The future of footnotes.

27 12 2010

I got my wife an iPad for Christmas, with the understanding that it would double as an ebook reader for me as long as she’s not using it. I downloaded my first book yesterday, Jonathan Bloom’s American Wasteland, thinking it would be the perfect example of something I would blow through quickly and not need again. It’s actually much more useful for someone writing a history of refrigeration in America than I thought, so I’m stuck on the horns of a dilemma: How do you cite an e-book?

Naive person that I am, I think I expected e-books to look something like the screen on Google Books: All the pages are intact, but they’re electronic. At worst, I might have expected that a complete e-book would look like the old scans over at Documenting the American South: The text is different than as it was originally published, but there are red lines where the original page breaks occurred. In fact, at least when using the Kindle for iPad app, there are no page numbers at all. There are these long 4+ digit location numbers, but they don’t precisely match the words on the page and I don’t see any way to use them to locate particular snippets of text. I suspect this is because page numbers would differ depending upon what device you read the e-book on or even at what magnification you set your own device. While this is perfectly fine for reading a novel that you’ll never open again, for historians this ought to pose a problem. How can we tell people where we found what we found?

What’s equally annoying to me is that the hyperlinks for Bloom’s footnotes don’t work on our iPad when I touch them. The hyperlinks to other sites work find and are kind of cool (albeit distracting), but it’s clear that I’m not going to be able to read about Bloom’s sources until I’m done with the whole 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 care. Historians should though as footnotes are an absolutely vital element of the research process. They’re certainly the best way to understand the historiography of anything and are practically what make any well-researched book possible. What’s going to happen if libraries disappear and footnotes become impossible? Will there be anything left to do for research besides Googling your topic?

By coincidence, there’s a very nice post on footnotes up today over at the Historical Society blog. The author, Lisa Clark Diller, quotes Anthony Grafton* on this subject:

Grafton reminds us that “in documenting the thought and research that underpin the narrative above them, footnotes prove that it is a historically contingent product, dependent on the forms of research, opportunities, and states of particular questions that existed when the historian went to work” (23).

That’s obviously true in the sense that historians did not always have as high standards about what constitutes a footnote as they did today, but I always figured todays standards are pretty clear: 1) Give enough information so that future researchers (or your suspicious professor) can trace precisely where you got your information if they are so inclined. 2) Use the same citation style, throughout the entire text. Am I missing something?

As far as I can tell, any changes to this historical contingency in the future could only loosen those standards. Maybe the change would be cultural, but more likely it would involve a significant change in the nature of texts. Replacing paper with pixels would be such a change, and I’m increasingly convinced that that’s not a good thing. I’m still planning on downloading new novels and political tracts at half the price of the hardback copies, but it looks like all my history texts are going to have to be delivered to me the old-fashioned way in the future if there’s any chance I might want to cite them some time.

* Note to self: Read Grafton’s footnote book ASAP. Remember to order used paperback copy so that I can quote it later.

Update: Greetings AHA Today readers! If anyone cares, I managed to get the footnote links to work before I finished the book. To get the page numbers I need to cite, I’m now thinking I’ll go to the free preview on




4 responses

31 12 2010
Footnote words | InnovBois

[…] The future of footnotes. « More or Less Bunk […]

31 01 2011
Perhaps a boycott is in order. « More or Less Bunk

[…] seems that the page numbering system in e-books that bothered me so much when I wrote about last month, is unique to Kindle-formatted books from I’ll probably get all my e-books […]

31 03 2011
How to cite e-books | the CAS-IP blog

[…] it until you’ve tried it, I was actually pleasantly surprised!)  The post was called “The Future of Footnotes” and it talked about the difficulties of using these non-traditional sources when one needs […]

16 09 2011
Is it time for professors to start banning e-books in their classes? « More or Less Bunk

[…] also should have a problem with footnotes: not in teh text, but in our papers. I’ve covered this one before, but it bears repeating: at the moment, many e-texts don’t have page numbers, which means […]

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