U.S. Intellectual History Blog

Scholarship in the Age of Kindle

DANDELIONSAt the New York Review of Books blog, Tim Parks argues, in essence, that the need for detailed citations, especially footnotes, is passé. His main gripe seems to derive from not having, or wanting to keep around, copies of his own past books in order to give accurate page citations for a current project.

I can understand not possessing copies of all of one’s own work. Assuming Parks’ office is at home, there is the problem of shelf space when you live in a small apartment or house. And buying books and maintaining collections is an expensive proposition. With regard the books one has written, when a publisher gives authors limited copies for distribution, it’s tempting to give ALL of them away. Finally, it’s difficult to keep article files when you don’t have an office. In sum, keeping everything on hand is difficult.

But Parks’ seed of complaint flowered into what I view as a destructive dismissal of that now ever-present dandelion of scholarly work, the footnote. Here’s the opening paragraph of his screed of annoyance:

In the age of the Internet, do we really need footnotes to reference quotations we have made in the text? For a book to be taken seriously, does it have to take us right to the yellowing page of some crumbling edition guarded in the depths of an austere library, if the material could equally well be found through a Google search? Has an element of fetishism perhaps crept into what was once a necessary academic practice?

And then near the end of his essay: There is, in short, an absolutely false, energy-consuming, nit-picking attachment to an outdated procedure that now has much more to do with the sad psychology of academe than with the need to guarantee that the research is serious.

To Parks those dandelions are weeds too be pulled—eradicated with the herbicide that is Google. There is no sustaining nutritional-intellectual value to seeing a pedantic, page-numbered note in the Age of Kindle. Instead of titling his piece “References, Please” it should have said “References? PUH-leeze!”

Parks dresses up his personal inconvenience by sideswiping briefly exploring the history of the footnote. Using the scholarship of Anthony Grafton and Chuck Zerby, he argues that notes are, themselves, a kind of ironically lazy appeal to authority. But “never mind” that, Parks is still mad about the effort required to track down page numbers and press locations.

As you might expect, I take the “fussy” contrary view. Parks is wrong. The title to the piece I would’ve written would’ve been “Pleasing References.” Footnotes and endnotes are, to me, the happy lifeblood of scholarship; a practical tool that ought to be used more often, and expected of all scholarship worthy of the name. Citations are essential to good historical and critical thinking.

Several objections can be made to the dandelion-notes-as-weeds line of thinking. That Kindle (or other readers) doesn’t divide its books into chunks (i.e. pages) was a choice made by a technician rather than a scholar. For ages, before the pages of the codex, scrolls contained markers to help people find important passages. Signposts for readers matter, even if back-checking by scholars has been made easier by Google. And what of differing translations? Today’s search engines are very useful, but they are not ubiquitous. And not every book is available in Kindle form, nor has every existing book been uploaded and made universally available electronically. Google books’ failure in that regard necessitated the Digital Public Library of America. Finally, what of the current inequalities of internet access (to say nothing of the fleeting nature of corporate domination in the tech industry—i.e. how long will Google rule? how long will the Kindle model of text delivery be “it”?)

Parks, however, advocates for a kind of bourgeois technical determinism—namely, because EVERYBODY has Kindles (I don’t) and access to Google, and because Kindle doesn’t make it easy to find “pages” (hence is impossible and outdated), scholars should give up the footnote. Technology has changed EVERYTHING. Sigh.

Thinking about citations and references is, again, *essential* to good historical thinking, critical thinking, and the functioning of the academy generally. Proper citations–both constructed and carefully read—guard against scholarly inauthenticity. They protect the scholarly community against fraud and laziness in thinking. Dandelion-wineThere’s a reason why good publishers employ fact checkers, and why it matters when the citations don’t line up properly. Parks, however, would further enable fraud, plagiarism, and laziness due to personal inconvenience. In a country with well-documented problems with regard to ignorance and anti-intellectualism, Parks would argue for making it harder to discern whether good work is, in fact, legitimate. I can’t think of anything more irresponsible.

Footnotes are the dandelions that make up a nutritional salad for the mind—part and parcel of well-tended, functional garden of scholarship. And if you don’t like salads, I hear that dandelions can be fermented into a tasty wine. – TL

26 Thoughts on this Post

  1. In fairness to Parks, he does say toward the end of the piece that “on those occasions where a book exists only in paper and where no details about it are available online, then let us use the traditional footnote.”

    In general, however, my sympathies here are, like TL’s, old-fashioned: I don’t own a Kindle, I like to read books in hard copy, and I like to be able to turn to the back (or, even better, the foot of the page) for the source of a quotation or a non-obvious statement. An alternative procedure is to use endnotes keyed to page number, if the author doesn’t want to clutter the text with superscript numbers, and I’m also ok w that.

    • Louis: I’d be more fair to Parks’ closing statement if he had been less dismissive of the footnote as a scholarly apparatus prior to that nod to tradition. – TL

  2. Nice post, Tim — and oh how I love a sustained metaphor! What a fun read.

    I thought the Parks piece was about as insightful as the spate of “where have the intellectuals gone?” op eds from last spring — so, not very insightful. It just plays on and plays up a stereotype of what academics are about, how research works, etc. As I’ve said before, “our scholarly trailblazing (and our detailed documentation of the same) is supposed to make it easier for whoever comes along afterward to move forward from ground we have already traversed/cleared/established. The whole point of footnotes is to provide a trail of breadcrumbs that others can follow — not just to verify that we’re not just making shit up, but also to allow others to make their own sense of the sources we’ve used.”

    LFC — agreed on the preference for the robust technology of the codex. Online/onscreen can be awesomely convenient, but I think of it as a way of supplementing print, not vice versa — a nice backup, great for short-term portability, but not the primary medium for anything we hope might last for any length of time. We need libraries — communal and personal — that can work just fine even when the grid is dark. But I have gone on (and on!) about this on the blog before, so I’ll spare you all any further preaching. For now.

    • LD: Definitely on Parks playing up stereotypes. And, like you, I think that electronic texts do best when they supplement print—though that just adds another cost per medium to consider in relation to publication. – TL

  3. Thanks for this, Tim. When asked why there were no citations and references in Contours–as there were not in Tragedy–Bill Williams said something like, “Why would anyone accept my argument because it had footnotes? My critics don’t disagree with me on the facts, they don’t like the argument, no matter how well-documented it is.” I haven’t written a real footnote in ten years, but I still think you’re right to say that “Thinking about citations and references” is essential–emphasis on the thinking about, not the composition of.

    • Jim: The thing about Bill’s statement is that, when you leave out the notes, you give up on persuading those on the margins. In other words, Bill played to his crowd and kept divisions active. Footnotes help us dialogue (despite Parks’ statement that they are mere appeals to authority), per LD’s point above about others being able to make their own sense (i.e. ownership) of various sources. And I disagree with your final statement. Both thinking about citations *and* composing them properly is indicative of a certain “humanities rigor” that really matters. If we concede that, we give way to Parks’ scholars-as-cranks-and-pedants-and-nit-pickers argument. Why the need for details? Because of various translations, varying publishers and reprints, and always-present selection we engage in—even within the same sources (pulling words and lines, leaving others out—context, in a word). – TL

  4. Good article. I must admit I find the chasing of page numbers and publisher locations tiresome – but I understand why it needs to be done for reasons you provide. I also think an even more powerful case for the footnote can be made in terms of what they add creatively to the text. Often a lot of work and thinking can go on in the footnotes.

    Also, even though I benefit greatly from google scholar, I still find having a page number helpful when I’m chasing up a reference – sometimes things aren’t searchable, or certain pages don’t exist online. I think the footnote is still a vital tool in the 21st Century and compliments more modern techniques of finding citations.

    • Simon: Good point about the creative thinking and speculation that goes into footnotes. And the drive to shrink and eradicate them subtracts from positive digressions that sometimes move the scholarly football ahead another yard. – TL

  5. There are a lot of reasons to dislike the glib Parks piece. The level of scholarship he seems to be producing is like a lite literary journalism–“everybody knows these familiar texts, and they are readily accessible, and footnoting is just about putting in backfill”. There seems to have always been a space for non-fiction books that don’t provide citation, so I’m not sure what he’s grumbling about, unless it’s that he wants his work both to be taken seriously as scholarship and to be free of actual scholarly work at the same time. But what he seems oblivious about (among other things) is the process by which good scholarship is produced, which includes taking detailed notes and keeping track of them, so that when you make a claim it can be built from the footnotes up. In his world, apparently, the sole purpose of the footnote is to bolster an already existing claim that exists independently of the source and research. Well, sometimes it is, but a lot of times it’s not, and the attitude toward citation reveals something about the attitude toward the process of research and scholarship.

    • Dan: Good point about spaces in non-fiction works for few to no citations. Readers bring different expectations to those works. As you say, Parks wants his cake and wants to eat it too. If only scholarship weren’t so slow and tedious! Long live that tedium! – TL

  6. It is worth acknowledging (as Parks does not) one group of people that unquestionably would benefit from the elimination of the traditional footnote: publishers. More than any other single factor, the (admittedly extremely fragile) economics of publishing argues against footnotes or endnotes. Author (let alone reader) annoyance, which is more frequently discussed, is a much less concrete problem. I’m not sure what to do about the economics of publishing, on which we as scholars still rely. But the first step in addressing this problem is stepping away from the (usually implicit and imo lazy) assumption that there is a perfect harmony of interests between scholarly authors, publishers, and readers. There isn’t. And that’s one of the sources of difficulty here. If we do enter an age of scholarly e-books, it will be costs associated with printing that is most likely to force us there. And I hope that the footnote comes along for the ride.

  7. Endnotes are as important as ever, and ebooks actually have the potential to make them more accessible. There are some real problems with the Kindle platform. It’s proprietary nature combined with DRM leaves one dependent upon a corporation as librarian/ archivist is among the biggest issues. But there is also much that academic publishing could learn from studying the Kindle book format that would make scholarship and notes even more accessible. The Kindle platform already contains the ability to include “real” page numbers (i.e. code that ties any specific piece of text in flow form to the page number in the paper edition) and in its latest version, a reader has the choice of having the specific endnote pop up in a separate window while remaining on the page one is reading, or going straight to the endnotes so they can be read in sequence. And of course ebooks can also include links to websites with important supplementary data, images, or other valuable resources for the reader. Ironically, the publishers of scholarly books, which stand to benefit the most from these advances, are among the least likely to use them in their e-editions. It seems that some university presses so loathe the ebook format, that they deliberately produce ebooks that do not take advantage of these innovations because they’d prefer not to sell them at all.

    • William: Thanks for this intervention. I shouldn’t be so pessimistic. That said, I was trying not to be when I pointed out, in my post, that Kindle was designed my humans and could therefore be changed to meet the needs of scholars (re notes, pg #s, etc.). As you and Ben Alpers noted, it’s about publishers and university presses recognizing the need for changes and flexibility—and holding out for those modifications. – TL

  8. I find myself mostly in agreement with the annoyance and critique ventilated here, specially since my work has a historical if not historicist orientation and thus requires a conversation with an archive where different editions of canonical works as well as difficult to find texts is essential. Sometimes the lack of bibliographic depth, which can be seen specially in literary and cultural studies, is a symptom of pure laziness: the lack of engagement with other secondary works may easily end up in the repetition of past interpretations and arguments. But at the same time I do ask myself if there is also certain fetishization of the citation apparatus and its empirical value. At the very least, we should wonder if the current system of citation in the humanities and social sciences disrupts creativity. After all, there is and should not be a single way to produce scholarly work, am I right? Not to mention the differences that one faces when writing on contemporary times and the distant past. In both history and literature, one can see many articles that present a massive archive of notes and bibliography yet in terms of creative output don’t offer much, except perhaps for a bit of data. Of course, my quip originates in my training as a literature scholar; possibly most of the blog readers will frown at my suggestions. But maybe there’s more than meets the eye in Parks’ article.

    • Kahlil: Thanks for commenting. I’m not sure how the request of your scholarly colleagues to document, cite, reference, and acknowledge sources disrupts creativity. Rather, I’d say that when notes are properly done, they underscore your additions and creativity. Notes show respect for past work, but also where you have forwarded the argument. I’d say this applies both on scholarly work about the present and past. Notes also show/prove one’s engagement with the community of scholars at large. – TL

      • I think what really hits it on the nail for me is your last sentence. Regarding the disciplinary divide I alluded to, the Parks article got a lot of traction among commenters in FB who study and teach literature–many celebrated it, from what i would describe as an anti-historicist perspective that values the cultivation of the essay genre–from a heterogeneous genealogy that includes the literary essay, critical theory, and post-structuralism and its aftermath. An important scholar alluded to Bakhtin’s disdain for bibliographies: the Russian theorist used to say that those who had read the referred work did not need a bibliographic reference, and those who hadn’t then were forced to look it up themselves.

  9. Nice post. My biggest problem with the Parks essay was that he apparently doesn’t realize that footnotes are used for different reasons, only one of which is citing a source. Historically, authors acknowledge other works or contrary arguments in their notes, and sometimes carry on discussions with others in the discipline. Ironically, it is these last two functions that our current tech age is capable of enhancing by allowing these “social” functions to occur dynamically and in realtime.

    Of course the beautiful thing about a footnote is that you don’t have to read it if you don’t want to.

    • Michael: Thanks for the comment. Agreed the other purposes of notes—though publishers these days seem less inclined to allow for those functions. – TL

  10. There is a certain beauty and craftsmanship to writing a good footnote. And the footnote is not just an aesthetic construction. One thing I enjoy about well argued footnotes is the contrapuntal nature of them — they work in tandem with the text interpretively. Footnotes lead to layered arguments (and ones that you can choose to dig into more deeply if you like…or not). As Tim said, the construction of footnotes is indicative of a certain rigor in the humanities. I don’t find it rigor for the sake of rigor (and/or pleasure even though I love a good footnote) but a reflection of a scholar’s ability to juggle several intellectual balls in the air at the same time.
    And a reader’s annoyance with “footnotes” can be easily overcome with real footnotes at the bottom of the page, as opposed to endnotes. But most publishers only seem to want to use endnotes. I can see the appeal in more trade press-public oriented work but it’s much easier to digest a book when the citations are actually at the bottom of the page.

  11. Tim, thanks again for this post, and for prompting the discussion. I have been thinking more about some rationales for footnotes that go beyond the workaday task of “establishing a paper trail.” I have settled very happily on their educative value, and specifically how they “democratize” education. I wrote a full blog post about it at my own site, but here is the takeaway:

    To the reader who is in the process of mastering a field, of seeking understanding, footnotes point the way to those texts he or she might profit from studying. A well-annotated article provides a syllabus, a reading-list, for the scholar who seeks to know more, and understand better….It’s just as important that we always point the way to the works of scholarship that anybody studying cognate or adjacent issues “should already know,” the works upon which we ourselves have relied in contributing our own little store of knowledge to the community of learners. Ironically, the argument that footnotes get in the way of thought or creativity, rather than striking a blow for knowledge as a collaborative or collective enterprise, instead represents an inordinate concern for the idiosyncrasies of the individual scholar. We’re not in it for ourselves — we’re in it for each other. We’re in it for everybody. We’re in it for those who follow after…

    Bottom line: thanks for the post, and for prompting us to consider the value(s) of the things we do as a matter of course. Footnotes aren’t just an eccentricity; they’re a way of opening doors. I am big on opening doors.

    • I read the piece at your blog and really liked it. That’s a creative view—typical of your efforts to look at things from another angle. I didn’t comment because I didn’t have anything productive to add. I should’ve just left an affirmation—a right on! – TL

      • Oh, no worries Tim. Someone left a comment chiding historians — present company included, I assume — for our “senseless, even paranoid” protectiveness toward revealing our sources before we’ve presented our argument. “When historians are asked for copies of their own sources, a common response, a performative stance, is that of cold self-preservation or a possessive and evasive entitlement. This stance seems to depend on a strangely assumed, almost regal principle of hierarchical precedence and even a structural opportunism – ‘après moi le déluge.'” Here I thought I was a democratizing leveler, when as it turns out I’m just another hierarchical snob from our already-too-snobby profession. Damn it — can’t win for losing.

  12. Excellent post and comments.

    It might be worthwhile adding that it’s in an author’s best interest to make it as easy as possible for publishers to say “yes” to running footnotes appropriate for the end product and, if a publisher is agreeable, make specific arrangements ahead of time to work closely with its production staff. This is true for both a print or digital work and publishers’ internal procedures can differ radically. And it’s important to remember that different publishers have different needs. While the endnotes to my Stealth Fighter Pilot (MBI Publishing) were confined in four pages of micro-sized type, Hell to Pay (Naval Institute Press) contained endnotes amounting to 30,000 words run in a size almost as large as the basic text. In the case of the latter book, the publisher put up no resistance at all to allowing this level of detail because it was well understood by them that the contentious nature of the subject — the atomic bomb as well as both Japanese and American plans for the invasion/defense of the Home Islands — required a robust treatment.

    Page numbers are also important. When one of my older books, Dear Harry, was picked up by Tantor a few years ago I was able to make arrangements to make various adjustments and mark the raw text for page numbers to be inserted in a right-hand column. They duly appear in the Nook and Kindle e-books but disappeared in the subsequent Google Books version. Sadly, although clicking a endnote number will bring a reader to the note, there was no mechanism for returning to the text. I’ve been told by readers, however, that they quickly realized that they needed to make a mental note of the page number first so that they could easy return to the right spot (clicking the bright blue numbers in the Google version takes on nowhere at all). This would not have been possible if the page numbers had not been inserted.

    Of course, one has to be willing to spend the time to do just about anything a publisher needs for a better end product. I was quite happy to do this and, in any case, I’ve long been a stickler about ensuring, when appropriate, that published page numbers are available when a lengthy piece is republished digitally. Doing so is usually beneficial for everyone concerned. Long ago, when one professor asked if he could run the text of my “Casualty Projections for the U.S. Invasions of Japan, 1945-1946: Planning and Policy Implications” on his web site, he was delighted that I first went through the material and inserted the original page numbers. The piece migrated to other sites over the years and this is what it currently looks like: http://theamericanpresident.us/images/projections.pdf.

    • DM: Thanks for this intervention with your experiences. This is how I’m picking up the evolution—via anecdote regarding different authors and publishers. – TL

Comments are closed.