Re: Anno., SGML, granularity

Nathan Torkington (
Thu, 12 Aug 1993 13:55:21 +1200

Terry Allen writes:

> Sorry, folks, I wasn't thinking when I rejected out of hand
> the notion of offsets for storing the position of annotations
> outside of a file. But this seems like a rat's nest anyway.
> Let me suggest instead that the positioning of annotations be
> made at the granularity provided by the document's IDs.

Ick! Annotations are entirely user-based, and this author-provision
stuff seems irrelevant.

> That means you wouldn't be able to insert an annotation at
> any point in a paragraph (do we really need to be able to
> do that? is anyone using annotations this way for good
> reason?)

*ahem*. Here is a section from ``The Day the Universe Changed'' by
James Burke, on the formation of modern law. It shows how annotations
were used originally, and still are today. When I go to annotate
something, I usually annotate only a part of the document (something
tricky, something wrong or the crucial step in reasoning) rather than
the whole thing.

Law had always been part of the training in the trivium, whose rhetoric
course was subdivided into demonstrative, deliberative and judicial
argument. The `judicial' part had been taught in Pavia and in Ravenna,
the ancient capital of the Byzantine Viceroy, as well as in Rome
itself. The major difficulty was that the material was piecemeal. The
great compendium of Roman law created by the Emperor Justinian and
known as the Corpus Juris Civilis (Body of Civil Laws) had been lost
since 603. There had also been a key to the laws, the Digest, which
contained a summary of all the main points. Only two copies of the
Digest had survived, and their whereabouts were unknown.

Then, in 1076, a liberal arts teacher called Irnerius found a copy of
the Digest, most probably in the library of the Royal Law School in
Ravenna, close to Bologna where he lived. The discovery of the Digest
and the subsequent use which Irnerius and his successors made of it was
of major importance in Western European history, because it put all
Roman law into the hands of both the Church and the citizen. While this
fact alone was to have far-reaching effects on the development of the
West in economic and political terms, what was to have even greater
impact was the way in which the Digest was edited.

The Digest was extremely complex and difficult to understand, often
referring to situations and concepts of which the medieval European
lawyer was only dimly aware. It was immensely sophisticated, compiled
and refined as it had been through the centuries from early Rome until
Justinian's time to serve the greatest empire in the world. It was a
system which those with the limited experience of the early Middle Ages
could not easily comprehend. Irnerius made the Digest easier to use by
`glossing' it. Glossing was a technique already in use which involved
the addition of notes, analyses and commentaries to the margin of a
manuscript. These glosses were generally used as lecture notes by
teachers interpreting the text for their students.

At the monastery of St Stephen, Irnerius expounded his system. The aim
was to elucidate the literal meaning of every sentence and to give
coherence to the subject-matter as a whole. As an aid to the
understanding of each sentence in the text, he advised that the teacher
should provide synonyms for difficult words, add notes to clarify an
obscure sentence structure, and explain any unfamiliar custom to which
the text referred. Teachers were also to prepare summulae (notes
summing up whole areas of law), continuationes(summaries of different
groups of laws) and distinctiones (variations on the hypothetical cases

The novelty of this approach cannot be overestimated. At the time, all
over Europe, ``going to the law'' still meant visiting a priest who
would pray for signs and give what advice he could. It might often
involve the ordeal of trial by fire, or by tying up suspected persons
and throwing them into a river; if they drowned, they had been
innocent. Much legal decision-making was left to astrologers, who
would judge right or wrong according to the accused man's date of
birth. To approach the matter of jurisprudence in a rational and
analytical way was a tremendous step forward.

> But annotations would clump naturally, instead of being spread
> through the document like a mist, and that might be useful.

Surely removing annotations from their source is (a) asking for
confusion and (b) a bit silly 'cos if annotations refer to a specific
part of the text then putting them elsewhere is contrary to the
intentions of the author of the annotation.

> More generally, on annotations: how can this possibly work at a
> large scale? If I have a document that the world can annotate, and
> it's controversial, I could generate hundreds of thousands of
> annotations (think of the number of calls to the White House when
> something big is in the news). No one can sensibly sort through such
> a heap. How do Webbers really envision annotations working in
> practice?

I envision a system like Usenet news, but with no expiry (deletion is
by request only). Threading is essential in this case.