Posted by: Kirstyn Leuner | September 13, 2010

The Technology of Sticky Flags

My name is Kirstyn, I’m the NGSC webmaster and a digital humanities (newbie) scholar and a sticky-flag addict. This post and confession was inspired by a ProfHacker article I read this morning.

Every scholar has his or her own particular way of marking the parts of a text that interest them most and responding to those passages with ideas, connections, hypotheses, comments, and the occasional cranky quip in the margin. For me, the e-reader development craze is not just about saving paper and being “green,”  e-ink reading comfort, battery life, page “turning” time, and feel of the device, but perhaps more important:

(1) the ability to access the 18th- and 19th-century texts I’m working with, and

(2) how to mark that text with “flags” (digital equivalent of the Post-it flag) and comments.

I want to spend my introductory blog thinking about the way in which we scholars typically mark physical books (not e-books … that’s my next post!). The book has a technology of its own, and casual readers and scholars manipulate and mine that technology in different ways. For example, I’m studying for my comprehensive exams right now and am note-taking in too many ways, if you ask me: in/on the actual texts, in notebooks, and on my computer. It’s a distillation of the transformative (and sometimes confusing) technological moment we’re reading, writing, and teaching in.

I’m sure this is not everyone’s way, but this is my current (crazy) method of note taking on a book. Here it is: Each time I grab a new book from my bookshelf, I also grab a ballpoint or gel pen and a tab of multi-colored “Post-it” brand sticky flags, as well as a small wire-bound notebook. [Note: I wonder if the NGSC can get a Post-it corporate sponsorship?] Larger paper sticky notes will do in a pinch if I — heaven forbid — have run out of flags. Begin reading/page turning. Important passages get underlined or called out in pen, comments beside them in pen. Really important passages or textual ideas that I’m tracking get a colored flag, and I write something on the flag itself to help ID why I thought it merited a flag. (These days: red for “the body,” yellow for stuff on reading, orange for “movement” or “travel,” you get the gist.) After underlining, commenting, flagging, and marking the flag, I do analyses of select passages in my notebook while they’re fresh and the creative wheels are turning. End result: a novel with a multi-colored plume of annotated flags off the edge of the page (just horizontal – I try not to go vertical); and a notebook with more long-winded connections, thoughts, and analyses. The notes that I absolutely need to be searchable and easily reorganized, saved, and backed up get typed into my computer.

[Note: recently, I’ve discovered the need to take notes in a notebook as part of my system because typing notes while reading is hard – hands don’t flow from a novel to the keyboard. BUT I can hold a pen in one hand, the novel in my other hand, and a notebook beside me at all times. The digital ideal/equiv (if I could afford it) would be a tablet I could write on with a “pen” that would translate into searchable text.]

What flags do for me and my process:

  • Flags point to exact passages or lines on a page that I deem impoortant.
  • Flags visually indicate one page at a certain depth within a volume — a 3-D object usually comprised of hundreds of pages in depth.
  • Flags are markers than can themselves be marked — a metaleptic tool in which the annotation can itself be annotated.
  • Flags have transparent ends that allow my marks on the page to show through the bottom of the flag.
  • I can also mark on the clear part of the flag itself to layer my marks – a kind of metatextual palimpsest.
  • Flags can be removed, moved to a new page, swapped, saved, reused, and erased (if written on in pencil).

They may look simple and they may be analog, but to me these flags are full of useful scholarly technology and topical, spatial, and textual data and metadata. Worse, I have grown so accustomed to the technology of “the flag” that I’m sure I would actually unconsciously lose information by flagging only digitally.

In spite of their craftiness and usefulness (at least to me) here’s what flags cannot do:

  • Flags and the notes I write on flags cannot be saved to my hard drive or backed-up to a web server.
  • They are not searchable by a machine – just by your eyes. Ink fades, eyes get tired, and winter sweaters sometimes have a way of collecting flags that should actually be in my novels. Thus, they are unreliable narrators, not to mention unfashionable.
  • They cannot automatically link to other flags and notes in the same text – you have to remember where those connections are and write/flag them in yourself.
  • The passages they point to, their comments, and their comments on comments cannot be processed, analyzed, or connected to other readers’ flags and marginalia. That is, unless you lend out your marked-up copy.

Thus, as an aspiring digital humanist I am horror-struck by my flagging addiction and system as an aggregate of data that is not *as* useful as it could be if I used a digital platform and archived all my reading notes, comments, and flagging data electronically. IF I could access all the texts I need digitally. But how to migrate all my notes from physical texts AND flagging data to digital texts and annotation systems? That’s a problem I will not be tackling until after I pass my exams.

What note-taking, reading, or writing habits are you rethinking these days? What digital platforms do you use for reading Romantic-era (or nearby) texts AND note-taking therein?



  1. Kirstyn, what a smart thinking-through of the analog technology of the sticky flag! I don’t know if this will be helpful to you, but what I do now is use sticky flags or book darts to mark important passages then use Zotero to keep track of the bibliographic information and take notes on or transcribe those important passages. This way everything stays in one medium as I use Zotero to flag, annotate and take notes on digital articles as well.

  2. I want to use this article in my ebsite. Thats so useful.

    • Thank you – glad you found it useful! Please send me your URL so that I can find it there as well.
      Best wishes,

  3. Kirstyn –
    What fun to hear your very smart and savvy blog-writing voice! It’s bursting with personality, just like you in person.

    I find myself rather attached to non-digital ways of reading and annotating, though I can imagine how useful a complete digital record would be. Perhaps more familiarity would breed attachment. I’ll try to evolve…

  4. […] and teaching from our point of view. Not that our posts necessarily must address Romanticism–my first post on analog reading technologies obviously did not, Michele’s post on forming a reading group […]

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