Q&A with J. Commander, Founder and Editor of Annotated-The Online Library of Annotated Editions

January 15, 2019

Josh Commander with Kristl Commander and Tom Savignano
Joshua Commander with Kristl Commander and Tom Savignano

In 2011, the first ever Dickens Universe Community College Scholarship was granted to Joshua Commander. Since then, Commander has gone on to earn advanced degrees in British Literature and the Humanities from California State University,  Stanislaus and California State University, Northridge, respectively. In addition to managing Annotated, he now serves as a full-time Digital Services Librarian.

In June, 2018 Commander launched a nonprofit organization entitled, Annotated-The Online Library of Annotated Editions. The idea for his organization came about during preparation for a course he taught at Southern Oregon University. “Rather than requiring my students to purchase yet another textbook, I decided to have them annotate their own text,” Commander recalls.  While the primary purpose of Annotated is to “produce annotated and critical editions and make them freely available online for students and the general public alike,” Commander emphasizes, “AnnotatedLibrary.org was ultimately born from the production of what would be our (class’s) first annotated text... and we wish to encourage humanities instructors to engage in the same sort of pedagogical activity that I happened upon when brainstorming how to get my students to engage with a text that was in most respects foreign to them.” 

The Dickens Project is excited to introduce Annotated to the upcoming 2019 Dickens Universe conference by allowing students the opportunity to annotate Barnaby Rudge as a part of the undergraduate curriculum. To our delight, Commander agreed to take part in a Q & A regarding the organization and the comprehensive education it fosters. Read on to learn more about the background and future of Annotated, and about how to get involved! 

What inspired you to start Annotated? (was there a practical, creative, or other impetus?)

Though my courses had differing curricula, I taught each of them via a “herstory” lens using primary texts that featured either female authors or female protagonists— one of which being She Stoops to Conquer. Rather than requiring my students to purchase yet another textbook, I decided to have them annotate their own text since She Stoops is in the public domain and readily available online.

To my delight, I found that requiring students to annotate their own assigned texts themselves helped them develop their research and paraphrasing skills immensely, as well as instill in them a sense of ownership of their assigned text, which in turn cultivated a degree of investment in their annotated work (and literature in general) that an already prepared text did not. Moreover, such an activity caters to diverse learning styles and requires students to process the text in a multi-layered way, which in turn aids in comprehension and retention of the material. By annotating texts themselves, students must consider a readership, an audience, for whom they are writing the annotations; in order to do this conscientiously, they cannot simply passively read the text but must critically evaluate it and explain terms and allusions that the average twenty-first century reader would not be familiar with.

For a generation that increasingly thinks and communicates in shorthand, takes instant gratification for granted, and spends much of its time in one form of virtual reality or another, I think assignments that engage student interest, develop their critical thinking capacities and produce digital artifacts for posterity are nothing short of imperative for the 21st century classroom and its students.

Every edition we produce includes the instructional method by which I conducted this task in the “Collaborative Annotation Activity for College Classes” section (also included on our website) with the hope that other college instructors and their students will emulate our example, therein helping students gain a better understanding of their assigned literary work that they otherwise might not have enjoyed if they simply read an already glossed text.

Commander and his wife, Kristl
Commander and his wife, Kristl


What do volunteers gain from contributing to the project? (both academic and non-academic volunteers)

We have six different sorts of volunteers involved in the project: student interns, researchers, proofreaders, peer-reviewers, editors, and members of the Board of Directors.

The researcher's task is to sift through databases, library holdings, and the corners of the internet to gather author- and title-specific resources for inclusion on the website in order to supplement editions we have already produced or will in the near future. Proofreaders perform active and guided readings of the editions to catch any typographical errors and make suggestions for revision prior to publication. Peer-reviewers perform a double-blind perusal of contributions submitted to Annotated's unique literary journal, The Critical Editor (ISSN 2637-5176), for potential inclusion in what will ultimately result in a critical edition of one of our annotated texts. The associate editors (Heather Bodiford and Kristl Commander) and I produce the annotated texts and apparatus that accompany them, as well as review and edit the material produced by the other participants. The volunteers for each of the above roles must have sufficient knowledge and background for the tasks at hand and hold at least a Master's degree in an associated humanities discipline.

Our student interns are introduced to and guided through each of the above roles by me, and their internship ultimately culminates in an Annotated Edition of a short work. One of the student interns, for example, has an annotated edition of J. S. Le Fanu's Carmilla currently under review.

Volunteers benefit from participating in Annotated by gaining invaluable experience in critical editing and open-access academic publishing. For student interns, being able to lay claim to having a legitimate academic publication prior to graduate school is not only unusual, but is also an excellent portfolio centerpiece to point to when applying for scholarships, grants, and graduate programs. For our established scholars, working with Annotated develops their Curricula Vitarum, providing much needed experience in textual criticism and academic publishing, which in turn is helpful in making them more competitive for tenure-track or professional-track positions. Perhaps most importantly, though, participation in Annotated is a humanitarian deed in that it helps toward producing free scholarly editions of classic works and making those works more accessible to our citizenry—a citizenry who find themselves more and more estranged from the much needed lessons provided by our literary and humanistic heritage.

What do readers gain from the products of Annotated?

Before addressing what readers of our Annotated Editions gain, I want first to briefly address one thing they don't lose: money. Our byline is that “Knowledge Should Be Free,” and I am a strong adherent of this belief. Textbook costs are more exorbitant than they have ever been, so in our own small way we seek to offset an expense that too often creates a financial hardship for students by making our editions freely available online. Certainly, the works in question are in the public domain and can easily be found for free online, but most readers today cannot fully appreciate the text without annotations and apparatus that explain and contextualize the work in question—and editions that include such materials are not usually free. That's where Annotated comes into the picture.

The guiding principle behind my development of Annotated's house style was to provide just enough information in the annotations and other accompanying material to make the text accessible to the average reader, but also not to the comprehensive extent that s/he fails to critically engage with the work—or, worse yet, gets discouraged or distracted by their being too much supplementary text. For this reason, instead of having a traditional thirty or so page introduction to the text, every edition has a short section called “Things To Know Before Reading” that provides essential information for the reader to be able to contextualize the text, but nothing more than that. Following that section is another small section called “Things To Consider While Reading” that provides prompting questions to help readers critically evaluate and interact with the text in question. Those two sections are then followed by the annotated text, glossed in a way that helps facilitate understanding of the text rather than divert attention away from it (which some scholarly editions inadvertently do via the inclusion of material that may be interesting and relevant to scholars, but may serve to confuse and discourage the uninitiated reader). I like to think that our texts are prepared for high schoolers, undergraduates, and the general public much in the manner of the proverbial porridge: not too hot, not too cold—but just right.

What titles have already been published, and what are the next books/works you are hoping to take on?

We have published on AnnotatedLibrary.org editions of She Stoops to Conquer by Oliver Goldsmith, “The Cask of Amontillado” by Edgar Allan Poe, “A Hunger Artist” by Franz Kakfa, and The Arnolfini Portrait by Jan van Eyck. For the last one, some readers may be scratching their heads thinking, “What? How in the world can there be an 'annotated edition' of a painting?” To answer that query, I encourage you to go to our website to find out.

We are currently putting the finishing touches on the following Annotated Editions: The Importance of Being Earnest by Oscar Wilde, Carmilla by J. S. Le Fanu, “The Sandman” by E. T. A. Hoffman, The Metamorphosis by Franz Kafka, and The Pirate by Thomas Dibdin. We also plan to begin working on Strange Case of Dr Jekyll & Mr Hyde by Robert Louis Stevenson and Frankenstein by Mary Shelley in the near future.

How can people get involved with Annotated?

Annotated is a not-for-profit organization, so any donations toward website maintenance, material, production, internship, and promotional costs would be appreciated beyond measure. Tax-deductible donations can be made to our fiscal sponsor, Northwest Alliance for Alternative Media and Education (NAAME), by visiting AnnotatedLibrary.org, clicking the “Support Annotated” link in the menu bar, and following the instructions described therein.

Upper-level high school and college/university instructors can get involved by incorporating annotated activities in their classrooms—and can use the produce of those activities to get themselves and their students published on AnnotatedLibrary.org! Full instructions for doing so can be perused by visiting our website and selecting “Classroom Annotation.”

Scholars who wish to volunteer or to propose an edition for publication on Annotated can get in touch with me via the “Contact Us” link on the website or by emailing me at annotatedlibrary@gmail.com

Perhaps most importantly, anyone can do Annotated a world of service simply by spreading the word of its existence. Our mission is to provide individuals of all backgrounds free access to literature, art, historical documents, and philosophical works and the materials necessary to understand and appreciate them—but we can only do that if people know about our work.

Lastly, if there is an idea you have for helping Annotated in its mission—or if you simply have any comments or feedback you would like to share with us about our work—I encourage you to email us.

Thank you again to The Dickens Project for hosting this Q&A, and I look forward to seeing everyone when we celebrate Barnaby Rudge in July. As Joe Gargery would say, “What larks!”