Footnotes in the Digital Age

Last week Tim Parks posted in the New York Review of Books Blog on the need, or rather lack thereof, for formal reference citations in scholarly literature. Parks contends that with the advent of the internet and databases like Project Gutenberg, there is no longer a need for footnotes that give the source of information. Everything is simply a few key or mouse clicks away, and it’s easier for all concerned just to Google something rather than follow a footnoted reference.

Parks couldn’t be more wrong, and his argument betrays the biases in his work. His scholarly work is focused on contemporary literature and on translation. While it may, in many cases, be easier for him to Google something than look for a footnote, that is not necessarily the case in other fields.

Here are some of Parks’s biases and misconceptions:

Texts are stable. Parks is assuming that all versions of a work of literature are the same. This assumption may be valid for most twentieth and twenty-first century texts, but it is most certainly not the case for earlier eras. There are multiple versions of Shakespeare’s plays and Chaucer’s poems, and even when these versions are reconciled in a modern, printed edition, that edition required massive editorial intervention, creating a text that will be different from any other edition. Knowing exactly which edition a critic is working from is often vital. And even contemporary works often have multiple versions or a scholar may have a need to see the mise-en-page (how the text is presented on the page) or will reference the paratext (illustrations, cover, etc.) of a particular edition. And that’s not even touching the inherent instability of any text created for the internet.

Texts are available on the internet. If someone wants to verify a quotation from The Great Gatsby, yes it is easier and for most purposes just as valid to search Project Gutenberg than it is to track down the specific edition and then find the quotation in it, but I challenge anyone to do that with a quotation from one of Bede’s homilies. (I’ve been spending weeks trying to locate the source of just such a quotation because the scholar who quoted it did not provide adequate bibliographic information.) Furthermore, secondary sources are often behind firewalls and not readily searchable. Even if a scholar has digital access to the journal article through her university library, without knowing the journal title, issue, and date, finding the article is time consuming if not impossible.

Citations refer only to texts. There are other reasons for citing references than when quoting material. Citations can refer to the source of statistical information or scientific data, in which case knowing the exact source and understanding the methodology of data collection and analysis is essential. And without the data in the footnote, one can never be sure if what one finds on the internet is actually the source the scholar used.

Google has and uses accurate metadata. Google, and pretty much all other search engines, is optimized to put you in contact with retailers selling products. Those search engines are not especially good at finding and presenting the information that is most relevant to scholars. And ironically, rather than dispensing with the need for accurate bibliographic data, often one needs the information in the footnote to tailor the Google search so the algorithm turns up the relevant source without thousands of false hits. Would it be nice to have a search engine that is tailored to academic use? Yes. Are we going to get one? No. And if we did, which scholarly field would it be optimized for?

Bibliographic data is used only for looking up sources. Footnotes can be a quick method for evaluating the overall scholarship of a piece. I may not have a need to look up the source of a particular quotation, but the footnote can tell me if a scholar has used a recent and reputable critical edition of a work. It can tell me if that Stanley Fish quotation comes from one of his peer-reviewed publications or a newspaper column. And the sources a scholar uses can sometimes reveal biases in her practices. Often glancing at a footnote or bibliography is a lot easier and faster than interrupting one’s reading and spending several minutes searching the internet for the likely source.

Creating bibliographic references is burdensome. In the twenty-first century, if you are a scholar and not using some kind of software tool like Zotero or Endnote to create and maintain your bibliographic references, then you are doing scholarship wrong. The time and effort needed to format or reformat references are rather minimal. True, the software tools aren’t perfect, and one still has to manually check each reference to ensure the software got it right, but while perhaps tedious, this check isn’t difficult or time consuming (about fifteen minutes when preparing a journal article for publication, maybe an hour or two for a book—if it is the scholar doing it; it is more difficult for a copy editor, who is less familiar with the sources, to perform this task). And the manual check is useful as a final review of one’s own scholarly practices.

All of the above doesn’t mean that we shouldn’t look at our bibliographic practices and update them for the digital age. Like Parks I don’t understand why we need to include a city of publication in the bibliographic entry for a book, but unlike Parks I recognize that I am coming from a position of ignorance and have biases imposed by the particular requirements of my discipline. I realize that a librarian or book historian could probably tell me why knowing the city is important to some scholars. I just don’t see a future when we will ever have the luxury of dispensing with bibliographic information altogether.

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