Digital Tools for Reading in a Connected Age, Part 1

The continuing information explosion creates both opportunities and problems for readers. In order to adapt, we need better habits and new tools combined in novel ways.


The key functions that I’ve found necessary for digital reading workflows include…

  1. Organize current and future reading material
  2. Isolate reading material from the distraction-rich web for improved readability and deeper reading
  3. Annotation and note-taking to reinforce understanding
  4. Reminders to read or review saved items

No single tool does all three of these things for all document types, and so I’ve been playing with a number of different tools in combination. Here’s a look at the first two functions first broadly, and then in terms of specific tools I’ve found to be useful.

1. Organize current and future digital reading material

Let’s presume we have some kind of filtering mechanism for new information. Let’s presume that filtering identifies some reading material as “read now” vs “read later”. An item may be “read now” if it’s short, or if the immediate task at hand requires discovery of new information. An item may be “read later” if it’s long, or if reading the article requires deeper thinking, or if the reading must be deliberately woven into other work.

In any case, we likely want to save the reading material for later reference. We may want to organize the reading material for faster finding, or matching with themes or categories.

Diigo vs Pocket vs Readability for Web Pages

Diigo has been a favorite tool for saving, tagging, and organizing reading material ever since they went live groups and web page annotation capabilities.

Diigo is a classic social bookmarking tool with a 2-click process to save a document to read later. It seems a small thing, but Diigo automatically closes the current tab when you choose “Read Later”. This helps me keep my browser tidy while I’m exploring a topic.

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Diigo’s browser plugin for Chrome.

And while Diigo addresses function #1 exceedingly well, it does nothing to address function #2, so I’ve been exploring other options, particularly Readability and Pocket

Readability and Pocket are very similar in terms of their saving capabilities. Both have a simple browser add-on that lets you save documents for later (1 click for Pocket; 2 clicks for Readability).  But there are important differences.

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Readability and Pocket’s browser plugins for Chrome.

Readability is simpler. Its “Read Now” capability assumes most web browsing will read to immediate reading, and so it converts web pages into a consistent, simple text format with font sizing and line length that is advantageous to reading.

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Does anyone enjoy reading the unclipped lines in Wikipedia? Readability FTW.

To do the same thing in Pocket requires at least one additional click, added load time, and some navigational confusion as you are taken to your Pocket index in a separate tab.

However, Pocket is more versatile. Pocket has more features and social capabilities for sharing articles, and lets you tag items. What is really enticing about pocket is it lets you save videos and images just as you save articles, including PDFs.

Unfortunately, Diigo is the only one of these three that has annotation capabilities, and this is an important element for me when I am reading online (more on that later).

Mendeley for Academic Articles

Not all digital reading comes in HTML format. When I discover an academic article online, most likely it is a PDF *. While I could just bookmark these or use Diigo or Pocket or whatever and then read them in the browser, this is not always fit for the task. Most academic articles require slower, deliberate poring over. Organizing academic articles benefits from richer metadata, and that metadata is typically re-used for bibliographies and references. That’s why I use Mendeley for academic articles.

While Mendeley does have a desktop plugin that’s good for creating new entries in your Mendeley db, it does not auto-save web pages or PDFs for offline reading. Further, when I find a PDF I often want to secure it, in case it’s not available when next I search.

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Mendeley’s rather large browser plugin for Chrome.

So I start by saving the PDF into a Google Drive folder that is watched by the Mendeley app. I also have Mendeley automatically rename and organize those PDFs into a different folder on Google Drive. Using a cloud file manager for the watched folder means I can easily move from one computer to another, access files from project management tools like RedBooth, and share files easily with collaborators.

Mendeley also has a decent groups functionality which allows for sharing of articles, with notes and annotations. I use this with my team at work. Mendeley’s document management capabilities come with metadata lookup from their database. That alone is enough to make it my article manager of choice.

2. Tools to Isolate Reading Material from the Distraction-Rich Web

If you think you lose more than you gain by disconnecting your reading from the web, don’t bother arguing here. While I see benefits to both methods, for my part, reading on the connected web is simply too distracting. Even if I weren’t to click on any links, side and top bars distract my attention, and you never know when a web page is going to pop-up a survey or something. Also, you’re dependent on an internet connection.

So I isolate items — both web pages and PDFs — for offline reading using cloud apps that allow me to access those items on my phone, on my tablet, or on any computer.

For the experience of reading PDFs offline, I stick with Mendeley. Mendeley’s desktop app is easy to navigate, and the built in annotation tools give me everything I need without much overhead. The Mendeley mobile app is solid, and recent versions have introduced annotation capabilities that do sync up with the desktop version (perhaps to keep abreast of tools that leverage Zotero or Mendeley’s API, like Papership). The Mendeley mobile app does make you sync everything or nothing (actually, one article at a time, on demand), but that’s probably a good dilemma to have with the amount of PDFs that I have saved.

Mendeley’s iPad app, adding a note to a highlighted document

For web pages, all three of tools reviewed here (Diigo, Readability, and Pocket) have mobile apps for offline reading. Unfortunately, the Diigo Browser iPad app is pretty lousy for offline reading, especially compared to the simply beautiful Readability and Pocket apps.

Pocket’s iPad app displays offline articles as preview tiles.

Because I just don’t have a preference for one or the other, I’m sticking with Readability for now.

Readability’s iPad app syncs when opened for offline reading.

In part that’s because Pocket has more options that I don’t know what to do with. I may switch to Pocket if videos and images become a greater part of my reading and curation habits, or if new possibilities using Pocket’s tagging capabilities + IFTTT arise.

More on IFTTT as part of the reading process in the next post as I look at how to develop habits of reading that reinforce understanding of new information.

* A couple pro-tips for finding PDF versions without a college library login:

1. After searching in Google Scholar, click “All X versions” — you’ll often find at least one PDF.

2. In Google generally use the file type operator, filetype:pdf along with the title of the article.

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