Reading aids

Hashtag in margin of manuscript.
“This is not a (medieval) hashtag”. Or is it?, London, Wellcome Library, Wellcome MS. 550

In our post-literate society, we are surrounded by reading aids, tools that improve our reading and memorisation and help us organise information more effectively. It’s so pervasive we don’t even see it. Pictograms, infograms, highlighting, typographical emphasis (boldface, italics, underlining, etc), colouring, rubrication, tagging, annotation, the list is truly endless – they feel second nature, as routine as writing itself.

Every reading aid, from the asterisk to the hashtag, has its own history, long, convoluted and exciting. Reading aids and tools exist not because it makes more people read (like an pedagogical tool, though many do that too), but because a high level of literacy and a high volume of available, un-metabolised text require them. Reading aids, like computers, were developed not because there is too little information out there, but because there is too much in need of handling and organising. Yes, I’m hugely simplifying. My point is that reading-improvement tools have almost always been developed in response to a perceived need for clarity, structure and serviceability.

The hashtag is the latest reading aid designed to improve readability, visibility across the digital page and space. But the hashtag is not a species sui generis, a device born out of pure creativity. It is another reading tool suitable for a new medium and a new dynamic.

As long as there is text, there will always be reading aids, some new, some old, some enduring, some quickly becoming extinct. And as the literacy bubble keeps expanding, expect new reading aids to be developed, or old ones to be repurposed.

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