"Where Have All the Footnotes Gone?"

Gertrude Himmelfarb

New York Times Book Review, June 16, 1991, p. 1, 24.

As a professional trend spotter, I must report the latest manifestation of the end-of-civilization-as-we-have-known-it: the absence of footnotes in a growing number of scholarly books.1

Like all moral lapses, this one started on a slippery slope: the relegation of notes to the back of the book. And, like all such lapses, this one has a venerable precedent. It was in 1754, in his "Discourse on the Origin and Foundations of Inequality Among Men" (familiarly known as the "Second Discourse") that Jean-Jacques Rousseau appended to the preface an ominous "Notice on the Notes":

"I have added some notes to this work, following my lazy custom of working in fits and starts. These notes sometimes stray so far from the subject that they are not good to read with the text. I have therefore relegated them to the end of the Discourse, in which I have tried my best to follow the straightest path. Those who have the courage to begin again will be able to amuse themselves the second time in beating the bushes, and try to go through the notes. There will be little harm if others do not read them at all."2

Rousseau's notes have preoccupied scholars who find in them esoteric meanings not available in the text, and who interpret the "Notice" itself, professing to belittle the notes, as an invitation to read them most carefully and seriously. A more literal-minded reader however, may take Rousseau's directive at face value as a justitication for the now common practice of placing notes (when there still are notes) at the back of the book.

In extenuation of Rousseau it should be said that his notes are discursive rather than bibliographical. If he wanted to play games with his readers, saying one thing in the text and another in the notes, that is the philosopher's privilege. It is quite another matter for a scholar to be cavalier about his references. And this is what has happened as notes have lost their honorable status as footnotes and assumed the demeaning position of endnotes.

Publishers instigated this practice for obvious reasons of economy (or esthetic reasons of space, as in the case of this journal). And authors acquiesced, in the hope that by hiding the scholarly paraphernalia they would make their books more readable and marketable. In fact, so far from becoming more readable, scholarly books have become considerably less so. Nonscholarly readers had, in any case, long since learned to ignore the tiny asterisks or numbers in the text and the footnotes in small print at the bottom of the page. But scholars, who love footnotes (some are known to read only the footnotes), and who continue to make up the bulk of the readers, are sorely inconvenienced. Instead of dropping their eyes to the bottom of the page to find the source of a quotation (and, if they are lucky, an acerbic comment by the author) and returning to the text without skipping a beat, they are now obliged to turn to the back of the book, thus interrupting their reading of the text and losing their place to boot - indeed, losing their place twice over, for in order to locate the endnote they have first to turn back the pages of the text itself to find the chapter number, which will then guide them to the page at the back containing the endnotes for that chapter. (Even on those too rare occasions when there are running heads on the endnote pages indicating the corresponding pages in the text, it takes two bookmarks to keep track of one's place in the text and in the back of the book).

The physical discomfort of the reader is the least of the evils resulting from the displacement of footnotes. More serious is the demoralizing effect on the author. This demoralization first exhibits itself in a casual attitude toward the form of the citations. With the notes relegated to obscurity, the author is apt to be negligent about the proper conformation of the vital data: author (first name or initials first), title (of book underlined, of article in quotation marks), name of editor or translator (if necessary), place and date of publication (and publisher, if desired, all within parentheses), volume number (where required in capital Roman numerals), page number (Arabic numerals).

The indifference to form inevitably engenders an indifference to content. Having violated the proprieties of sequence, punctuation and the like, the author is tempted to be careless about such details as accuracy and relevance. It is easier at the back of the book than at the bottom of the page to give a faulty or incomplete citation, or to parade one's erudition by citing a dozen sources rather than the single pertinent one. And from such peccadilloes one may lapse into a disrespect for the very idea of notes and decide to dispense with them altogether.

The gravity of this situation can be fully appreciated only by survivors of the most arduous school of footnoters: University of Chicago Phd D.'s of the 1945-60 vintage. Aged Ph.D.'s from other universities, reminiscing about their graduate school experiences, tend to be obsessed with their oral examinations, relating, with quivering voice and total recall, the cruel and unusual questions put to them by their interrogators. For University of Chicago graduates, these traumatic memories are overshadowed by the formidable figure of Kate L. Turabian.

Miss Turabian (even the most irreverent of us never spoke of her as Turabian, stlll less as Kate) held no professorial chair, but she had the much more powerful position of "dissertation secretary." Outside of Chicago she is remembered as the author of the much-reprinted (and revised) manual establishing the rules governing dissertations, professional journals and books with any pretense to scholarly reputability. It is this manual (based upon an earlier University of Chicago Press style sheet) that laid down such arcane and inviolable rules as that the proper name in a footnote appears with the given name preceding the surname while the reverse is the case in the bibliography, or that the title of a published work is underlined in typescript (italicized in print) whereas that of an unpublished one is in quotation marks and neither underlined nor italicized, or that a quotation of two or more sentences and four or more lines is indented and single-spaced, whereas a one-sentence quotation longer than four lines or a quotation of two or more sentences shorter than four lines is not indented or single-spaced.3

Elsewhere these rules were regarded as a matter of convenience and convention. At the University of Chicago, where Miss Turabian personally enforced them and had the power to reject any dissertation deviating from them, they were matters of the greatest urgency. They acquired, in fact, something of a mystique. A cynic (and there were such, even among us) might think them trivial and arbitrary, the initiation rites into academia, the dues paid to the guild in return for the anticipated privileges and perquisites of a university position. To the true believer they were the articles of faith to which one subscribed on entering the profession. However arbitrary some of those articles were (even a devout Anglican might jib at some of the church's Thirty-nine Articles, or the pious Jew at some of the 613 commandments of his faith 4 - which was more like the number of rules in Miss Turabian's style sheet), the canon as a whole had the quality and authority of a covenant. Or rather it estab lished two covenants: the first among the scholars themselves, the members of the clergy, binding them to a common credo; the second between the clerics and the laity, the authors and their readers, serving as a pledge of orthodoxy and righteousness.

For those of a less religious turn of mind, the rules governing footnotes (that there would be footnotes goes without questio

n)are a warrant, if not of righteousness, then of accountability. They are meant to permit the reader - the scholarly as well as the lay reader - to check the author's sources, facts, inferences and generalizations, and to do so as easily as possible. This is the rationale for the seemingly arbitrary rules; in prescribing the exact form and sequence in which the required data are to be communicated, they make it more likely that the data will be fully and accurately communicated and that lapses will be readily discerned.

This is why an annotated bibliography at the end of the book or each chapter is no substitute for footnotes; they attest to the author's erudition but do not provide the means of verifying specific quotations or assertions. It is also why endnotes are less satisfactory than footnotes; remote from the text, the citations are apt to be less precise and less pertinent.

Even the most zealous footnoter would concede that footnotes are only a partial guarantee of integrity and accountability. They make it possible to determine whether a quotation has been accurately transcribed and whether the source contains the facts attributed to it, but not whether the quotation or source is itself accurate, adequate or relevant. They do, however, make it easier for a diligent reader to judge its accuracy, adequacy and relevance. And they make it a little harder for authors (not impossible, authors being notably ingenious and not notably scrupulous) to distort the sources or deviate too far from them. If they do not quite put the fear of God in scholars, they do make them more fearful than they might otherwise be of colleagues so inconsiderate and untrusting as to check their citations and actually read their sources.

God, it has been said, resides in the detail. I hope it is not sacrilegious to suggest that scholarship too resides in the detail. It is fashionable today, among one school of historians, to deride "facticity" and exalt "invention." This is the bottom of the slippery slope that started when footnotes were replaced by endnotes and endnotes by no notes.

1. E.g., Simon Schama, "Citizens: A Chronicle of the French Revolution" (New York, 1989); F. M. L. Thompson, "The Rise of Respectable Society: A Social History of Victorian Britain, 1830-1900" (London, 1986); G. E. Mingay, "The Transformation of Britain, 1830-1939" (London, 1986); Gordon A. Craig "The Triumph of Liberalism: Zurich in the Golden Age, 1839-1869" (New York, 1988); Arno J. Mayer, "Why Did the Heavens Not Darken? The 'Final Solution' in History" (New York, 1988); Peter Ackroyd "Dickens" (London, 1990); Michael Holroyd "Bernard Shaw" (New York, 1988). In the last case, the references have been promised at the close of the third volume, - at which time, presumably, the readers of the first two volumes, published some years earlier, may be expected to go back and consult those notes. Some of these books (by Mr. Schama and Mr. Ackroyd for example) have bibliographical essays but not specific notes and page references. One might think that anyone prepared to read scholarly books on these subjects and at this length would not be put off by footnotes. (The Dickens book runs to 1,195 pages, Mr. Schama's on the French Revolution is a mere 948 - - pages Mr. Mayer's is a 492 pages, and the three volumes on Shaw will add up to something like 1,400 pages.)

2. Jean-Jacques Rousseau, "The First and Second Discourses," ed. Roger D. Masters, trans. Roger D. and Judith R. Masters (New York, 1964), p. 98.

3. Kate L. Turabian, "A Manual for Writers of Term Papers, Theses, and Dissertations" (Phoenix Ed., Chicago, 1960). This essay, as it appears here, flagrantly violates some of these rules in part because it follows New York Times usage rather than Miss Turabian's (placing titles of books, for example, within quotation marks rather than italicizing them), and in part because Miss Turabian's manual has itself gone through so many revised, and increasingly latitudinarian, editions since its first appearance.

4. According to Miss Turabian, numbers with fewer than three digits should be written out, while those with three digits or more appear as numerals, except where the smaller numbers are in close proximity to the larger ones, in which case both sets of numbers' are given in numerals. The Thirty-nine Articles, however, are governed by their own convention, which prohibits their-being reduced to numerals.

To a strict constructionist, the placing of this footnote number in the text is questionable. Except where it is clearly unavoidable, such numbers (or symbols) should be placed at the end of the sentence, not in the middle. In this case the exception seems to me justified (although Miss Turabian might well have disallowed it).

OCR completed: 6:57PM 1/29/95

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