins of the text.’

So ultimately annotation is an interaction with textual (usually?) information in order to fulfil the purpose of effective use in order to exercise critical judgement and understand the wider context. Whilst it may lie in a liminal space between Information Literacy, Learning Enhancement and the subject itself, I feel there is certainly a prima facie case for Librarian involvment and the incorporatation of annotations within a broader understanding on an IL curriculum (if one were to exist).

There are many other stands to consider of course, annotation as collaboration and annotation as empowerment are two. Is annotation subversive? I’m also intrigued by the history of annotation. These are the topics I shall be mulling over in the upcoming months.