This article was written in 2014. It might or it might not be outdated. And it could be that the layout breaks. If that’s the case please let me know.

Accessible notes in the margin

Every now and then I get a strange but happy e-mail alert. The alert tells me that someone liked a highlight I made in a book. This means that somebody was reading the same book I read a while ago, saw that I highlighted a sentence, probably read the comment I wrote in the margin and then decided that this highlight and comment were useful enough to like it. Of course this feature can not be found in a physical book, it is a feature in Readmill, an e-reader.

My father is a professor. He is always reading. My parents’ house is filled with books, and these books are filled with highlights and notes in the margin. These notes form an incredible source of knowledge, but unfortunately, nobody will ever be able to do anything with it. The knowledge is hidden in one physical copy in one single house. There’s no way to do anything with that knowledge, it’s completely inaccessible.

I was discussing this waste of knowledge with my father a while ago and I explained him how Readmill worked. That if he could have used such a service while reading his books we would now have a database with all the notes he made throughout his career. We talked about that chaotic library of his, filled with notes that nobody would ever read and concluded that this digital age did definitely bring us some significant advantages.

Today I read the news that Readmill was bought by Dropbox. Acqui-hired was the word the news item used.

Readmill will probably be shut down.

Which means that all my highlights and notes in the margin will be gone. Which also means that right now my father’s system of scribbling notes in the margin of his books with a pencil is probably a more durable solution. I think this is a terrible, terrible waste. All those highlights and all these comments added to all these books by all these clever readers will be gone.

I can only conclude that I must never ever depend on any service that’s backed by venture capitalist capital. These services are not created to add value to the world, they are created to make more money. This is not in my interest.

But still, a big database with highlights and notes from books is a fantastic idea and I do believe we need a service like that. It should be a huge open source project, maybe something like Wikipedia. I know services that shut down never donate their source code to the public, but I would absolutely love to see a Readmill foundation. A non-profit organisation whose sole purpose would be to make all the extra knowledge people add to books accessible to everyone.