Footnote Flexibility

08 Feb

Gertrude Himmelfarb’s lament of the death of the footnote struck me as an academic Chicken Little.  Perhaps the distance of twenty years has made her fears seem quaint, and perhaps my more recent education has made endnotes more acceptable.  Certainly, I personally prefer footnotes when reading a monograph, for all the reasons Himmelfarb gives. But beginning her attack on endnotes by whining about needing two bookmarks is simply irritating.  Her assertion that scholarship will suffer by mere virtue of different placement is not supported in any way – and personally, I have seen terrible footnotes as well as terrible endnotes.  Poor scholarship is poor scholarship, and placement of notes is irrelevant.  Perhaps Himmelfarb’s argument is that because scholars no longer have footnotes diretly in front of them they fall into an “out of sight, out of mind” mentality, and be careless, if not contemptous of the notes.  First, the trip from careless about notes to discarding them altogether is not clearly articulated – or even at all.  Second, a scholar who is willing to discard notes clearly has issues with accepted the accepted structure we use to communicate with each other and will therefore place hirself outside the conversation.  I don’t know about you, but unless it’s Eric Foner’s A Short History of Reconstruction, (abridged from a much longer version which included exstensive notes), I will not accept a work without citations.  (And accepting the Foner book took a fight, too.)

I understand Himmelfarb’s frustration with endnotes, especially poorly constructed notes that only reference a page number and a few words of the sentence being noted, but presuming that the shift is evidence of the collapse of scholarship is nothing more than pearl-clutching.

In the years since Himmelfarb published, several other methods of noting online work have developed.   Take a look at The Aporetic’s use of internal links for notes.  Another option is to have each number link to a small popup window with the note, or directly to the desired note in a full list.  What about alt-text?  Mouse over the text, and the note appears.  Mouse away and it goes away.  Another option would be to build frames within a website, and have one container for the text and the other for the notes.  I’m sure there’s some form of code that would sync up the windows so that the notes would keep pace with the text.*

Himmelfarb’s main concern, that removing the footnotes from the same page as the content would mean fewer people would read the notes, is a valid one, especially for electronically published academic work.  But even a confirmed Luddite like myself can brainstorm new ways to make footnotes work online.  Publishing online is a challenge, but it gives us so much room to try new and different things.  To sit in the corner and bemoan the new simply because it IS new is counterproductive.

*Having just read the Jean-Baptiste Piggin piece, it’s nice to know I was right – there are a lot of options for notes in electronic documents.  I disagree with which is the best – I like shoulder notes, but the interleaved notes are confusing at best and highly frustrating and jarring at worst.

1 Comment

Posted by on February 8, 2011 in Readings


One response to “Footnote Flexibility

  1. ErinB

    February 8, 2011 at 2:53 pm

    I agree and from my perspective poorly constructed notes are bad notes, regardless of the form they are in. I, for one, hate reading really lengthy material online so I tend to print as often as possible (tree killer! tree killer!), so for me the print-optimized web page with endnotes is crucial, which makes the pop-ups difficult. I originally didn’t like the shoulder notes, but having gone back to the examples, I do like that my eyes can scan the notes from that point on the page and then scan back as needed.


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