An Aversion to Footnotes on the Web

Going through the type exercise, I keep coming back to a burning concern I have. I simply don’t think footnoting belongs on the web in the year 2010. It is ugly and intrusive, and flies in the face of attractive design. As historians, we need to document our work, but I think there are cleaner ways to handle it on the web. I’d assume that only a small percentage of people browsing our sites will actually care about footnotes and sources. For that small subset of people, I’m proposing to have a “References” section of my site, with full citations and a bibliography. But for the actual content pages, I don’t want to clutter up the text with tiny numbers just to serve a minute subset of visitors, and risk alienating the vast majority of people.

I’ve done a brief survey on the issue, and I can’t find any instances of footnoting on current historical websites. I started with the History News Network, which I understand is hosted at GMU, and scanned through a number of their articles. HNN articles use original quotes, as well as detail to a level of specificity that would normally require citation. But I can’t find any citations on HNN. I also clicked through to a number of the history blogs that HNN links on their site, and didn’t find footnotes there. As an example of an HNN post, here is an article about Eleanor Roosevelt that has quotes, as well as highly specific facts that I suspect would usually be cited in a print article. It may be that all of the information comes from the book referenced in the article, but that doesn’t change the fact that the article exists without any citations – at a minimum, I’d expect page numbers from where the quotes were pulled. But I can’t find any articles with footnotes on HNN.

I next checked a site I follow closely, the United States Naval Institute. Their articles, like this one about the invasion of Bougainville, use original quotations, and highly specific facts that should be cited in a print article. For this article, a list of references is provided at the end, but there are no footnotes.

I tried looking for online exhibitions by major museums. Most of the stuff I found on Smithsonian websites merely describes physical exhibits, but I found some online exhibitions by London’s Imperial War Musuem. Here’s an exhibit on Lawrence of Arabia. It doesn’t use any citations, instead it concludes with Links and Resources. Here’s one on Eric Ravilious that avoids footnotes, and also uses Links and Resources at the end of the online exhibit.

Finally, I decided to check GMU’s own Center for History and New Media website. I started with the History of 1989 site that we’ve all heard a lot about. I found that in the introductory essays, such as this one on East Germany, footnotes are not used, even when quotations are provided. The entire introduction is provided as a downloadable PDF – 11 pages without footnotes. Instead, a list of Suggested Readings is provided at the end of the essays. Within the collection, objects have their source shown when they are displayed, but I don’t see any evidence of traditional footnoting. I also found a lengthy essay on the CHNM Women and World History site that does not provide footnotes.

The trend I am seeing here is to avoid numbered, linked citations, and instead provide a separate, non-linked page at the end for those interested in chasing footnotes. I intend to replicate this methodology on my site. I will also have source information provided for all photographs and documents that I use, but it will be on an “object display” page, not in the narrative. Would love to hear thoughts on this from others.

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4 Responses to An Aversion to Footnotes on the Web

  1. lprice3 says:

    Nice research on the Web; I hadn’t even thought to look what similar sites to what we are creating did with footnotes. They are rather unattractive. Seems to me it would be better to make things that you’d footnote in print a hyperlink online – linking to either a reference page or a location of the actual source.
    This reminds me of the argument between footnotes and endnotes. Probably all general readers want endnotes, but the minority (scholars) want footnotes. A reference page is a great idea – for the few people who want further information, they can visit that page. For the majority who don’t care, it is unobtrusive.

  2. theoldscholar says:

    You know what I think is funny? What web resource all our professors to say to avoid like the plague? Wikipedia.

    Which web site includes footnotes and references to sources? Wikipedia.

    If we follow our professor’s guidance about providing sources for our arguments Wikipedia is a better resource than CHNM. Food for thought!

  3. Dan Gifford says:

    Wow, first I got all riled up on John’s blog over the Tyranny of Validation, and now I’m ready to take on our footnotes requirements. Maybe the combination of coding and cabin fever is getting to me?!

    I love the fact that you took an environmental scan of the field’s current best practices. It is a core requirement of Clio I…why shouldn’t it be applied to Clio II?

    And I think it reveals an important challenge to our assumptions. Certainly the biggest stress-point of this assignment was the footnotes, as I noted in my blog . What was the opportunity cost of making all that footnote code work? Could I have created better content? Written better narratives? Produced better history?

    While the traditionalist in me is still partially wedded to footnotes (or endnotes), my eyes have really been opened by your research. Well done!

  4. Pingback: Singing the type assignment blues…and greens…and yellows « Lynn's Blog

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