Magazine article American Libraries

Will's World: Confessions of a Footnote Enthusiast

Magazine article American Libraries

Will's World: Confessions of a Footnote Enthusiast

Article excerpt

I was a history major in college. Combine that with a library science background and you get an academic pedigree that is conducive to footnote fetishism. Early on, all students of history are taught to distinguish between primary and secondary sources when conducting research. Footnotes are the conduits through which historical sources are documented. For students of library science, all bibliographical records--especially footnotes--are the basic tools of the trade. We librarians exist to create and give access to bibliographic records. It's what we live for.


Unfortunately, a newly published book with footnotes is a rarity today. In fact, the art of footnoting is not simply endangered; it is nearly extinct. The advantages of the footnote format are obvious. By placing bibliographic citations at the bottom of a page, the author provides the reader the pleasure of perusing the note without seriously interrupting the continuity of the reading experience. A former library school professor of mine used to say that a deftly created footnote adds subtle spice to a book while a ponderously worded note weighs down the main text like barnacles encrusted on the bottom of a ship.

Footnoting is certainly preferable to the current practice of placing endnotes at the end of a chapter or book, forcing diligent readers to constantly flip back and forth. This is so disruptive that casual readers no doubt completely ignore most endnotes. As a result, it's probable that authors no longer put as much effort into their bibliographic citations as they should.

Red-letter renaissance

A refreshing exception is historian Amy Butler Greenfield, whose recent publication A Perfect Red (Harper-Collins, 2005) is one of the best documented books I have ever encountered: 261 pages of text, supported by 30 full pages of endnotes and 25 pages of bibliographic citations--all buttressed by five pages of acknowledgments. The book is a librarian's delight with a text-to-citation ratio of almost 4 to 1.

I suppose that only a librarian could get excited about this aspect of a publication, but let's not forget that such prominent historians as Stephen Ambrose and Doris Kearns Goodwin have caused literary scandals recently with their faulty approach to documenting sources. …

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