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.