Are footnotes passé?

Historians in the News
tags: Footnotes

Tim Lacy is an assistant professor and student advisor with Loyola Chicago's Stritch School of Medicine.

At the New York Review of Books blog, Tim Parks argues, in essence, that the need for detailed citations, especially footnotes, is passé. His main gripe seems to derive from not having, or wanting to keep around, copies of his own past books in order to give accurate page citations for a current project.

I can understand not possessing copies of all of one’s own work. Assuming Parks’ office is at home, there is the problem of shelf space when you live in a small apartment or house. And buying books and maintaining collections is an expensive proposition. With regard the books one has written, when a publisher gives authors limited copies for distribution, it’s tempting to give ALL of them away. Finally, it’s difficult to keep article files when you don’t have an office. In sum, keeping everything on hand is difficult.

But Parks’ seed of complaint flowered into what I view as a destructive dismissal of that now ever-present dandelion of scholarly work, the footnote. Here’s the opening paragraph of his screed of annoyance:

In the age of the Internet, do we really need footnotes to reference quotations we have made in the text? For a book to be taken seriously, does it have to take us right to the yellowing page of some crumbling edition guarded in the depths of an austere library, if the material could equally well be found through a Google search? Has an element of fetishism perhaps crept into what was once a necessary academic practice?

And then near the end of his essay: There is, in short, an absolutely false, energy-consuming, nit-picking attachment to an outdated procedure that now has much more to do with the sad psychology of academe than with the need to guarantee that the research is serious.

To Parks those dandelions are weeds too be pulled—eradicated with the herbicide that is Google. There is no sustaining nutritional-intellectual value to seeing a pedantic, page-numbered note in the Age of Kindle. Instead of titling his piece “References, Please” it should have said “References? PUH-leeze!”

Parks dresses up his personal inconvenience by sideswiping briefly exploring the history of the footnote. Using the scholarship of Anthony Grafton and Chuck Zerby, he argues that notes are, themselves, a kind of ironically lazy appeal to authority. But “never mind” that, Parks is still mad about the effort required to track down page numbers and press locations.

As you might expect, I take the “fussy” contrary view. Parks is wrong. The title to the piece I would’ve written would’ve been “Pleasing References.” Footnotes and endnotes are, to me, the happy lifeblood of scholarship; a practical tool that ought to be used more often, and expected of all scholarship worthy of the name. Citations are essential to good historical and critical thinking.

Several objections can be made to the dandelion-notes-as-weeds line of thinking. That Kindle (or other readers) doesn’t divide its books into chunks (i.e. pages) was a choice made by a technician rather than a scholar. For ages, before the pages of the codex, scrolls contained markers to help people find important passages. Signposts for readers matter, even if back-checking by scholars has been made easier by Google. And what of differing translations? Today’s search engines are very useful, but they are not ubiquitous. And not every book is available in Kindle form, nor has every existing book been uploaded and made universally available electronically. Google books’ failure in that regard necessitated the Digital Public Library of America. Finally, what of the current inequalities of internet access (to say nothing of the fleeting nature of corporate domination in the tech industry—i.e. how long will Google rule? how long will the Kindle model of text delivery be “it”?)

Parks, however, advocates for a kind of bourgeois technical determinism—namely, because EVERYBODY has Kindles (I don’t) and access to Google, and because Kindle doesn’t make it easy to find “pages” (hence is impossible and outdated), scholars should give up the footnote. Technology has changed EVERYTHING. Sigh....

Read entire article at US Intellectual History blog

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