A Note on Notes

23 Dec

I’ve mentioned before that I’m a footnote-chaser. While I’m reading a book I tend to have a sheet of paper handy to jot down references an author refers to as something I should either buy, or at least try to find in a library. So I have a deep interest in the form of notes. 1

First, before I really get going on what bugs me (IOW, before this becomes a rant), let me say that far and away the best system of footnoting is full notes, complete with comments, on the bottom of a page. I have no problems reading a book which is literally half footnotes. Those books (if well-written of course) are like brain-candy.

In full footnotes, the following format (with some minor variation) is used for citations: Author, Work title (Publisher info, date of publication), page number. The second time a work is cited the title and publisher information may be shortened. For example, a first citation may read; Claudia Rapp, Holy Bishops in Late Antiquity: The Nature of Christian Leadership in an Age of Transition (Berkely, 2005), 25. The second citation of the same work may be; Rapp, Holy Bishops, 41. In some cases the name of the publisher, in this case University of California Press, is substituted for the location of the publishing house. I actually prefer this second method but it’s a minor quibble.

In any case, with full footnotes I never have to turn a page. I can immediately write down everything I need to find the cited work. 2

A system which I don’t much care for but have come to reluctantly accept is that of endnotes. Endnotes may either be listed at the end of each chapter, or at the end of the book (before the Index and Bibliography), in the latter case usually with the pages the notes refer to at the top of the page. I have a strategy for dealing with these which I have grown comfortable with; I keep two bookmarks, one for the main narrative/text, and a second to track the endnotes. As I’m reading, if a piece of information is noted which I’m interested in, I flip to my back-bookmark, read the note and jot down the reference, all while keeping a finger at the point in the narrative I found it. This is a bit tedious but by using both hands I can deal with it and I won’t lose my place in the book.

An alternate system is the author-date citation method or what I call abbreviated notes. Under this system, the citation would be given as follows; Rapp 2005, 25. If this is given as a footnote, I can still deal with it. I don’t have all of the information I need but I can keep a bookmark tucked in the bibliography, keep my finger on the point in the narrative, flip back to the referenced work and write down what I need. A bit of a pain, but workable. I still have two hands and can manage this.

Then we come to the crime against humanity, literary hari-kari (more properly harikiri or harakiri) or the abattoir of literary pursuit. (Did I mention this is a rant?) This is the abbreviated(author-date citation system) endnote. In this system I’m reading along and an interesting passage is noted. I then flip back to the note, find for example, Rapp 2005, 41 and then have to flip back AGAIN to the bibliography to write down the reference. I have a very hard time keeping track of what I’m reading in this system. I have two hands. I do not have three. Abbreviated endnotes, while technically telling the world where the author got his or her information, isn’t useful for me in any practical sense.

Unfortunately, this seems to be where the world is headed.

“The system of documentation most economical in space, in time (for author, editor, and typesetter), and in cost (to publisher and public) — in short, the most practical — is the author-date system. The University of Chicago Press strongly recommends this system of documentation for all its publications in the natural sciences and most of those in the social sciences. Authors in other fields who are willing to adapt their documentation to this system, and whose documentation is amenable to such adaptation, are encouraged to do so.” 3

Aaaaaargh! 4

There are two criteria which should be met by a citation method; clarity (can you identify the source) and usefulness. The abbreviated endnote system meets the first criterion and fails the second. Completely.

To sum this up; full footnotes are a wondrous thing, to be loved and embraced, beneficial in all ways and one of the great achievements of mankind; full endnotes and abbreviated footnotes are less wholesome but workable by Human beings who are born with two hands; abbreviated endnotes are an abomination, the use of which should be stricken from all forms of written communication (with the exception of journal articles where these may be the best that we can do, though I prefer author-date citations within the text which I can then flip to the bibliography for) and excised from the memory of mankind. (I did say this was a rant, didn’t I?) 5

I know this is useless (well, it makes me feel better) but I wish publishers would consider how their citation system impacts the usefulness of a book. I always end up with far more references to look for after reading a book with full notes, particularly full footnotes, compared to those with abbreviated endnotes. It really does make a big difference.

1 I first mentioned this issue a couple of years ago at the end of a book review I posted on Every time I open a book – particularly once I realize it’s a good one – which uses abbreviated endnotes I get fired up about it again. This happened with a book I’m reading now. The final credit (or blame) for this post goes to a comment by Cecelia on Jonathan Jarrett’s blog.

2 Some books using full footnotes do away with having a bibliography at the end of the book. I completely disagree with this; that system may technically tell the reader where the information came from but I don’t consider it useful or desirable.

3 Chicago Editorial Staff, ed., The Chicago Manual of Style, Fourteenth Edition (Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 1993), 16.1.

4 This translates from Rantish as, “I disagree and hate the above statement with the burning fury of a million blazing suns, particularly when coupled with using this system as endnotes.” This source does somewhat redeem itself by saying, “The humanities system [documentary notes] is not so succinct as the author-date style, but it does offer its own forms of condensation and it is probably more accommodating to a book with many esoteric sources.” Chicago Editorial Staff, Chicago Manual of Style, 15.2.

5 I want to be clear in recognizing that this appears to be the choice of publishers, not authors. Most authors seem to prefer footnotes (I’ve spoken with a few and read comments from many more).


Posted by on December 23, 2010 in Books


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2 responses to “A Note on Notes

  1. Steve Muhlberger

    December 24, 2010 at 2:22 am

    What is so aggravating about the abandonment of notes at the bottom of the page is that modern technology has made creating such footnotes much easier than ever before.Imagine the artistic and technical skill that footnotes required when they were still done by hand.

  2. Medieval History Geek

    December 24, 2010 at 1:35 pm

    Yes – I can imagine what manual typesetters used to say about fn's.I know publishers are trying to save money but the book I just finished reading with abbreviated endnotes cost me $86.40. I reluctantly understand it (still disagree though) when we're talking about a $10 paperback but a new hardcover? I'd like to send Cambridge a note saying I'd gladly have paid $90 for full notes. And in this case I have a 2009 book from the same publisher with footnotes. This was published in 2008. I better stop or I'll be back in rant mode again.


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