I have recently been reminded about the topic of annotation.

Annotation remains a vexed issue on the English Wikisource. Not all Wikisources accept annotations; English used to be one that did. After a contentious debate the entire policy ended up being blanked pending any sort of consensus and has remained that way for over a year. That just lead to a sort of no-man’s-land, with different editors doing their own, potentially contradictory things.

The main issue, of course, is whether or not Wikisource should host texts with user-generated annotations.

Part of Wikisource’s mission is to provide accessible copies of source texts. Texts that should remain as faithful and pure as possible. Wikisource does not even correct typos.

Being a wiki, however, the texts could have added depth and usefulness if they provided more information. Place names, for example, change over time and perhaps a reader does not know that Constantinople is Istanbul. It’s simple to add this to the text, in many different ways, but if you do, then the text is slightly less faithful and slightly less pure than it could have been.

That leads to the next two issues: What counts as an annotation and how much is allowed, if any. Some say that even a humble wikilink is an annotation and these must all be purged to maintain textual purity. Users have removed wikilinks for this reason in the past. Others go further than wikilinks and add new footnotes, diagrams and maps to help improve the clarity of a text. Most users are somewhere in between; I’ve done both all of the above.

A casual reader can be helped by having information put in context, or locations pointed out on maps, or have names linked to full biographies. However, if a reader wants to know what exactly a reader in the past would have read, or what a specific author actually published, then user annotations start to obfuscate matters, even if marked.

Keeping multiple copies of texts is one solution: a pure text and a clearly marked annotated version. That doubles work load, however, and presents some technology problems. Technology might be a solution, with the mooted “onion skin” Wikisource 3.0, but that remains theoretical at the moment. Hebrew Wikisource, the oldest standalone Wikisource, uses a special namespace just for annotations, although it is currently the only one to do so. If we are going to put the text somewhere else, why not a different project altogether? This does technically fall within Wikibooks’ bailiwick but will simple wikilinks be enough on that project and are they going to be happy with the buck being passed to them? Even if so, how would we stop new users coming along and putting wikilinks on a Wikimedia project?

The case continues.