When I was last involved in buying composition, in the last century, footnotes were still more expensive than endnotes. Computerization had reduced the gap, and has now to all intents and purposes eliminated it. So now the decision on whether to have footnotes or endnotes can be an editorial decision, not infected by cost considerations.

However, the arrival of the e-book has changed things. Are footnotes endangered, or have we just failed to work out (or failed to make the effort to do it) how to code for them in an e-book file? The Digital Reader sends us to  Scott Berkun’s blog post where we get a discussion of Alexandra Horowitz’s article “Will the E-book kill the footnote?” in the New York Times in October 2011. (There’s a little link in the top right hand corner of the screen inviting you to skip the ad.)

When I’m reading a digital book I certainly find myself reluctant to click on note links. It’s often hard to get back to where you were, and if the first one or two are merely bibliographical references, I quickly decide it’s not worth the effort. If they were there on the page though, I could see that footnote 5, say, was a discussion of some substance, and have the option to follow it up. I hope that academic publishers (at least) will make the effort to “rescue” the footnotes from oblivion at the back, and have them display on the same “page” as the text reference. Ms Horowitz points out neatly that digitization has not killed the book, but looks likely to kill the page.

I wondered what Anthony Grafton’s book The Footnote: A Curious History might look like in e-book format: but of course it’s not available in the Kindle store. So I went to the New York Public Library and got it out.  It’s one of the delights of living in New York that patrons of the library are often much smarter than you are. Someone reading this book before me has made a silent protest about the referencing system used in this book, as can be seen in this photo. (Click on the picture to enlarge it, and then use the back arrow to return.)IMG_0047Careful reader, his comments have been made on those tab-style Post-it stickers which can be removed without defacing the book. Given that the case binding, perfect bound, is cracking apart with the result that it won’t be long till pages start falling out, this concern may be misplaced.

The Harvard style of referencing, using author name and year of publication in parens in running text, is not used in this book. They have gone more extreme: using a footnote, but sometimes with only the author’s name. In so far as anyone thought this through, this might have worked if the reader could then refer to a bibliography. Unfortunately there’s no bibliography in this book, so it appears that the readers are expected to memorize the titles as they work through the book! This is the silent protest of our reader. His annotations take you back to the point in the book where the referenced book’s title and publication date are given in the earlier footnote identified. To be fair the book appears to have been published originally in German, or was it French (the copyright page is confusing on this point) so the decision we are objecting to may not have been made at Harvard.

Does this matter? I think it does — an edition of Gibbon’s Decline and Fall of the Roman Empire, even a print edition, with the notes at the back of the book (or even worse in a separate volume) will condemn you to missing all the “jokes” unless you are willing to work at it.

Note: Apparently the most elaborate set of historical footnotes – four layers, footnotes to footnotes to footnotes to footnotes – is to be found in H. Junker: “Über iranische Quellen der hellenistischen Aion-Vorstellung”, Bibliotek Warburg, Vorträge, 1921–22.