Notes and Annotations in Kindle — Sensible Tools for Scholars #1

This post is the first in an occasional series, looking at sensible tools for scholars. See more about my goals and bio at the end.


A friend recently described my postgrad study as a ‘backpacker PhD’. I applied from Melbourne, moved to Canberra for my first year, moved to Sydney for the first tranche of my fieldwork, and soon I’ll be moving again to Montreal for a fellowship. Needless to say, much as I love my paper books, they’re a hassle to lug around. So: ebooks and PDFs. They make it easy to access key texts no matter where you are.

Most of my library was purchased from Kindle. There are reasons, now, to consider alternative sources: the well-documented cruelty of Amazon towards its workers. But I have an extensive library of theory classics in Kindle format, so I’m ‘locked-in.’ Luckily, the Kindle app is getting increasingly useful for academic writers.

In this post: workflow | accessing notes and highlights later | tips for use | about


Reading — you can read on any phone or tablet device, or using the Kindle app for your laptop. You can even open Kindle in your browser, though it’s a bit clunkier this way.

Annotating — highlight some text with your finger or the mouse, and a floating box will pop-up, offering a choice of different highlight colours or the option to make a note. I use notes the way I might scribble a short comment in the margins of a book I own.

As part of a toolkit — the Kindle Notebook solves a particular problem: how to get your quotes and annotations out of a Kindle ebook. It can be combined with other tools like Evernote or Zotero (or even Atlas.ti) to bring those quotes alongside your other data. See the tips for searching your annotations below.

Accessing your notes and highlights later

For years, there was a little-known trick to access your notes and highlights — you could visit a page on the Kindle website and scroll through them there.

Recently, Amazon incorporated the Notes and Highlights function into the Kindle app for Mac (and possibly Windows, but I don’t go there).

This is what it looks like:

For each quote, you can copy the highlight text or ‘star’ it for later reference. This is useful, because many ebook apps block you from using copy and paste — or you might be reading the book on a tablet but writing on your laptop.

Tips for use

Purchasing ebooks

  • Make sure you buy Kindle books that say they have ‘real page numbers’ on the purchase page — most journals won’t let you cite location numbers.
  • Users outside North America may find that Amazon wants you to buy from a separate Kindle store for your country. Prices are usually comparable but they don’t always have the same books, due to licenses being sold separately in different copyright regions.
  • It is possible to load PDFs from your computer into Kindle, e.g. by e-mailing them to an e-mail address specified in your account settings. However, I prefer to use Preview to annotate PDFs. In another post I’ll show you how a little tool called Zotfile can extract PDF annotations into Zotero, my citation manager of choice.

Making annotations

  • There’s a skill to knowing how much to highlight. The more you highlight, the harder it will be to find a quote again later; but highlighting short sentence fragments can make it hard to recall what they meant in context.
  • Across Kindle and Preview, I use highlight colours fairly consistently. On Kindle, yellow is a possible quotation, blue is for citations of other literature, red is something I might criticise, and orange is a possible hook for argument. I never use red for Foucault.

Searching annotations

Unfortunately, the Kindle app does not let you search within your highlights and annotations, or indeed for text fragments across multiple books.

  • To search notes and annotations within a single book, which is to visit the Kindle Notebook website, open your notes for that book and use Find in your browser.
  • Unfortunately, if you have highlighted a lot of text, the website will truncate quotes for copyright reasons.
  • There is a Search box on the Kindle Notebook website, which in theory should allow you to search across books, but my testing suggests it currently isn’t functional.
  • You could use Evernote Capture or Zotero to save your quotes into a more searchable database, so long as they haven’t been truncated on the Kindle Notebook website.

Writing with quotes from Kindle

  • If you use a PDF, you can use Zotfile to export your annotations into separate notes in Zotero, and it will even insert pre-formatted citations with the page number. Currently, Kindle does nothing of the sort — so remember, when you copy a quotation into your working document, add the author-year and page number to save yourself pain later.

About the series

‘Sensible Tools for Scholars’ will be an occasional post series that profiles alternatives to established choices like Endnote and Nvivo, which have well-known and long-standing problems with reliability, functionality and interface usability and consistency. I’m a Mac user and a qualitative researcher doing both fieldwork and discourse analysis, and that will no doubt influence my choice of tools to profile — I don’t want to recommend anything I haven’t spent a good chunk of time using myself, but I would welcome guest posts from researchers in other traditions.


This post is copyright Daniel Reeders 2017. Posts in this series, including images and text, must not be copied in full without permission and attribution.