The Morality of Footnotes

My friend Steve Weaver, pastor of Farmdale Baptist in Kentucky, recently wrote a blogpost called “On the Use of Footnotes” where he castigates scholars who write academic works with little use of footnotes. He gives a helpful critique of the otherwise excellent book by Adam Nicolson, God’s Secretaries, on this very score. I commend the post to historians and aspiring-historians to help them think through the why’s and how’s of sharing and supporting their research.

Steve’s post reminds me of Gertrude Himmelfarb’s similar opinion in an essay that she originally wrote in 1991 for the New York Times Book Review that now appears in her 1995 collection of  essays, On Looking into the Abyss: Untimely Thoughts on Culture and Society. The essay, “Where Have All The Footnotes Gone?” is one of a number in the book that deals with historiography. In it she calls the lack of footnotes in major scholarly works a “moral lapse” and argues that this all began with Rousseau’s transition to using endnotes in his 1755 work Discourse on the Origin and Foundations of Inequity Among Men. She not only laments the transition to endnotes, but also the use of discursive footnotes–she says “they’re almost as reprehensible as endnotes.” Himmelfarb accounts for the growing use of endnotes (and subsequent abandonment of any citations at all) by pointing to the commercial appeal of academic works that don’t look tedious and scholarly to the untrained eye. Non-specialists are not as likely to buy a book that is full of notes at the bottom of each page. I think she’s probably right in this assessment, which is a sad commentary on popular culture.

I’ve often been frustrated in reading a book where I have to constantly flip back and forth between endnotes and the main text. Himmelfarb shares in this annoyance, complaining that such require two bookmarks to keep track of two places in the book. But worse than this, she insightfully points out that the use of endnotes allows an author to develop a “cavalier attitude” to the form of citations resulting in negligence not only when it comes to how one cites a work, but indifference to content as well. She then shares some personal reflections on Miss (Himmelfarb highlights the “Miss”) Kate Turabian, whose book on dissertation-writing is a standard reference in colleges all over the world.

There is much more to what Himmelfarb has written in the piece (she singles out particular works that are guilty of lack of citations and subjects them to deft criticism, she also gives an interesting analysis of the “multicultural” excuses some scholars give for their failing to note references), so I link it here for you to read further if you are so interested. But be aware that the book that the essay appears in has–be ready!–endnotes! I really don’t understand why this is the case. Is it a funny joke? Is it a gross judgement in editing? Either way, this is a very good essay and is an encouragement to me, at least, to be assiduous both in terms of footnoting my work and doing so with honesty.

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Filed under essays, himmelfarb, research

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