The first normal talk at the ECDL2008 was about “Improving Placeholders in Digital Documents” by George Buchanan and Jennifer Pearson. Placeholders (also known as bookmarks) in physical form are common and easy to use: you just put a peace of paper (or similar flat thing) inside a book, and optionally add notes on it. Bookmarks in the digital world are known but have low usability. A bookmark in a browser is just a plain link without additional information (color, notes, etc.), it only points to a webpage instead of specific parts of the content and it does not show up if you open the object that had been bookmarked. Moreover there is other content you may want to bookmark, for instance PDF files.
Buchanan and Pearson identified current uses of placeholders by user studies (interviews with a dozen of researchers) and created a demo interface for bookmarking PDFs. The talk was nice but I really wonder why it was selected as best paper. Especially the lack of referencing Social Tagging (Brewster Kahle brought it up in a question after the talk) would have been a clear reason for rejection if I was the reviewer! Social Tagging and Social Bookmarking has limitations – but it is much more than normal digital bookmarks and there are several tools to support tagging the files on your own hard disk. You should better try enhance tagging tools so tagging becomes more like annotating documents with placeholders instead of asking people to use artificial bookmarking tools. I hope the next talks will be better in scientific and practical relevance. Maybe the fact that Buchanan also got the best paper award last year (while beeing in the ECDL programm commitee) has influenced the decision? One more argument for open review.
Anyway: as long as there are no good interfaces to easily read and annotate documents, people will prefer paper notes for good reason. Give people a working e-paper-device with high resolution, long-lasting battery, touchscreen and the possibility to share documents without technical barriers like DRM and we can create a collaborative workspace for bookmarking and annotating documents; or as I already called it 2005 in the article “Mehr als Marginalien – das E-Book als gemeinsamer Zettelkasten” in the German library science e-journal “LIBREAS”: a common file-card box.
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