Navigating long documents in the PDF reader

edited March 5, 2021
This discussion was created from comments split from: Available in preview: Zotero PDF reader and new note editor.
  • Thank you for continually developing Zotero! I downloaded and began using the application in early 2017. It is so much cleaner today and I look forward to seeing it evolve with the new iOS app and this PDF reader functionality.

    It is on the latter topic I’m going to provide some feedback: the PDF reader for Zotero. This feedback is in part influenced through frustrations I have with other PDF readers, a sensitivity to how technology disrupt and enable best learning practices, and in part from a desire to have Zotero be most helpful for the broad range of people using it. There are certain people who rely exclusively on Open Source software, and for the academics in this crowd may Zotero grow as their powerhouse app.

    Jumping in, for the reader of long documents there is a need to return multiple times to it, to jump back and forth between sections long distances apart, and view a selective number of sections during each reading session. Typically, this workflow is greatly hindered or enabled via a combination of a Table of Contents, a last viewed saved state, and Bookmarks.

    For an example, take your typical OpenStax textbook. (If textbooks strike one as an unusual read within a bibliography manager, run in your mind an analogous text of length and depth, like War and Peace or The Swann’s Way, or compiled conference proceedings containing multiple journal articles, and translate the demands accordingly.) Although presented in a sequence and order to facilitate a linear reading, readers with a background in the subject will often pick and choose chapters to study. They may wish to initiate a reading session on Chapter 3 of Economics, 2e on Demand and Supply, then switch to reading Chapter 22 on Inflation, before returning later. Such a reader could find it difficult to accomplish this and following reading sessions for several reasons.

    First, if there is no Table of Contents in the PDF reader, navigation involves time-consuming scrolling that dissolves the specific context. While reading digitally has many benefits, the benefits are not inherent to the format but dependant on the software. Even if there is a Table of Contents in the PDF reader, many non-textbooks, including from my experience most journal articles, do not arrive with one. The ability to add your own is therefore crucial. PDF readers like PDF Expert and PDFPen recognises this importance, and this functionality ought not to be regulated to these applications. While the Table of Contents has this obvious purpose of facilitating navigation between distances, the secondary purpose is to allow the reader to gain an at-glance overview of the document. This can be achieved by folding and expanding various levels of the contents hierarchy so that only chapters and sections intended to be read or useful to see will be visible via their headings.

    Secondly, to divide a document, like a textbook, into multiple reading sessions, a second feature is required: a Bookmarks Tab, with the rarified ability to group individual bookmarks. A reading session in the above example contains two chapters. These may or may not be read through in a single session. Without a Bookmarks tab, the reader must track his past and future routes manually. In the reading, the reader will invariably be distracted by doing so; over time, the reader will invariably forget and revisit previously covered sections in the usual haphazard way our thoughts bounce if direction isn’t explicit. To bookmark is thus, on top of navigation, to chart and record a journey you’ve taken with the document. A Bookmarks tab, with the ability to group the bookmarks, here provides a feature to off-load the otherwise taxing cognitive effort to your technology, which is what technology can excel at.

    Like with a foldable Table of Contents that can provide a bird’s eye view to a wall of text, the Bookmark tab provides a similar view to the aggregated total of all reading sessions. When the reader is ready to move on, the next reading session can be reflected in a separate bookmark group. Over time, these groups represent the reading trajectory, returnable as they are via the bookmarks placed. In this way, they represent a personalised Table of Contents of the coverage a reader has taken over the document. Together they allow for navigation of the document, and a track record of your interactions with it.

    Zotero users of long documents would thus, I think, find most helpful the following features:

    1) An editable, foldable Table of Contents tab
    2) A Bookmarks tab capable of grouping

    ...and for documents to remember their previous page, even if Zotero has been put to sleep.

    Of course, more important than these specific features are any features that can address the problem of navigating long documents and tracking your reading sessions. I hope this input is helpful to inspire Zotero’s development.
  • edited March 5, 2021
    I think ToC editing is out of scope for Zotero, but if you create a ToC externally and save it to the file, you can view it in the sidebar of Zotero's reader (though that currently has broken styling).

    As I understand it, PDF "bookmarks" are the same as the ToC — that is, the ToC is just made up of bookmarks. So that'd be the same thing.

    Zotero remembers the last page you were on and syncs that between devices.
  • Thanks for the response, @dstillman

    Along the lines of remembering document states, when you close Zotero currently all tabs are lost. Will Zotero eventually remember which tabs were open (eg. by recalling "pinned" tabs)?

    With the table of contents aside, do you envision adding the ability to view multiple documents simultaneously? Now that Zotero has tabs, viewing multiple documents becomes a natural use case. To link back to tabs, it'd be handy to detach them into their own window and/or split them vertically/horizontally. This idea comes directly from PDF Expert[1] and has been very helpful for me in synoptical reading. It is especially prescient to consider with the development of the iOS release, where the iPad allows for "split view" of apps, thereby allowing some sort of feature parity between versions.

    [1]: An example of a vertical split view in PDF Expert:
  • when you close Zotero currently all tabs are lost. Will Zotero eventually remember which tabs were open
    Yes, that's on our list.
    With the table of contents aside, do you envision adding the ability to view multiple documents simultaneously?
    It will likely be possible to open PDFs in separate windows, yes.
  • Understood! Thank you for clarifying these points.
  • edited March 28, 2021
    +1 to open two PDFs side-by-side in separate windows. It would also be great to make it possible to open the same pdf twice in two side-by-side windows as I describe here:
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