No footnotes please, we’re Americans.

18 10 2010

I spent a big chunk of my weekend reading Bill Bryson’s book At Home: A Short History of Private Life. I’ve known about Bryson for ages having been slipped a few of his books by British friends long before he made big here in his home country.

What made me fork out my cash for the hardcover was this review I found through AHA Today. It’s not just that it’s a good review, but it was there that I realized that Bryson deals with the history of ice and if any book deals with ice then reading it becomes a professional responsibility for me.

The book is rambling in the most delightful way. The premise is that he tours his house and gives you the history of everyday objects and architectural arrangements as he goes. In fact, he might as well have called it A Short History of Nearly Everything again as it goes in directions that I neither expected or understood the connection between the room he was supposedly in and the history he was covering. What do bedbugs have to do with the study, for example?

But while the book is a mess organizationally, the history it covers is absolutely fascinating. Indeed, I found myself moving for the footnotes multiple times (not just in the history of ice section) so that I could read more about some of these topics. There’s where my real problem with the book lies.

The footnotes aren’t there. Actually, there are footnotes, but you have to go online to the book’s website to read them in .pdf format. I think I’ve heard of that before even if I had never encountered it yet myself, but that’s not the end of my problem. When I got to the section on the history ice and really needed to check every source I quickly realized that the pages numbers in the book didn’t match the page numbers in the notes. The online notes were the notes for Bryson’s British edition. Nobody had bothered to write up the notes for the American version!

Footnotes may be an expensive bother to the average publisher, but they should be an absolute obligation to anyone writing history. At the very least, they should be there to convey a sense that the work is trustworthy and to serve as suggestions for further reading. I’m sure this is the publisher’s fault rather than Bryson’s, but my unduly long quest to find his references still bothers the heck out of me because I fear that it might become the future of research.

One hundred years from now, if we’re all reading books on our souped-up tablet devices, I can imagine footnotes going through something of a renaissance. How does the author know that? Tap the number and find out. Publishers don’t seem to care about such things, though. If readers stop caring about such things too, then what if nobody bothers to program the links?

It’s bad enough that whole books are going totally electronic. If nobody cares about footnotes and they go electronic too, how long will they last? Where will researchers find the most appropriate references if all they have to go by are the largest databases ever known? How will they find the needles in the proverbial haystack without guidance from those who came before?

If this is the future of the research process it will be like drowning in the ocean while simultaneously dying of thirst.

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2 responses

21 10 2010
perkinsy

I totally agree! I first encountered the problem of the ‘footnoteless’ history when I read Patrick Delaforce’s, Nelson’s First Love: Fanny’s Story. The author had obviously done a lot of research but as far as I was concerned he had wasted his time. I couldn’t trust anything in the book because he (or his publisher) failed to back up any assertions with evidence via footnotes. I have just found Eugene L. Rasor’s comment about this book in his English/British Naval History to 1815: A Guide to the Literature. Rasor describes Delaforce’s work as ‘a combination of fact and fiction’. But the reader wasn’t told that this was a work of historical fiction. Which bits were fiction and which were fact? Who knows?

If a writer is writing fiction, tell the reader that it is fiction. Then they can either choose not to read it, or read it and enjoy it as fiction. However I agree that it is unacceptable to publish history without demonstrating a commitment to truth by publishing the evidence backing the claims in the book. Yes, we know that there are many versions of the truth and in many cases we will never know exactly what occurred, but I think that the commitment to truth is a pillar on which all history rests. It is a cornerstone of the ethics on which history is based. Without this commitment it is not history.

At least the publisher of the Bill Bryson book had in a rather half-hearted way shown a commitment to truth by publishing the footnotes online. But I agree that the footnotes for every edition should be published. By making it difficult for historians to access the footnotes the publisher is limiting the life and circulation of the bookbecause other historians will not be able to engage in the arguments it contains. Without those references to the Bryson book in other histories readers who may not normally read Bryson’s work will not be encouraged to look it up. Perhaps the $$$ argument would be more persuasive to publishers than the arguments about ethics and truth – sad.

This matters!!!

(By the way, I am new to your blog and wasn’t sure whether you were referring to ice the drug or frozen water until I saw your category ‘Ice and Refrigeration’ at the bottom of the post – good thing it was there!)

27 12 2010
The future of footnotes. « More or Less Bunk

[...] I’m done with the hole thing unless I want to lose my place every time I look. As I wrote the last time I pondered the subject of footnotes, what bothers me the most about this is that publishers and perhaps readers probably don’t [...]

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