Footnotes: “Sneakily Important”

Definition of a footnote.

Source: Macquarie Dictionary - Australia's National Dictionary Online.

Footnotes are “sneakily important” remarked my daughter Angel when I told her that I was writing a post on footnotes.  “You would think a footnote is not important because it is not in the main part of the book” she said.  If footnotes have such an insignificant place in books why bother about them?

The importance of footnotes first leapt to my attention years ago when I was reading Patrick Delaforce’s Nelson’s First Love: Fanny’s Story, a biography of Lord Nelson’s wife, Frances.  I wanted to believe what I was reading.  The bibliography told me that the author had done his research. Yet I found it hard to believe all that I read because of the lack of footnotes.  I found myself asking for verification of some of the assertions in the book – but nowhere did he back up these assertions by telling the reader where they could find the original source of information.  A footnote stating where the source backing an author’s claim can be found shows commitment by the author.  It shows that they are confident in their research and open to others checking their work.

This is not just an academic issue.  When I read Delaforce’s book I had not studied history at university, but as a general reader I felt let down by the author.  I am not the only one that felt that way.  David Ellison wrote in The Naval Review:

…this is not a biography or a history. It is one of the unfortunately fashionable pieces of ‘faction’, a mixture of fact and fiction.
David Ellison, Jan. 1989

Eugene L. Rasor came to the same conclusion (p. 174).

If a book is fiction, tell me so and I will enter your imaginary world.  If a book seeks to be an analysis of what actually occurred in the past, footnote it or I won’t believe you.  I don’t mind whether it is a footnote at the bottom of the page or an endnote at the back of the book – just please, please, please demonstrate why I should trust you.

There is another reason why footnotes are important.  A good history will be adding to the work of others.  The author will have read numerous books relating to the topic and will be writing with the goal of adding something new to the existing body of work.  It is a matter of honesty and respect to acknowledge the work of others in footnotes and the bibliography.  Arthur S. Brisbane wrote an article in the New York Times last year that demonstrates the problems that arise when authors do not properly acknowledge the sources of ideas and information that they use.

This issue crops up again and again.  I have just finished reading The Ornament of the World:  How Muslims, Jews, and Christians Created a Culture of Tolerance in Medieval Spain by Maria Rosa Menocal.  This book is clearly written for the general public.  It has a guide for reading groups at the back of the book and does not have discussion about methodology and theory that would limit the appeal of some academic books to the general reader.

But there are no footnotes.  I did not feel quite as uncomfortable as I did when I read Delaforce’s book and asked myself why.

Firstly I noted that Menocal is the director of the Whitney Humanities Center at Yale University.  I figured that her job depends on the reliability of the research backing each of her books.  I then saw that while conventional footnotes were absent, the ‘Other Readings’ section at the end of the book had a subsection titled ‘Primary Sources and their Interpreters’ (pp. 284-288) which acts in a similar way to footnotes.  While the little numbers are absent in the body of the text, the reader can go to the back of the book and find acknowledgement of the translations on which the author relies.  While there are far fewer acknowledgements of sources than in a conventionally footnoted history, at least there is something there.  I also appreciated the author’s suggestions of Arabic literature, reference books and other histories that the reader may wish to read (pp. 288-292).  For these reasons I trusted the author, but I still felt that the lack of referencing was disappointing and diminished the value of the book.

Is it fair that I am more forgiving of an academic who does not footnote than an author without academic qualifications who follows the same practice?  A difference between Menocal’s book and that of Delaforce’s is that both have been reviewed by people who are familiar with these historical topics.  Errors were found in Delaforce’s work (Ellison, p. 94) whereas no significant errors were found in Menocal’s book.  But surely all authors who write histories, no matter what their background, should be expected to meet the same standards in the presentation of their work.

Menocal would have written reams of intricately footnoted articles and books during her academic life.  Why did she eschew footnotes for this particular book?  Presumably she addresses this in her lecture, Writing without footnotes:  the role of the medievalist in contemporary intellectual life, published by Global Academic Publishing in 2001. Unfortunately I have not been able to find this lecture in Australian libraries or online.

My guess is that Menocal was probably told by her publisher that the general reader does not like footnotes.  Another historian, Madge Dresser gives her account of dealing with the requests of a publisher to curtail the footnotes (Dresser, p. 50).  What evidence is there to support this view that the general public do not like thorough referencing in histories?

Is the aversion to footnotes on the part of publishers a symptom of western society’s desire to simplify, to strip issues of annoying detail and complexity?  Angel pointed out that footnotes look unimportant because they are small.  Do we subconsciously devalue footnotes because visually they are insignificant or they add clutter to the page?

What do you think?

  • When you are reading a history or biography for enjoyment do you find footnotes at the bottom of the page annoying?
  • Does the presence of footnotes or endnotes deter you from reading a book?
  • How do you judge whether a biography or history is well researched and reliable?

References

Brisbane, Arthur, S. ‘Scholarly Work, Without All the Footnotes’, New York Times, 2 Oct. 2010.

Delaforce, Patrick, Nelson’s First Love:  Fanny’s Story, (London:  Bishopsgate Press Ltd., 1988).

Dresser, Madge, ‘Politics, Populism, and Professionalism:  Reflections on the Role of the Academic Historian in the Production of Public History’, The Public Historian, 32, no. 3 (Summer 2010), pp. 39-63.

Ellison, David, ‘Nelson’s First Love:  Fanny’s Story’, The Naval Review, 77, no. 1, (Jan. 1989), pp. 93-94.

Menocal, Maria Rosa, The Ornament of the World:  How Muslims, Jews, and Christians Created a Culture of Tolerance in a Medieval Spain, Hachette Book Group USA, 2002.

Rasor, Eugene L., English/British naval history to 1815:  a guide to the literature, (Westport, CT:  Praeger Publishers, 2004).

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7 thoughts on “Footnotes: “Sneakily Important”

    • The books you and I read demonstrate how easy it is to slide from avoiding footnotes in a bid to please the general reader to losing the trust of the reader. While errors can creep into a book which have footnotes, I believe that publishing footnotes (or endnotes) keeps an author on their toes and forces them to take that extra care.

      Thankyou for bringing my attention to your post.

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  1. Have you read Anthony Grafton’s book ‘The Footnote’? It’s a hoot.

    He has the luxury (that few authors seem to be allowed today) of having the footnote at the bottom of the page. In an ideal world, that’s where I’d have them, so that you can decide if they’re worth looking at or not. I always feel a bit torn when there’s almost an entire alternate argument going on in the footnotes- it’s a bit like a conversation going on in another room! In my ideal world, I’d have a bibliography at the back too, so that you can look up the full reference if you missed it the first time round, instead of having to hunt through all the footnotes to find the rest of the citation once it’s been truncated to surname only. Unfortunately more and more books are dispensing with this.

    However, I think that it’s the publishers who are cutting off these academic tools, in the hope of marketing a cross-over book that is not too intimidating to the general reader. I know of an academic who was one of a group of three working on a large centenary-type work of several volumes. They were not allowed to have footnotes at all, and were appeased by a small separate booklet that had all the footnotes for the three volumes. As might be predicted, the footnote book is like hen’s teeth now.

    With digital display I’m wondering whether hypertext is going to save the footnote, or better still those little boxes that become visible when you hover over text, so that you don’t lose your place.

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    • Anthony Grafton’s book is on my long, long, long list of must reads.

      I totally agree with you about the need to have a bibliography. It is infuriating in a long book having to leaf backwards to find the original citation. Recently I did this to find that the original citation was very incomplete so I had to go through databases of journals to try to track the article down.

      Yes the hyperlink is the new footnote but how many times have you come across hyperlinks that are broken?

      What I want to know is where is the evidence that the general reader is turned off reading books with endnotes or even footnotes? It is very easy to ignore them. I can understand the general reader being turned off the kind of footnotes you refer to that mount an ‘alternate argument’ to that presented in the body of the text. But I think those kind of footnotes are a thing of the past. Footnotes now tend to be brief.

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  2. Thanks for pointing me to this post. Yes, I do care. I am usually very unimpressed by non-fiction works that provide no information about sources. While I’m a general reader not an historian, when I read non-fiction I want to know the sources. I don’t need detailed footnotes and in most cases I think endnotes are probably less intrusive (but then it’s irritating having to flick back and forth from text to endnotes). I recently read Brenda Niall’s True north on the Kindle. I regularly clicked on the footnote number to be taken to the source. eBooks can certainly make accessing the source information easier.

    What I do find intriguing is that some historical fiction writers provide some source information. I like this too, and I like it when they discuss where/how/why they may have diverged from the “facts”. I don’t think this is necessary – it is fiction after all – but as a reader I like it. Hilary Mantel in Wolf Hall provides an Author’s note in which she talks a little of her sources and her historical decisions. And as I recollect Geraldine Brooks does something similar in Caleb’s Crossing or, at least, she talks about the fiction vs history issue and what people should expect.

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    • I would be more inclined to read historical fiction if more authors did include discussion of where they stuck to historical facts and where they diverged. Maybe if they did this we would have fewer people believing that the imaginative elements in historical fiction are true such as occurred with Dan Brown’s, The Da Vinci Code. I like to be clear about what is history and what is fiction – though that statement could be the subject of a deep philosophical debate!

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      • It could indeed – and we’d probably go round and round in circles … because “history” is such a slippery beast! However, when it comes to novels, I have the viewpoint that when I’m reading fiction I’m reading fiction and I should not expect “facts”. I like to think readers have at least that level of sophistication. You just cannot cite a novel as historical evidence. But I know it’s not as simple as that in terms of what we almost subconsciously absorb, and I do like it when novelists give you a bit of a heads up. I always read the extra matter in books!

        I remember a long discussion with reader once on what I would now call speculative historical fiction. It was about an historical character but turned on the point of what might have happened if something that didn’t happen did! It thought it was a great read but another reader kept saying “but it didn’t happen” or even “but it couldn’t have happened” (the latter being perhaps a little moot). I kept saying “but this is fiction, and the author is saying ‘what if?'” And round and round in circles we went … and still do.

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