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

The best source is the one that fits your argument.

20 10 2010

There is an article in this month’s AHA Perspectives which got me thinking about the research process yet again. Here’s David Ransel from Indiana:

The Australian anthropologist-historian Greg Dening observed that the perceived value of a source increases in proportion to the difficulty of gaining access to it. He demonstrated this effect in a delightful story of his search for the letters of William Gooch, a young Englishman who had traveled in 1792 to the South Pacific as an astronomer on a supply ship and met a violent end at the hands of Hawaiian natives. Dening traveled to England and had to overcome a number of obstacles before obtaining permission to read the letters—and, accordingly, attached great importance to their contents. The story has a powerful resonance for those of us who work in far-off lands where library and archive access is even more difficult than in the United Kingdom. We are indeed apt to attach excessive importance to materials for which permission to read or copy requires lengthy battles with bureaucrats and archivists. By the same logic, we can easily undervalue sources that fall into our laps. I once acquired—in a casual trade with an illegal book trader in the Soviet Union—an 18th-century Russian letter-writer’s guide. It struck me as a quaint souvenir and possible reference for official titles and forms of address. It was only when I showed it to a senior colleague and heard him exclaim that the book contained a capsule social history that I realized how useful it could be in reinforcing the arguments of my first monograph on the importance of patronage and personal clienteles in Russian politics. This book of model letters constituted a primer in how to initiate, reestablish, nourish, or end a patron or client relationship. I soon produced a couple of articles based on the letter-writer.

Despite the fact that I’m an American historian and I don’t (usually) go off to far-off lands to find my sources, I do identify with the point. I remember way back in ancient history (before Google Books) when I would play stump the librarian with the government documents guy at the State Historical Society of Wisconsin or keep going back to the Library of Congress with two pages of requests because I wanted to track down a particular obscure source in order to make my point.

However, it’s not often like that for me anymore. I still go to archives. [In fact, I’ve been trying to arrange an upcoming archives trip most of today.] With respect to published sources though, almost everything I’d ever want seems to be available online. While I might have said that doesn’t fly for stuff published after 1923, the more I explore HathiTrust, the more good stuff I find published after 1923 in full view format. [How is that possible anyway? Anybody out there understand copyright law?]

After spending ten years or so in various libraries looking at refrigerating equipment manuals, I found one on Hathitrust published in 1933 on Monday that I had never seen before. This made me very happy. It’s going to get cited in the book manuscript in five or six places. I didn’t have to travel outside my office to find it.

So while having to scour the ends of the earth to find something certainly makes that something appear important, and (as Ransel suggests) reading easy to reach sources in new ways can also be very interesting, I think what really matters is whether any source helps you make your point effectively. And thanks to technology, that’s easier to do than ever.

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.

Chicago in the 1890s.

4 08 2010

Got into a friendly argument with a friend of mine as to whether the cold storage plant at the 1893 Columbian Exposition in Chicago was inside the fair grounds or not, and while settling it I ran into “Chicago in the 1890s,” an amazing collection of maps at the University of Chicago Library’s web site.

They’re comprehensive, they’re zoomable and I think I won my argument with this one. Look due south of the gate at 64th Street and you’ll see that the cold storage plant is on the grounds, just as I thought.

Icebox w/ circulation arrows.

26 07 2010

Yes, I know you don’t care, but posting this here is the best way that I’ll be able to find this again.

My little piece of women’s history.

18 07 2010

In honor of a very nice link from Historiann*, I thought I’d share what I’m doing tonight. I’m reading domestic science manuals on Google Books, looking for references to iceboxes to help me finish my chapter on that lovely obsolete appliance.

The first thing you should know about iceboxes is that before there were electric household refrigerators, iceboxes were called refrigerators and despite their seeming simplicity they were, to quote the title of a favorite book of mine along these lines, more work for mother. A lot more work. As an illustration, here is the complete list of rules from D. Eddy & Sons’ 1894 model:

New refrigerators should stand from twelve to twenty-four hours after the ice box is filled before replacing articles of food in the provisioning chamber.

The ice should be washed and put in carefully. It should not be thrown in, and it should never be wrapped in anything, as that prevents the circulation of cold air. In getting Ice from the refrigerator for table use, be careful not to pick off more than is needed, as the ice will melt more rapidly in small pieces.

The ice apartment of a new Refrigerator, or of an old one at the beginning of a new season, should be entirely filled with ice, in order that it may become thoroughly cooled. Never let the ice get wholly out before replenishing.

The strainer should be constantly kept over the water outlet inside the Refrigerator, so as to prevent the escape of cold air through the waste pipe.

The covers and doors must be kept shut. They should never be left open, and never slightly ajar, as is very often the case.

The zinc lining should occasionally be washed with soap, and warm water, and then wiped perfectly dry. This will keep the Refrigerator clean and free from odor.

The food should never be placed in the Refrigerator in a warm state; for anything warm will cause dampness and moisture.

Just in case you feel like reading other domestic manuals from the 1800-1920 era, there are more than a score of them available on Google Books. Run a full-view search on the phrase “domestic economy” and you’ll find a ton, with Catharine Beecher’s 1856 version of her 1841 classic, A Treatise on Domestic Economy, coming first. Interestingly enough, she recommended keeping your icebox in the cellar, which indicates just how often people reached for it in those days.

* Should you be able check your blog from your wilderness retreat, Historiann, thank you so much for that vote of confidence.

The right way to use research databases.

16 07 2010

This essay by Keith Thomas in the London Review of Books (via the Guardian) is absolutely the best description of someone’s research method that I have ever read. Go read the whole thing and come back here.

Seriously, go click that link. If you don’t, you’ll be sorry. The rest of this post can wait.

It’s not that I agree with the way Thomas does his thing, it’s his remarkable self-awareness of his method along with the beauty of the prose that really strikes me. Take this, bit for example:

[It won’t hurt you to read this again. This is that good.]

When I go to libraries or archives, I make notes in a continuous form on sheets of paper, entering the page number and abbreviated title of the source opposite each excerpted passage. When I get home, I copy the bibliographical details of the works I have consulted into an alphabeticised index book, so that I can cite them in my footnotes. I then cut up each sheet with a pair of scissors. The resulting fragments are of varying size, depending on the length of the passage transcribed. These sliced-up pieces of paper pile up on the floor. Periodically, I file them away in old envelopes, devoting a separate envelope to each topic. Along with them go newspaper cuttings, lists of relevant books and articles yet to be read, and notes on anything else which might be helpful when it comes to thinking about the topic more analytically. If the notes on a particular topic are especially voluminous, I put them in a box file or a cardboard container or a drawer in a desk. I also keep an index of the topics on which I have an envelope or a file. The envelopes run into thousands.

This procedure is a great deal less meticulous than it sounds. Filing is a tedious activity and bundles of unsorted notes accumulate. Some of them get loose and blow around the house, turning up months later under a carpet or a cushion. A few of my most valued envelopes have disappeared altogether. I strongly suspect that they fell into the large basket at the side of my desk full of the waste paper with which they are only too easily confused. My handwriting is increasingly illegible and I am sometimes unable to identify the source on which I have drawn. Would that I had paid more heed to the salutary advice offered in another long forgotten manual for students, History and Historical Research (1928) by C.G. Crump of the Public Record Office: ‘Never make a note for future use in such a form … that even you yourself will not know what it means, when you come across it some months later.’

My notes are voluminous because my interests have never been very narrowly focused. My subject is what I think of as the historical ethnography of early modern England. Equipped with questions posed by anthropologists, sociologists and philosophers, as well as by other historians, I try to look at virtually all aspects of early modern life, from the physical environment to the values and mental outlook of people at all social levels. Unfortunately, such diverse topics as literacy, numeracy, gestures, jokes, sexual morality, personal cleanliness or the treatment of animals, though central to my concerns, are hard to pursue systematically. They can’t be investigated in a single archive or repository of information. Progress depends on building up a picture from a mass of casual and unpredictable references accumulated over a long period. That makes them unsuitable subjects for a doctoral thesis, which has to be completed in a few years. But they are just the thing for a lifetime’s reading. So when I read, I am looking out for material relating to several hundred different topics. Even so, I find that, as my interests change, I have to go back to sources I read long ago, with my new preoccupations in mind.

Now that’s thorough! And speaking of self-awareness, Thomas recognizes how old-fashioned this sounds:

The truth is that I have become something of a dinosaur. Nowadays, researchers don’t need to read early printed books laboriously from cover to cover. They have only to type a chosen word into the appropriate database to discover all the references to the topic they are pursuing. I try to console myself with the reflection that they will be less sensitive to the context of what they find and that they will certainly not make the unexpected discoveries which come from serendipity. But the sad truth is that much of what it has taken me a lifetime to build up by painful accumulation can now be achieved by a moderately diligent student in the course of a morning. Moreover, today’s historians don’t make notes on pieces of paper. They have computer programs for filing and indexing. Even as I write, an email message informs me that ‘wiki software can be used to develop a personal research knowledge base.’ My methods are in no way an advance on those of Burckhardt and now appear impossibly archaic. But it is far too late to think of transferring this accumulation onto some electronic database. When I look at my cellar, stuffed with cardboard boxes and dog-eared folders, and littered with loose slips which have broken free from overstuffed envelopes, I envy my colleagues who travel light, with their laptops and digital cameras. But, as Gibbon said, where error is irreparable, repentance is useless.

As I explained in my Lovesong to Zotero, this attitude is still quite common in people who are probably much younger than Thomas is. I say it’s their loss. Database programs like Zotero are fantastic, particularly for people who don’t file well, because they can help you find stuff in your notes that you might not remember. You can write books much, much faster if you have better intellectual control of your own work. And best of all, there is no sacrifice to the quality of your research. It’s simply that you can simply sort through it faster. Much, much faster.

More importantly, I agree with Thomas that something is lost in using databases the way most people (and certainly most undergraduates do). However, it doesn’t have to be this way. I’ve been working on the same ice and refrigeration project for ten years now (in fairness, I did write another book in the interim). I started in the pre-Google Books era and have taken the project into the era of having seemingly everything in my fingertips.

I’ve been thinking a lot lately about this (as I’m finishing the first draft before schools starts) and I now believe that had I started this project in say – 2007 – I’d be totally lost. The reason I like all these databases is that I started by immersing myself in the primary sources, mostly trade journals (since so few secondary sources are available on my topic) and expanded outward only when I felt I had a pretty good idea of what the outline of the book would be.

Thanks to that earlier research, I can clearly see the forest through the trees. What I mean by this is had I began my research punching terms into Google Books and other sites like it, I would have had way too much information. Do you know how many hits you get on Chronicling America, for example, if you just type in “ice?” But now, I know how to limit the dates and, more importantly, what qualifying terms to through in so that I can get exactly what I want. I would never get the kind of details I want for my manuscript in the pre-database era because newspapers and pre-1923 books were totally inaccessible to me, especially living as I do in Pueblo, Colorado.

So what’s the right way to use research databases? I think it’s to start with primary sources (especially archives) and then move onto the new technology from there.


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